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.

August 9, 2011

A tiny cowpoke and them

You be the judge.
Larry crows.
Sadie scowls.
Billie is sweet.
Sweet Red is sweeter.
Simply Red is confused.
Cornbread Red abides.
And none of them shines in the smarts department.
I can confirm that chickens, sad to say, are pretty dumb, although they have a way to go to match domestic turkeys as true lame brains. While visiting my great-aunt’s horse ranch outside of Tucson many years ago, I had a chat with a commercial turkey farmer across the road. Two things he said stuck in my mind. First, domesticated turkeys are so dumb they’ll stare straight up, in wonder, during downpours and drown. Second, on the same note, if one turkey decides for no conceivable reason to jump into a barrel or other tall container, enough will follow to fill it, suffocating those who went first. It’s a bit of a trial to raise turkeys.
Our chickens so far show no signs of being quite that simple – except Simply Red, or Simple for short. She had been temporarily named Confused Red, for the permanent look of bafflement on her face, but it was too clumsy to keep. The name Simply Red gives her a pop culture reference that’s more acceptable to us than Gaga or Dagmar (look it up, kids), and describes her personality.
Simple always seems to lag a bit behind the others, wandering off aimlessly, then panicking when she turns and sees she is alone. She’ll stand at the top of the ramp, looking into our enclosed chicken run, and stay there as though she’s never seen it before. If we hold out a handful of feed, several of the chickens walk right up and start pecking. Simple approaches slowly, looks at the feed, then up at us, tilting her head to one side then the other, perplexed. I guess she’s our special-needs chicken.  
Sweet Red, I have to admit, is my favorite, and the prettiest of the reds. Even as a chick, she’d hop up on the roost to greet me, stretching as tall as she could. Soon after we moved her and the others from our indoor brood box to their new home outdoors, she hopped up on my forearm while I squatted to get closer to them, and eventually gave her wings one or two good pumps and landed on my shoulder. She purrs and coos when I hold her with one hand, and stroke her neck and back with the other.
Sweet Red
Lord Larry
Larry doesn’t like this much. He’s shifted into full protective mode, and seeing one of his girls lying on her side in my hand just doesn’t sit right. Yesterday, he used his sturdy, oversized beak to zang me a good one on the knuckle. When I flicked him with a fingernail, he backed up, lowered his head and spread his cape feathers wide. He’s stubborn, cantankerous, and sometimes mean enough to chomp down on the comb or neck of a hen that snagged a bug he wanted, or made the mistake of hollowing out a dust bath, wouldn’t you know it, in the very spot he’s chosen for himself. But Larry does an ace job of rounding up the hens when he senses trouble and moving them toward home. He works like a tiny cowpoke. It’s what you want in a rooster.
Like Sweet Red, Billie also was affectionate when she was a chick, and usually rose to greet me in the brood box. She was named for Billie Holiday, who always betrayed a bruised heart in her music and dared you not to love her. Lately, though still one of those that will approach me on her own, Billie’s showing a lot of moxie, standing up to any real or imagined harassment, or just starting trouble to flex her newfound power. We’ve watched her inching up  the pecking order.
Cornbread Red
Sadie, among the hens, is already at the top. She had a comic scowl even as a two-week-old, still has it, and backs it up with bulk. She’s the biggest of the chickens and the most beautiful, with sleek, glossy feathers in the same colors as Billie’s – copper on black – but with more copper and touches of blue, gray, and white in her tail. Although Billie now pretty much holds her own in face-offs with Sadie, the only one that can really back her down is Larry. She’s standoffish and doesn’t like to be held. We’re working on that.  
Finally, there’s Cornbread Red. She never draws attention to herself, but manages at the same time to get what she wants while foraging with the others. She was named for a genial pool hustler with a fearsome talent I once met in a Third Street bar down in Detroit’s notorious Cass Corridor. A street source of mine nudged me in the ribs, nodded in the direction of a redheaded stranger, and whispered, “Man, that’s Cornbread Red. Watch him. You’ll learn something.” Like any good hustler, he didn’t flash his skills until it was time to move in for the kill. He did it his entire life after leaving his sharecropping family in Kentucky and hitting the road to hustle. Some say he was the top money-player of all time. Whether he picked his street name or the name picked him, I think it’s a good handle, possibly unisex, and fits the hen we used to call Regular Red just fine.
That’s the bunch we have. They started as three fluffy red chicks, two blacks, and one white, each small enough to fit in a teacup – except for “big feets” that looked then and now like they belong to something out of prehistory.
There’s a theory, up for argument, that birds descended from dinosaurs. If it were up to me, I’d point to chicken feet – 'nuff said.