Anatomy of a Bee Sting

When I tell people I am a beekeeper, they inevitably ask two questions: (1) do I get stung, and (2) how often do I get stung.

Being stung by your bees is an occupational hazard that is gladly welcomed by beekeepers. Most beekeepers accept that when we are fiddling with 50,000 to 100,000 bees we are bound to get walloped. Many of us take precautions during our hive checks, such as a veil and gloves; however, there are some beekeepers, like my husband Ryan, who conduct beekeeping practices in shorts and a t-shirt, no veil, no gloves. There are definitely days when this is possible — days when the weather is cool and the bees are easy-going about their business with nary a concern for this smelly giant who’s conducting a serious home invasion. But there are also days when the bees are just downright pissy and it doesn’t matter how careful or covered you are — those little buggers are going to find some flesh and when they do they’re gonna getcha.

So, yes, we do get stung. How often? Well, again, that depends on the circumstances. The most I’ve ever been stung at once is eight times and it was, quite honestly, all my fault. I was meandering around a hive and noticed that one of the boxes was askew. Wearing a sweater and jeans (both dark in color, which bees hate), I decided I could “scoot” the box into place. I accomplished this only to be attacked by a couple dozen guard bees who did not appreciate my intrusion. I must add here that there is nothing more amusing and entertaining as a human running away from a group of bees. The arms flailing, the head jerking from side to side, the look of pure panic, alarm, and agitation, all in a full-run, mind you, across the yard while a handful of creatures no bigger than a pinto bean pursue indefatigably until the intruder has gotten his just desserts. This was me. I ran into the garage and stripped down to my underwear to ensure that all the little terrorists had been extracted from my clothing and then stood there, hoping that none had followed me inside.

Bee also have a pattern, that is there is a series of events that will lead up to the actual sting. The first thing you notice is the sound of their buzzing. A foraging bee creates a buzz equal to a soft hum. An annoyed bee’s buzz is considerably more high pitched. They will also give you a warning shot, popping you on the head or fluttering around your ear or under your neck. If you experience this, it’s in your best interest to move out of their range. They’re telling you nicely to bugger off. If you walk away, they’ll leave you alone. If you don’t then comes the attack sequence. You can run, but most of the time you can’t hide. And swatting and flailing? Forget it! it just makes them more game for the chase. Most bees that are in hot pursuit will not follow you through a threshold — a doorway, through some trees or bushes — so this is an option. Still, chances are that if you got stung, you ignored the warning signs.

We have nine hives in our back yard — that’s about half a million bees at minimum — but for the most part the bees leave us alone. I can and have worked unbothered in the garden when my husband is checking a hive and bees are everywhere. My daughter also plays in the garden in front of the hives without being disturbed. The only time we are harassed is after the honey harvest. Sometimes the hives will send out sentinels to hover at our back door and will buzz antagonistically around your head if you venture outside. We consider it payback for stealing their hard-earned honey. And then there’s water — when we have our daughter’s little splash pool filled the bees will come around to gather water and this can sometimes cause some problems, which is exactly what happened to me on the 4th of July this year.

Charlotte and I were relaxing in her plastic pool and I was blasting squirts of water from the hose up into the air. After a few moments, I felt what I thought was a large drop of water dripping down my head. I instinctively reached up to wipe it away and WHAPPOW! She stung me right in the center of the top of my head, then got stuck in my hair. Anyone who’s had a bee stuck in her hair knows how disconcerting it is (there’s a reason for the saying “Got a bee in your bonnet?”). I was more concerned about extracting her than I was about extracting the stinger from my scalp. I eventually pulled her out, then went inside to dig through my coif and find the stinger so I could pull it out. For those of you who are not aware, honeybees have a barbed stinger, which means that when the stinger goes in your skin it stays there. The problem is that her stinger is attached to her intestines, so when she pulls away her intestines and stinger are yanked out and she eventually dies. The stinger pumps venom into your skin for nearly a minute, however, ensuring a painful reminder of her presence and how committed she was to making you go away.

Lots of people have never been stung by a bee so they’re not really sure what it feels like — it hurts like you got poked hard with a needle, then it feels sort of numb. When I’ve gotten stung on the arm or leg, it’s not all that painful. But the sting on the scalp was like the worst brain freeze I’ve ever felt. It hurt real bad. But for me, it’s not the initial pain of the sting that is so bothersome. For me, it’s what comes in the four or five days following the sting that is intimidating — the allergic reaction. Yes, I am a beekeeper who is allergic to bee stings.

People’s reaction to bee stings varies. Mostly, you get what’s called a local reaction. If you’re like my husband and his mother, a local reaction might amount to a bit of soreness for all of about 30 minutes. For me, a local reaction means four or five days of soreness, followed by a hot, swollen welt, followed by an itch that almost drives me mad, and then sometimes blisters and bruising. Fortunately, I’ve never had what is called a systemic reaction, which is where your throat closes up and you go into anaphylactic shock. Still, my local reactions are quite painful and require constant care for the duration: Benadryl, both internally and topically, ice, and ibuprofen. I’ve just recently started taking the homeopathic remedy called Apis Mellifica, which helps with the swelling. Here’s an example of what a local reaction might look like on me.

Now, because this sting was on my head I thought that all evidence of the reaction would be masked by my hair. I of course, did not take into account something called gravity, which ensured that the swelling would travel down the front of my face over a course of five days. So what you see below is the swelling slowly draining from my head to just under my eyes. I woke up one morning with my eyes swollen shut, but , fortunately, with absolutely no pain. My husband said I looked like a Klingon, which I thought was a compliment. Fortunately, I recovered — as victims of bee stings will almost always do.

Do I hate the bee for stinging me? No. Am I afraid to venture in my back yard? No. Am I afraid of being stung again? No. It just is what it is. So the next time you see a bee, give praise to the power she wields with her tiny body and respect her for fighting to the death to protect what is hers. She’s just doing her job.

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Beekeeping is not for everyone. Educate yourself first.

Being a novice beekeeper is challenging. The constant feeling that you don’t know what you’re doing is compounded by your sudden responsibility to these small creatures swarming in your backyard. As Zen-like and comforting as beekeeping is, there’s always that hint of stress induced by your wanting to do right by these little insects that give you loads of sweetness and joy.

Before I even considered buying a hive I read books about beekeeping. Lots and lots of books. The first one was “A Book of Bees” by Sue Hubbell. My husband bought it for me. Then it was “Sweetness & Light” and “Robbing the Bees.” These were by no means “how-to” books, but they did give amazing detail and insight into what it meant to be a beekeeper. I also found a mentor — Ken Hays of Hays Honey & Apple Farm — who’d been keeping bees for 25+ years. We talked often and he allowed me to shadow him on his daily yard inspections. He was patient, joyful, inspiring, and encouraging. He said I would be the best type of beekeeper: loving, nurturing, and serious. It was only after a couple of months of this research that I finally bought my first hive. I continued to read. I called Ken and another mentor, Jerry Anderson, regularly to ask questions. They were always eager to help.

At this point, Albuquerque had a decent community of hobbyist beekeepers — beekeepers with 1 or 2 hives in their backyard. Now, seven years later, there are an estimated 400 backyard hobbyist beekeepers in the city. A group of energetic and well-meaning volunteers have gotten the Albuquerque Beekeepers group to a functional organization that provides workshops, mentors, forums, and other resources for beekeepers of all levels.

Still, it’s disheartening and somewhat alarming when you hear one of these newbie beekeepers ask basic questions like, “What do eggs look like?” “What does the queen look like?” “What’s a wax moth?” “My bees are all dead. What happened?” In my opinion, this is essentially the equivalent of giving birth to a child and then asking someone how you identify whether its a boy or a girl.

There’s basic knowledge that fledgling beekeepers should have before even starting a backyard apiary. Knowing how to spot the queen, workers, drones, larva, eggs, swarm cells, disease, pests, etc., are all included in that essential information. To start keeping bees before you can answer and identify these issues is irresponsible at best and egregious at worst. I have seen some hack beekeepers around these parts. One person had their hive in the 3-foot wide easement between his house and his neighbors, in full slight of the street. When we visited, the bees were pouring out the front for lack of space in the hive, and they flowed out onto the gas meter, which was right next to the hive bodies. He seemed not to be alarmed by this at all. Once when a swarm landed in our neighbors yard, a man showed up, walked right into her backyard without asking or introducing himself, hacked away at her bushes only to get about 1/3 of the cluster, and left without saying a word. More recently, the threat of Africanized Honeybees has encroached on our peaceful existence, and still we have beekeepers who know not the warning signs or causes for AHB or how to deal with them. The beekeeping community should not have to encourage them to send their unusually aggressive bees to the extension office to be examined for the AHB gene. They should know to do this.

Beekeeping is an amazing experience. Even now after seven years I’m still educating myself. I’m still learning every day. I’m working toward my master beekeeping certification, and love to share my knowledge and time with anyone who is interested in this mission that is so essential to our own survival as human beings. As urban beekeepers, we cannot take this lightly. Read, read, read, and read some more before you go out and snag a swarm or mail order a box of bees. Yes, the bees are operating on millennia of instinct, but that doesn’t absolve us from our responsibility as partners in this endeavor. Lack of knowledge and a willful refusal to educate yourself BEFORE you get your bees only makes it more difficult for the other beekeepers in your community.

Insect Rodeo

Food chain. Darwinian providence. Insect rodeo. Call it what you will. I witnessed this very interesting (and very humorous) interaction between a dying fly and two ants. Hilarity ensues. Sadly, but as expected, within about 15 minutes of shooting this video, the fly had succumb and was covered with about 15 ants, who began dismantling his wings, legs, and antennae.

Queen/Mating Nucs

As part of Ryan’s queen-rearing project, he created these “mating nucs,” which, in effect, are little queen nurseries (Ryan jokingly calls them brothels because they’re purpose is to house the queen until she’s mated). He took a deep hive body box and split it into four sections using clear plexiglass. He takes a viable, unhatched queen cell out of his queen-rearing box and puts her in with one frame of honey and one frame full of brood (eggs, larva, and pupa), so each box contains four nucs-in-the-making. Each section has it’s own entrance (see holes in front) so that when the queen emerges she can come out and do her mating flight.

 

Preparing for the Honey Harvest

Ryan putting together all of our new honey supers. He’s preparing for the harvest, and getting some hive bodies for the new nucs that he’s creating.

We are Langstroth beekeepers, which means we use the stackable box hives as opposed to top-bar hives, and instead of using the shallow honey supers we use regular deep-hive bodies for the honey supers as well as the brood boxes. We didn’t do this for any  particular reason, just a matter of choice. There’s only one disadvantage to using deep-hive bodies for our supers: our extractor only fits three deep frames, whereas if we used the shallow supers it would take six at a time. It just makes the harvest take a little longer.

We’re eager to rob our girls!

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Too long!

It’s been too long since I’ve posted anything on this. TWO YEARS! Totally unacceptable. Lots has changed. Married, five hives, ABD doctoral student, and a baby daughter. Will post new stuff soon!

XXOO

Monica