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.