A recent story about a woman’s dogs being killed by bee stings has prompted this question. First, my condolences to the woman for her loss. I would be beside myself emotionally if I came home to find my dogs in severe shock from bee stings. But rather than simply state that bees are dangerous to all and that beekeepers and city officials are irresponsible for not “regulating” bees, it’s important to look at the circumstances of the event and reflect upon one important thing:
Bees are stinging insects. They are also wild creatures, and like any wild creature (or civilized one, for that matter) they will protect themselves and their colony to the death if need be. Typically, swarming bees are incredibly docile because (a) they are completely engorged with honey in preparation for their long journey, and (b) they are focused on one thing — finding a new home. I have been told that when you see a cluster of bees that have swarmed you can put your bare hand right in the middle of the cluster and they will not sting you. Indeed, whenever you see people wearing “bee beards” they are usually a swarm. However, if they are disturbed in any way or made to feel under attack (for example if they are sprayed with a pesticide or barked or chomped at by curious dogs) they will no doubt retaliate. They are constructed the way they are for this very simple reason.
That said, I have four hives in my backyard each housing about 60,000 to 100,000 bees. My 9-month-old daughter, my husband, my dog, and I all work, play, and relax in our backyard without fear. Occasionally, a curious bee will come around seeking water or something sweet. Also, when recently robbed of their honey they have been known to send out what my husband and I call “sentinels” to track those evil humans who just stole their hard-earned booty. These sentinels — usually one or two bees at most — will buzz around our heads antagonistically as if to say, “I know you!”, but never have we gotten stung. We just take it as a sign to give the girls a wide berth until they calm down. This never takes more than one or two days post-harvest.
I have never heard a complaint from any of my neighbors. My elderly neighbor to the north loves my bees for her garden. She said she notices more bees clustered around her bird bath, but even when she gets close to refill the basin they have never stung or antagonized her. My backyard neighbor loves to smoke meats and we give him quarts of honey for his smoked hams. He has told us that he now does not use pesticides on his vegetable garden to protect our bees. Another neighbor operates a preschool and has a pool in her back yard. I have never heard from her that a child has gotten stung or that bees are overrunning her pool for water.
So, is beekeeping safe? Yes. Good beekeepers — urban or otherwise — do everything in their power to ensure the safety of their bees and the safety of their neighbors. Are bees safe? Yes, but to deny their instinct to protect themselves is to deny nature. Bees are eusocial insects and they will protect themselves and their colony if necessary. But let us remember that they do not do this on whim. Unlike wasps, yellow jackets, and hornets that can sting multiple times, bees die when they sting because their stinger stays in the victim and the stinger is connected to the bees entrails. So when they respond to a threat, they know they have to make it count.
If you are curious about bees or afraid of bees I encourage you to find a local beekeeper and talk to them. As a child, I was horrified of bees. I would run, swat, and scream if one came near me. Now I allow myself to be covered in them. I deeply admire their singularity of purpose, their commitment to one another, and of course the sweet nectar that they allow me to steal from them. They are, to me, the most beautiful creature on earth. I would love to share that love with whomever is interested.
Again, the death of the dogs is tragic. But we cannot, as a community, throw the baby out with the bath water. Our world is filled with enough fear and terror already — the last thing we need is to add bees to that long list, especially since they are so vital to our own survival.
Go out and hug a bee today.