When I was first contemplating beekeeping I was pretty scared about signing up for being stung with any kind of regularity. I read accounts of beekeepers acclimating to stings over time and figured I was of somewhere near average fortitude so I would probably be okay. But it still scared me. What a pleasant surprise to discover that stings are pretty avoidable, if you’re careful. I am lazy about smoking my bees to keep them calm, so I rely on their inherent gentleness and a good bee suit to keep me protected. My usual system involves wearing paddock boots, their ankle-high, thick leather shielding the only part of my body that isn’t covered in protective gear.
A couple of Wednesday’s ago the weather was approaching the mid sixties and I figured it would be wise to do a cursory inspection of my hives. The mother of the queen in my far hive swarmed a few months after installing her with just a package of bees, so I want to be careful to give that colony as much space as they need to avoid another swarm. That far hive has been looking very active and the three medium boxes are too heavy to lift with one hand (a quick measurement of food stores is to feel the weight of the hive), so I wanted to see if they were ready for another box to move into. I believe it’s a little early to have a nectar flow in Oakland, but the torrential rains we had in December after such a long drought mean all bets are off. After all this time without a sting I decided not to walk into the next room and find my boots, figuring that my jeans covered that gap between my bee suit pants and my clogs well enough.
There is a concept in beekeeping called “bee space.” If you leave the bees 1/4″ to 3/8″ of space they will treat this as a thoroughfare and generally not muck it up with comb. More space than that, however, and you are inviting them to fill it with comb for brood or honey. There are many things to love about the feeders I have but they do violate the concept of bee space and usually result in crazy comb being built up into the cavern that allows the bees to access the syrup I add from the top. When I opened the far hive I broke apart quite a bit of honey filled comb, leading the girls to believe, with fair logic, that their precious stores were under attack. One thing led to another and a particularly devoted guard bee located the tender, black argyle sock patterned weak spot of this massive intruder. The sting itself was pretty much how I expected it to be- unpleasant, but better than the times I was stung as a kid. I’m a beekeeper now, I thought, this sensation is a part of the bargain! I brushed off the stinger, hustled back to grab my boots, and finished inspecting both hives. I did end up adding a box to the far hive- those bees are going strong! The near hive is about where they were in November. One deep box pretty full, but not ready for any more space. The near hive’s queen is the daughter of a queen who performed so poorly last year I had to kill her myself in hopes of saving the hive. We’ll see if things pick up as they should, or if it was a mistake to keep the genetics of that first queen going.
I was feeling fairly smug about the sting as I went about the rest of my day, tearing away at the thicket of weeds that used to be the garden and generally trying to tidy up the property. I had my first sting and it was no big deal! I thought. I am going to write a totally nonchalant blog post about being stung and everyone will recognize I have become a super tough beekeeper sort of a person! Yay, me!
That evening, however, the situation took an unfortunate turn. The swelling and itching had begun in earnest. The first step after sitting for a bit was sometimes an exciting stab of pain and each step was, in fact, pretty darn uncomfortable. By bedtime I was gimping around somewhat dramatically and contemplating whether or not this injury would keep me from work the next day. As a nurse working in inpatient psychiatry, I value my ability to move quickly and easily if the situation demands it. We are, according to the instructor of the annual training our staff gets in managing violent patients, the most assaulted profession. I also felt that a severe limp would be somewhat unprofessional. I imagined myself cheerfully telling a patient that I would be right back with that glass of water/medication/lunch tray/etc. and then limping extravagantly away. My position is unbenefitted, however, and I really couldn’t stomach the idea that one bee sting was going to forfeit an entire day’s pay.
So, it wasn’t a super fun work day but between some anti-inflammatories and a very sexy pair of knee-high compression hose I got it done. I think I kept the limping to a not-embarassing level most of the time. Here is the average ankle on the left and her sausagey friend on the right after a night of rest broken by horribly satisfying itching sessions.
A few days more and I was good as new!
In the end I’m not sure what this experience means. I have my suspicions, though. Perhaps I’m just not super tough. Being sensitive has its upsides, right? And maybe I will never be that fearless beekeeper that inspects hives in flip-flops and cut off shorts. I bet the honey will taste the same!