You Get What You Pay For

Posted by & filed under beekeeping.

The rewards that come with beekeeping – honey, pollen, wax, propolis, sharing, sovereignty, joy – don’t come without a price – care, maintenance, dollars, and, not least, stings.

I’ve had my share of bites and stings in the past. Growing up in south Florida, there wasn’t a spider or yellowjacket or bumblebee in my yard that didn’t make its presence known at least once. I’m lucky to not have an allergy, and perhaps those early-years stings are why.

So far in my first season as a beekeeper, I have been leaning towards a no-treatment, no-supports (except for post-install syrup), no-stuff ‘keeping. I wore a veil at Tim’s recommendation while hiving, but having spent time with keepers like Meg, Sam Comfort, and Michael Leung, and reading through what these friends and others at Backwards and Bush Farms have had to say, I’m confident in my decision to do as little as possible and let the bees take care of themselves, or perish.

Well, after two successful (i.e. stingless) inspections since hiving, I learned a good lesson yesterday. On the way home from work at Brooklyn Grange, I stopped by for a peek.

I decided to start with my more productive, but more fierce, hive. I was amazed. Though two central frames had been combed together, I pulled out frame after frame of capped comb and saw that the ladies had even drawn substantial amounts on the foundationless frames. Then I pulled out the two joined frames together. Mistake number one.

I guess lifting and moving around two frames worth of busy bees all at once set off some kind of alarm. Suddenly, I feel that familiar burning in my left hand, smack on the thumb joint. I closed my eyes to focus and plan next steps, still holding the frames. Mistake number two.

I had learned, but forgotten in the moment of truth, that bees release an alarm pheromone when stinging that calls out to the rest of the hive, “hey everyone, come show this intruder who’s boss!” Less than a minute after being stung on the hand (I’m surprised they waited that long), I feel another zap on my eyebrow. The bees buzz a little more loudly, and start flying en masse out of the hive. Alarmed myself, I set down the frames, and, well, ran to the stairwell.

The panic started to set in. How the heck was I going to get back to the hive, put the frames back inside, and close up shop without hurting any bees by going too fast or getting stung to death? I couldn’t just leave the hive open, I felt bad calling in reinforcements, and I really didn’t want to end up like Thomas J. in that scene from My Girl I saw way too many times as a kid.

What a pickle. But I was determined to clean up my own mess. I noticed that there were a couple angry interlopers trying to sting me through my jeans and shirt, so I brushed them away outside and grabbed my bag.

Luckily, I found a plastic baggie, which I used to cover my stung hand thinking this might hide any pheromone residue on my skin. I summoned every ounce of courage I could muster, and approached the hive. Somehow, I was able to lift up the frames, which subsequently split apart (bonus?), carefully replace them, and put on the cover without any further stings.

As I write this, my hand and wrist have ballooned and my fingers look like longish vienna sausages.

My left eye is swollen shut and the right is threatening to do the same. I look like a live-action Beast from Beauty and the Beast, only with less hair and money. Or the vampires from the early seasons of Buffy before they got all CGI. Thank goodness for ice packs and big sunglasses.

What did I learn from this first high-stakes experience as a beekeeper? Always be prepared. I have a smoker, but got into the habit of not using it, riding on my no-frills beekeeping dream, so I didn’t even have it on me when I went to inspect. I didn’t have a veil, and I was wearing dark colors. While things like smokers and veils are considered by some (including me, up to this point) to be unnecessary, I realize now that, at least for me as a novice ‘keeper, having the proper safety equipment is important especially when working alone. Being completely unequipped save for my hive tool was mistake number zero.

Not that I expect to never be stung again. In fact, I would be much less happy about being a beekeeper if that risk weren’t a part of it. In some way, I feel like it’s an important part of keeping these hard-working ladies and will help me to better appreciate all of the goods I’m getting out of the deal. You get what you pay for. But a sting on my hands or arms is one thing; my face… let’s just say I’m too vain to handle another week’s worth of swollen self-consciousness if I can help it.

So next time, better believe I’ll have that smoker handy.


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