August 12, 2011

"So tell me, Ric, just what happens when you get on the wrong side of 10,000 bees?"

Not me, not my hives

The first year I kept honey bees I was stung 161 times one morning, mostly on the hands, wrists and lower legs. I know there were at least that many stings because it’s when I stopped counting.
Aside from demonic itching and some moderate swelling, everything turned out OK. My first sting that summer had left one hand red-blue and the size of a softball, while the arm also “swole up” pretty bad. But I’m quite certain it left me with a higher tolerance for the venom, sort of an inoculation that helped when I was the centerpiece of that sting-fest a couple of weeks later.
I’d like to say it was because of a beginner’s mistake, but the fact is I did something I knew would very likely upset my bees. It was August-hot, overcast and threatening rain. I was worried about my queen bee for reasons I don’t remember, and gave in to fears that the problem was urgent.
Also not me
But nothing is urgent enough to open and inspect a beehive on such a day. The bees are already stressed by the crummy weather, wary of any disturbance.
In more clement or, ideally, clear and sunny weather, a few light puffs from a hive smoker sends the bees inside where they start filling their honey stomachs in case a hasty relocation is required. The smoke generally distracts the colony enough so they pay you little mind while you gently and methodically work in the hive. Also, working the hive around midday means much of the colony is out foraging for nectar and pollen, leaving things less crowded inside. On an ugly day, however, all the bees are packed into the hive and smoke just cranks up the communal angst.
This is beekeeping 101, I knew it, and went ahead anyway, prying the outer and inner covers off my hive and poking around looking for the queen. I didn’t notice that hundreds of my bees were lining up and peeking their heads out from between the frames where they store brood, pollen, and honey in wax combs. That’s a sign they’re getting cheesed and looking you over. Normally, a little puff of smoke will send them back down inside. But on this ugly day, they’d had enough.
Cyclonic snit (a re-enactment)
As though I’d just flipped the switch on a buzz saw, an angry roar engulfed me. Then 10,000 or more bees did the same thing.
To properly set the scene for what followed, I should say the hive was at the rear of my dad’s deep backyard in Sterling Heights, Michigan. Neighboring houses hugged the property lines. I was dressed in a used, stained beekeeping suit with attached veil to protect my face, head and neck. It was a little snug, but comfortable – at first.
But I didn’t wear gloves, having read that many veteran beekeepers work without them because they want to feel whether any bees are trapped or worse, crushed, under their fingers while they work the hive. Crushed bees send a warning signal to the others that harm has been done. They tend to react badly. So I figured, what the heck, bare handing sounds like a reasonable thing to do. Even more reasonable would have been checking closely to see that the cuffs at my wrists and ankles were closed tightly enough to block any angry intruders.
Nerves and the heat of the day quickly soaked the suit with sweat. This would soon prove to be a genuine problem. There were sounds of not-so-distant thunder. Then my normally docile and cooperative colony roared and attacked.
A bee sting is not all that painful. If you keep bees, the occasional sting or two is just part of the deal. Gently scrape the stinger out and continue with your work. Scraping rather than pinching and plucking is important. When a honeybee stings, it’s a kamikaze act. The barbed stinger anchors in your skin while the attached venom sac pumps in the bee’s only defense. Once it has driven home the lance, the bee pulls away, ripping off the stinger and gutting itself. Look closely and you’ll often see the venom sac still pumping. If you pinch it to pull out the stinger, you squeeze more venom into the wound. So it’s best to scrape with a fingernail, a knife blade, the edge of a credit card, or some similarly sturdy object.
Multiply the mild pain of a single sting by dozens or scores or hundreds, and agony seems like a fair description. Within seconds after the buzz saw started, I felt a furious vibration on my ankles, in my shoes (I now wear only high-top rubber boots when working with bees), on my hands and wrists, moving up inside my sleeves.
Look closely when a bee prepares to sting and you’ll see her curl her abdomen close to the rest of her body, barb pointing down, while she vibrates furiously and pushes her stinger home.
Back to work
I’m rather proud of having maintained my composure while reassembling the hive and being simultaneously stung by many dozens of bees. I still maintained my composure while walking from the scene of the mayhem toward the house. But an enveloping cloud of incensed honey bees stayed right with me, and I trotted, then ran like hell between the houses and out to the front.
The angry cloud thinned, but my hands were still covered with assailants, and more were working their way up my sleeves and pant legs. Trying to peel off my sweat-drenched bee suit proved to be nearly impossible. Within seconds I threw myself down on the front lawn next door, rolling, thrashing, cussing blue, and defeated. I lay still until the vibration stopped, its multiple causes dead.
As I sat up, I noticed faces peering out through windows in several homes. No one came out. No one offered help. If I had been in their place, I’m not sure what I would have done while watching a grown man, dressed in what must have looked like a hazmat suit, whirling, leaping, and doing St. Vitus’ dance before collapsing. Maybe hose down the poor, dumb bastard. It might have helped.
Itching, but not scratching, I stood and gingerly peeled off the bee suit.
Then I went inside, looking for a credit card.

1 comment:

  1. "Beekeeper with smoker - also not me" ..I like the pictures and the story too..and can't wait for the honey.