Love Hurts

So this is a tough edition to write, as I am still sore, literally and figuratively from being stung at the hive this week. Elly and I decided this might be a good opportunity to discuss times and situations when you should NOT go into your hives

As Elly mentioned to me, some people say “oh, I am just going to peak in really quickly.” That is not as easy as it seems.

Lesson 1: You must go in EACH and EVERY time prepared with the essentials: the hive tool, a properly lit smoker and your personal protection of choice (minimum of a veil).

This is a lesson that I continue to learn piece by piece. I have been stung only twice this year, and each time I learned a VERY important lesson. I give you permission to laugh at any comedy of errors described below, because really sometimes you have to learn the hard way. 

At the beginning of the summer, Elly and I created a standing weekly appointment for hive inspections at 3:30 pm on Tuesdays so we could leave right from there after work. Simple and convenient. As the summer progressed, by the end of June the bees seemed to be struggling with the heat and less welcoming so we started meeting in the morning instead when it was not yet the heat of the day. Good move, they were calmer and so were we. 

Lesson #2: Nobody likes being bugged when it is ungodly hot out!

Both times I was stung this season, there were some not-ideal conditions that I failed to pay attention to. The first time, we were sampling Hive #3 for mites – a very disruptive process. We had removed the honey super and queen excluder and were collecting bees from a frame with drone brood. I was distracted because my daughter was along and I set down the smoker to help lift the honey super back on the hive while Elly performed the necessary inspection of the collected bees. Instead of picking the smoker back up, I set to respacing the honey frames and a bee stung me on the stomach right through my t-shirt! Why? I am not sure because I wasn’t as aware of my surroundings. 

Lesson #3: Pay attention and don’t underestimate the importance of the smoker when this kind of massive disruption is happening. Lesson LEARNED (maybe).

The second time we were again sampling for mites, this time in Hive #2. Their conditions were as follows: The week prior we had reduced their available space after the honey harvest, the weather was cool and windy and it had been raining earlier in the day so all of the workers were at home and crowded. 

Lesson #4: It is very important to consider when the bees are more likely to be out of the hive (weather, population density, etc) so you have more room to work and less bees to disrupt. 

That day, the fire we lit in the smoker was seriously subpar and ineffective – really I should have learned this lesson already. (See above.) Starting out, we had plenty of smoke but the excessive wind blew it everywhere, EXCEPT into the hive!! We also did not put in the long-burning sumac berries and instead used some bark we found. The fire burned out half-way through our time in the hive. I did the right thing and stepped away to relight it, but as that one burned, it started throwing embers and fearing ‘burning down the forest’, I was more selective and cautious about using the smoke…which was still not going into the hive anyway.

All of this said, that is NOT why I was stung, but they were more irritable and it may be why Elly got stung too. My issue was WAY more me than them. I forgot it was Tuesday (holiday week) and I was wearing a sleeveless shirt. While I am comfortable in a t-shirt, this shirt just felt a bit too exposed to check the hives in so I put on a zip up fleece sweatshirt ‘to be safe’. WRONG! Sometime during the time we were in the hive a sweet little bee flew up my sleeve (eye roll). Elly responded with “yeah, they like to fly up sleeves” (This would have been helpful to know ahead of time!) While I thought I was remaining calm, I was trying to gently open the sleeve and shake it out. After what was a pretty decent amount of time, she must have gotten scared and stung me. Now one sting wouldn’t freak me out too much, but then more bees started coming toward me. The bee that stung me was vibrating like crazy in my sleeve and I was worried there were more in there. 

Lesson #5: Remain calm. Bees can be sensitive to your demeanor.

If you are stressed (or distracted) it will affect how careful you are and ultimately cause you to make mistakes.

Lesson #6: When you get stung, there are pheromones released that cause other bees to go on high alert and become more likely to sting. Not having sufficient smoke to mask that chemical meant I could not help our situation.

At this point, Elly was the calm voice of reason and told me to step away and take care of the issue while she closed up the hive. The bees were at this point super irritated and acting aggressively. They were following me and we needed to abort the mission. 

Lesson #7: Know when to say when. Everything is not always going to go as planned when beekeeping and you need to be flexible and know when to hang up the veil and come back at another time.

I can look back and chalk the incidents up to rookie mistakes and distraction. I can laugh because I learned from them and I am comforted to have Elly there on as a voice of reason. 

A note on stings and reactions: It is really important to know how you react to bee stings if you are going into a hive. Unless you are allergic to bee stings, typically the reaction you have to the venom of the sting is proportionate to the dose of venom received. Notice I said venom and not poison. Venom is when the substance is injected directly into a wound, while a poison is secreted through the skin (like a poison dart frog) and delivered through touch, ingestion or inhalation. 

Each sting for me was quite different. The first, on my stomach through my shirt. I didn’t check it out until we were back from the hive, at that point an area about the size of a dime was red and swollen and slightly painful for a few days. Probably a larger dose of venom than the second sting (on my arm). In that instance, when I took the sweatshirt off, the stinger was still in my arm and I removed it. The general area got warm and itchy the first evening, then quickly improved. With the number of allergies I have and how rarely I have been stung by honeybees, I do keep a close eye on my reactions, but so far it has been just enough to teach me a lesson.

Beekeeping is really a labor of love. I felt a little betrayed by the first sting, but as I reflect on all of these things, I keep thinking one thing over and over. Listen to the bees. They really are telling us when they have had enough disruption or are just not going to tolerate us in the hive any longer, in most cases well before they get to the point of stinging.