Taking the Sting Out of It–
We keep bees. People respond to that with raised eyebrows—and usually some positive acknowledgement. The raised eyebrows are about the dark side of beekeeping. Most people think of beekeeping in terms of being stung.
Yes, we get stung from time to time. It comes with the territory. Usually, when it happens, you can point to some mistake you made—you moved too quickly, you inadvertently crushed some bees while stacking hive boxes, you didn’t use smoke (or enough smoke, or too much smoke) when performing an invasive activity. There are rules and rhythms that protect you from being stung. Bees only sting when provoked, and often give plenty of warning.
I react to stings, so I take every precaution. I only handle the bees when wearing “the suit.” I listen to the tone of the bees during hive work—you can hear it if their level of alarm amps up. Rick and I agree that it isn’t worth it to work on agitated bees. It’s not good for them, and we’re not happy to be stung out of our own stupidity. We can always close up a hive, and come back to it on another, better day. We plan ahead of time what it is we hope to accomplish, in a hive, and endeavor to do it in the least disruptive way. The hive is their home. They have every right to defend it.
Bees demonstrate stages of annoyance. First, you should take note if the bees are looking at you. I laughed when I first heard that—except that it’s true. Usually, when you work in a hive, the bees go about their business and ignore you. But, if they’re lined up, looking at you, it’s a warning. (It’s funny looking, the first time you notice it—as though they were spectators at a circus and you’re the main attraction!) Then, if they raise their back ends—you’ve crossed another warning threshold. Listen closely to the tone of the bee’s constant hum. In an irritated hive the background hum raises in volume and pitch. Time for more smoke, or to close it up. Guard bees may “thunk” you, that is, fly right into your chest or face—to make impact, but not sting. Again, we’re talking serious, threat-level warnings here. Bees do not want to sting. A stinging bee is a dead bee—they lose their stinger and innards in the process, so it’s a KIA hero’s defense. Move slowly and deliberately. Try not to breath on the bees (certainly don’t blow on them.) Do not wave your arms in a swatting defense. It only makes things worse.
Timing is everything. Happy bees are less likely to rise to alarm. What makes for happy bees? Good weather, ample food and available water. We try not to open the hives in bad weather—the bees are stuck inside and as crabby as school kids denied recess. We do our bee work midday, so most of the bees are out in the fields. And we make our disruptions as short and productive as possible.
There are three physical levels of reaction to stings. A normal reaction includes the initial pain of the sting, some level of swelling and discomfort at the point of sting, usually resolving overnight. The worst reaction is life-threatening anaphylactic shock. If you respond to stings this way, you probably shouldn’t be keeping bees. I don’t have that problem, but I have an Epipen, just in case. I fall into the middle category, what’s called a “large, local reaction.” After the initial sting, the site swells well beyond the actual sting—often a painful raised welt up to eight inches across, that is painful, itchy and lasts up to a week. It makes me a little sick, too. I have to keep taking antihistamines until the swelling starts to abate. Things can get ugly if I am multiply stung.
There’s some good advice about how to handle a sting. First, get away from the hive. A stinging bee releases an alarm pheromone that attaches to the site of the sting. Other bees may zero in on it, and continue in a defensive attack. Rick and I work as a team, but if one of us is stung, the other closes up the hive for the day. Second—waste no time removing the stinger. Even unattached to the bee, the stinger continues to pump venom. Use a dull bladed object to scrape across the site of the sting. Do not use tweezers, as squeezing the whole assembly can result in injecting more venom. After the stinger is removed, you can gently squeeze the sting site to eject any venom still near the surface of the wound. Ice it, as soon as you can. Take an antihistamine—Benadryl or similar, to stave off any excess reaction. I use an herbal antihistamine called Hista Block, that doesn’t make me so drowsy. Depending upon the level of swelling (and discomfort) you can also take an analgesic. Some sources suggest using a topical spray, but others warn of possible cross-reactivity at the wound site, so I don’t. Most importantly, take these steps as quickly as you can. Time is critical in warding off the body’s defense to the venom—our defenses are the biggest problem. Depending upon your level of reaction, you may consider medical intervention if you have multiple stings. Afterwards, make sure you launder the clothing in which you were stung because the pheromone on your clothes can inspire later hostile actions by the bees. (Nobody told them not to respond to the outdated alarm.)
This is how I cope with the sting potential when keeping bees. I have beekeeping friends who do not react as I do, who handle their bees without suiting up, without even wearing gloves or a veil. I envy them. One friend actually welcomes beestings, because he claims they alleviate the arthritis in his hands!
Work smart and bee prepared. That’s my motto.
Of course none of this helped over the weekend when I was rescuing some tiger lilies from a construction site. Really, it wasn’t theft; they’d been bulldozed and would have died but for our valiant efforts to rescue them. Unfortunately for me, the bulldozer had disturbed a nest of Yellow Jackets.
Yellow Jackets are a whole different story, than bees. They are just rude! They sting, without warning—and a single yellow jacket can sting repeatedly! (Which it did, as I ran a quarter of a mile down the road, to escape it.)
Days later, I’m just recovering. The good news is that we got the tiger lilies planted, so there’s some reward for my experience.
A Matter of Scale—
Rick and I have returned to our Sundays “day off,” in which we spend Sunday afternoons cutting wood up in the woods. We are still clearing trails and cleaning up after the wild Storm of 2015. I’m sure that the trees down, from just that storm, will heat our Michigan winters for several years to come. This doesn’t even touch the backlog of deadfall accumulating from the dying ash and beech trees. We’ll have work, and heat, for the rest of our lives.
Last Sunday I noticed that the forest was sticky. All over, the understory plants are glazed with a tinge of sap—not unheard of in spring, but a little unusual, given how dry it has been. After a light snow year, April and May had precious little rain for us. The forest is crispy-dry. We didn’t get any of our usual spring morel mushrooms. Here, and up in the U.P., there have been fire warnings. (In May!) We watched the Canadian wildfire in Fort McMurray in horror.
This is not really unusual—when California has an El Nino season, Michigan’s weather is mild and dry. Finally, this week the dry spell broke and we’ve seen lovely storms to accompany the greening of our forests.
So what’s up with sticky? Yesterday, a friend, brow furrowed with concern, pointed out the scale on the maple tree next to our house. Yuck. His trees have it, too. Scale is an insect infestation. Maples always have some measure of scale, but the outer branches of our tree were lined with the limpet-like outer shells of these tiny sap-sucking vultures. It appears that we are having a major infestation of scale. The scale is responsible for the sugar-coated forest.
We live in Michigan. Bugs, in all shapes and forms, are a way of life here. Still, bugs of any kind, in great numbers, are unnerving. After our friend left, I stood in the soft rain, running my hands down every branch I could reach, squishing all those thousands of little scale bugs. Rick just shook his head.
“What are you going to do, molest every tree in the forest?”
Well, no. But the two maples next to my house—those I can help. It’s worrisome. Is this, yet another forest calamity in our future? Naturally this called for a research trip to the internet.
The likely problem is the dry spring. Maple trees under stress produce a thinner, more sugary sap. It’s a stress reaction, to ensure the energy needed leafing out in spring. The scale bugs, in turn, thrive on the sweeter mixture, ironically putting the trees under more stress. So, as long as the dry cycle is not repeated too much over the years, the scale is a cyclical problem that will solve itself.
There are measures I can take. I could have “power washed” the trees, before the leaves came out. I could use poisons (not likely!), sprays or root saturation with systemics. I could use a dormant spray in the very early spring—a perfectly acceptable organic measure—like we’ll be using on the orchard trees when they’re bigger. But, Rick is right. I cannot treat the entire forest. I need to relax here, and wait patiently for the ladybugs. Scale is a favorite of ladybugs and birds.
In the meantime, the rains will wash the forest clean of “sticky.” And, at the same time, they will feed the trees, making them stronger and better equipped to deal with the pests. I’ll step back and let the problem solve itself. Sometimes there is a danger of looking too closely.
Late April and early May were a whirlwind of activity. We ordered over 200 trees, anticipating the participation of 40 volunteers in this spring’s tree planting extravaganza. The trees arrived. The volunteers did not. There were good reasons for standing us up, but that still left us on our own with a lot of bare root trees.
With bare root plants, you have, at best, two weeks to get them into the ground. You can “heel them in” to buy additional time. Heeling in is essentially storing them in dirt—either by digging a trench, or mounding. Still it’s planting and uprooting them again—more work for us and more trauma to the tender roots. So, we rolled up our sleeves, and planted.
No sooner were the trees in, than we began to lose them to deer and rabbits. So began the next great surge—the making and installation of the tree cages. In all, over a very short period, we made and installed almost one hundred and fifty cages. By the time we finished, and feeling invincible, I was almost beginning to think that rabbits could be cute. Then, we (mostly Rick) re-fenced the garden/orchard area with rabbit-proof fencing. You’d think that there would be an opportunity then, to breathe and rest. Ha! Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water…
Below the house, we’ve planted a hedge of berry and blooming plants. Well, eventually it will be a hedge; currently it is a widely spaced and hopeful collection of spindly plants. Its purpose is to provide a visual break and to host a wide variety of blooming plants that will be good for the bees. As a side note, there are a number of berry plants that will provide treats for us, too. There are blueberries, high-bush cranberries, service berries and elderberries, mixed in with lilacs, redbuds, red osier, and lavender. In a few years it will be really beautiful. Because the berry plants are particularly tasty (and because I have an emotional and aesthetic stake in this hedge), they were among the first to be caged. Finally, after weeks of work, we could relax.
Well, I actually went into town for groceries, and bought some new work shoes. Rick was working on plumbing, so I walked up to the house to show him my fancy new footwear. On the way up the path, I saw it. A baby bunny. Cute, eh?
Not so much. The baby rabbits are very small. They fit nicely between the wires of our new tree cages. Once in, they are protected from predators, and can munch, at their leisure on our berry plants. From my vantage on the path I could clearly see a baby bunny giving my brand new blueberry bush a serious pruning. I rushed it, waving my arms, screaming. It ran. And stopped, thirty feet from the new hedge… waiting. Quickly, I surveyed the damage. One blueberry, neatly pruned to half its original size. One baby bunny, stalking. And, across the field, half a dozen baby bunnies, frolicking.
Rick came to the door of the house, alerted by my cursing. I held out the severed blueberry branches and he understood immediately. We pulled out a roll of chicken wire and began cutting cage-wraps, glancing nervously over our shoulders to the hedge. I should have stood guard, because in the twenty minutes it took to cut the wire wraps, three more blueberry plants were pruned to within an inch of their lives! Thank God for new shoes!
Now, all of the berry and bloom hedge plants have double cages. I’m also going to string deterrent wires across the tops, to discourage any deer, who might reach down into the shorter cages for a nibble. It’s the Fort Knox of landscaping. Maybe now we can relax a bit. Except that it’s time to put in the garden.
Bunnies? Maybe they’ll be cute again, someday.
I asked my landlady for the contact information for the farmer who leases the fields surrounding us. She reacted badly to the request—assuming, for some bizarre reason, that I would say something to him that would jeopardize her long-standing arrangement. She refused to give me his number, but told me where I could find him, half way across the county.
I had no such ulterior motives. I keep bees. He sprays pesticides. Though I have registered my bees with Fieldwatch, many farmers are not aware of it. I merely wanted him to give me a heads up when he plans to spray.
Before I could get contact information, the farmer showed up to prep the soil for corn. My landlady shot out to talk to him, like a bat out of hell, before I could get there. She was waving her arms and pointing at our property, jabbering. I walked out calmly to introduce myself. As soon as I was within earshot, the landlady lowered her voice, finally shutting up as I approached.
“Hi, I’m Alta. My husband and I have the parcel across the street.”
“Hi, I’m Dennis.” He reached out of the tractor cab and shook my hand. I handed him a slip of paper with my contact information.
“Are you putting in seed today?”
“No, just prep. The corn’ll go in tomorrow.”
“Good. If we know beforehand, we can close up the bees and avoid any pesticide issues. I’d appreciate if whenever you spray, or seed, you could give us a call, the night before.”
“Sure, I work with Julius the same way. You know Julius?”
I’ve never met Julius, but all the beekeepers in the area at least know of him. He’s a beekeeping institution and has mentored most everyone who keep bees in this county. “Don’t know him, but I’ve heard a lot about him. Good things.”
“Yeah. He’s a great guy.” He scratched his head. “I get the spray, but why do you need to know when I put in seed?”
“Most seeds, especially corn, are pre-treated with insecticides. Just the dust from those seeds can kill bees.”
“Yeah? I never knew. I’ll have to talk to Julius about that one. You new to bees?”
“It’s our second year—but we lost all our hives over the winter. We just installed our new bees this week.”
He nodded. “Julius lost a bunch, too. What do you think happened?” During this exchange, my landlady just stood slackjawed. I guess it wasn’t what she expected.
I shrugged. “It was a tough year. Bee losses generally for 2015 were forty-four per cent. I know one of our hives had varoa mites. But we also lost our strongest hive. You know, the warm winter is almost tougher on the bees than a cold one. And of course, we’re all struggling with pesticide issues. It’s tough to keep bees home.” I paused, “It’s a critical issue—bees are responsible for a lot of our food production.”
“Well, don’t you worry. Just like me an’ Julius, we can work together.” He smiled. “I like to eat, too.”
So, of course, I left a pint of honey on the seat of his truck. This is how it’s supposed to work.
The Scent of Bees
I’ve wanted to keep bees since my age was in the single digits. My grandfather kept bees. And turkeys. And rabbits. We never knew how many hives he had, because he was forever loading them up into the back of his old Suburban, and carting them around to “someone who needed them.” I didn’t understand why someone might need bees.
He was a quiet man of many talents. He was not a big feature in our lives, because there had been a divorce. For their own reasons, neither my grandmother, nor my grandfather’s second wife, were eager to see a relationship between Grandpa and his grandchildren. The visits were few and far between. But he was interesting and different. He made things with his hands. He was, literally, always trying to build a better mousetrap. He didn’t talk much, but when he did, what he said was solid. Or funny. Sometimes, darkly funny. He thought it was funny to pick up hitchhikers when his Suburban was full of bees.
So, bees have always been in the back of my mind. But, there were always too many reasons why I couldn’t keep bees. In my urban years, my partner was adamantly against it. In Two Rock, my landlord was allergic to stings. (You don’t waste a good landlord, like that.) So the move to Michigan was my chance to finally become a beekeeper. I say “become,” because it takes some time to really be a beekeeper. There’s a lot to learn, especially now, when the bees are in so much trouble.
I’ve joined a beekeeping group. Many of us are “newbees” but in the group there’s a generous wealth of talent and experience—and the rest we make up for with enthusiasm. Our founder is a dynamic young man, willing to share his decade or so of experience.
When spring rolled around, our group put together an order of bees from a supplier down in Holland. It’s a three and a half hour drive to Holland, but our fearless leader, Matt, said he’d do the pick up. There was only one wrinkle, Matt’s wife was expecting their second child—if the baby came early, Matt needed a back-up driver. I volunteered. How hard could it be? Others in the group looked dubious. They teased me, advising me to drive with the air-conditioner on full—to chill-out the bees.
Of course, by volunteering, I somehow guaranteed an early delivery date (for the baby, not the bees.) The day before the scheduled pick-up I emailed Matt—to ask how his wife was doing. “Funny you should ask,” he responded. They were just checking in to the hospital. I was now on-the-hook.
I told my mother, who was horrified at the idea of sharing a ride with hundreds of thousands of bees.
I told my sister, who told me not to pick up any hitchhikers.
I told Rick, who devised a system of bed-sheets and boards—to put over the bees to keep them away from me in the car.
I’m not put off by a long drive. The morning of the trip, though, we lost our spring weather. On the way down, I experienced every kind of weather, driving rain, sleet, buffeting winds and hail. Finally, in Holland, I missed my turn. I didn’t worry; I could just double back—or so I thought. Holland was having its Spring Tulip Festival. Many streets were closed and the town was a maze of festival detours. It’s a pretty little town, and many of its streets are lined with tulips. Lots of tulips. The tourists were there, en masse, dressed for a spring festival despite near freezing temperatures and occasional snow squalls. And, predictably, traffic sucked.
Finally, I arrived at my destination. The bee pick-up was held in the bee-master’s garage. The car area was filled with bee “packages” and the adjacent shop area displayed many bee accessories—wooden-ware, bee tools and such. Bees are sold as three-pound packages, in shoe-box sized wood and screened boxes, each containing approximately 10,000 bees and a queen. They also come as “nucs”—mini-hives with five frames containing all the components of a working hive, bees; a laying queen, brood, drones, honey and “bee-bread” (the mixture of honey and pollen fed to the larvae.) I was there to pick up about forty packages.
The garage was not only filled with boxes of bees, it was awash with loose bees, and beekeepers. Beekeepers are an odd lot. The beekeepers assembled for the pick-up and bee related shopping were oblivious to the loose bees, drifting in and around the garage. Regular folk would flee.
The bee vendors loaded the car for me, concerned that I wouldn’t leave adequate space between the packages. “Bees need air, you know.” The bee-master was concerned that the car wasn’t big enough for the Club’s order. I was concerned that he’d want to put bees in the passenger seat, right next to me.
Finally, after many adjustments, and one sting (not me), the loading was complete. Loose bees hovered in and around my open vehicle. The bee-master saw me unfolding Rick’s driver-protection-sheet, and shot out of the garage.
“Whoa, what’s that for?”
“To cover the bees while I’m driving.”
“No way. There’s too many bees—too much heat. You cannot cover them at all.”
“But it’s freezing out…”
“Good thing, too,” he replied. “I’d keep the AC on full, just in case.”
(FYI—when the temperature drops, the bees settle down and hunker together, to stay warm)
And so it was. I swallowed hard for a long drive with loose bees. I layered up my clothes and drove home with about 400,000 bees in the car, through the snow and sleet, and with the air-conditioning on full. The bees didn’t give me any trouble at all. I wondered what my grandfather would think of that! The bees had to spend the night, in the car. I worried, since it really was cold, but I needn’t have been concerned. In the morning the car was warm, and the windows were steamed up, all generated by the bees.
There was something else, too. Most beekeepers are familiar with the smells of their hives. On a warm day in the bee yard, the hives are redolent with the aroma of honey and the fragrance of beeswax. It’s a clean, sweet smell that I equate with beekeeping. But, that’s not really the smell of bees. In a small car with, 400,000 bees, you get to smell the bees. It took me awhile to figure it out—notes of the musky smell of barn and fresh cut hay, with a hint of tobacco leaf. That’s the smell of bees. I wonder if my grandfather, tooling about in his Suburban full of hives, ever caught the scent of bees.
What’s Eating You?
Just as you can identify a critter by its tracks, you can tell who is eating your trees and foliage by what is left behind. This is critical information to the hopeful planter of baby trees. If you don’t know who is doing the munching, how will you know how to stop them?
Last year, we lost some of the seedlings early—like within a week of planting. At the same time, a deer jumped our garden/orchard fence and ravaged the baby fruit trees. Though they survived, I was devastated. I could clearly follow the deer tracks to each and every tree victim—and then on out and over the fence. Bastards! We solved that problem by making the fence higher—but I missed a learning opportunity in garden sleuthing. And, I blamed the deer for other losses outside the garden.
I was wrong.
You see, when a deer grazes on your seedlings, they bite and run. They leave a ragged edge. Other critters have other distinctive habits. The modus operandi of the dreaded cottontail is to use those sharp rodent teeth, leaving a clean, angled cut—almost as though pruned with a shear. Bunnies are an under-recognized threat.
Porcupines also dine on seedlings and branches. I’ve been impressed with what I thought was deer damage on the wild bramble canes, only to learn that raspberry and blackberry canes are among the porcupines’ favorite spring and summer foods. And in the winter, they’ll also gnaw on tree bark at the base of a tree, eating the nutrient rich cambium layer, girdling and often killing the tree. Indeed, starved for salts, they’ll gnaw on plywood siding, or the tires on your car! (Salt from road clearing gets imbedded in the rubber tires.) Just this week we saw gnaw marks on our rubber garden hose! (And on our neighbor’s garden shed.)
Yesterday, I saw a huge porcupine, swaying in the wind in the top of a maple tree. They love the leaf buds—before they unfurl and get too tannin. It was a very windy day and, looking up I saw that porcupine hanging on for dear life—just to eat those tender new bits. Never before had I contemplated the risk of being thunked by a falling porcupine. Ouch.
But my chief opponent of the moment is those bunnies. When we plant trees in the forest, I don’t worry about the rabbits. It’s too hilly and woodsy. The bunnies are out front, by the house, in the grassy open areas. That’s where we’re putting the hazelnut and mixed berry hedges. No sooner did we start the planting than the rabid rabbits were right after them.
This is no surprise. Tomorrow we will be changing the fence around the vegetable garden (before we plant) because last summer the bunnies made short work of our garden. With the tree seedlings, we had to quickly change gears and immediately put up welded-wire tree cages around each seedling. The cages are made from cut fencing material, formed into circles by bending over the wire tabs from the cuts. With a more than a hundred seedlings at risk, that’s a lot of work!
The natural world notices. We finished the planting (and most of the cages) yesterday. We came out this morning to a parade of deer prints—a veritable square dance of deer, checking out the new additions to the neighborhood. Thank God those seedlings were safely in their cages.