Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Learning the Hard Way

Experience and a bee suit brings confidence, or so I thought. I thought I was so protected. HA! On Sunday afternoon, two weeks after my last inspection (note that this writing is happening on Tuesday), I donned my suit and stoked the smoker. The day had been overcast with intervals of sunshine. I KNOW the best weather to open the hives is when it's a sunny day, but it didn't seem like rain and with encouragement from Harvey, I went ahead with the inspection.

I started in the middle with Hive 2, still only stacked three high. The uppermost box revealed half the frames full of honey and I thought the girls were finally ready for another super, but when further inspection revealed they hadn't filled most of the frames, I decided to wait for the room addition. I patiently worked my way to the bottom of the colony, finding no queen and less larvae than I expected. I'm sure the queen was in the very bottom somewhere, but it's hard to find one among the thousands. The bees were calm and I gave them plenty of smoke. Before it was all buttoned up, I felt sharp pain at the top of the base of my left thumb. One of the workers had stung me right through my goatskin glove. I can't imagine why I was stung there, and could not rationalize nor justify. I knew the stinger was not in my skin so I moved on to Hive 1.

The girls in Hive 1 were very active, flying everywhere. This is still the most populated, strongest hive. As I worked my way down through the frames I could see that this hive was ready for a 5th story as the upper frames were filled with honey. I didn't see anything wrong. I didn't see the queen. Again, it seemed like there were fewer larvae, but there was plenty of capped brood and I did find young larvae way down in the bottom. While I was restacking the hive boxes, the bees were zooming everywhere. What, me worry? I was still smarting from the sting on my hand, but I was unconcerned with the bees that landed on my bee suit. Then I felt the sting.

If you have never been stung by a bee, let me describe for you the exquisite initial pain. This time, it was on my left foot between the outside knob of my ankle and my achilles tendon. It feels like someone is pinching you with pointy splinter tweezers, and that someone is not letting go, but just keeps the pinch going. Really, that doesn't quite do it justice, but it will give you the idea. The sharpness of that pain lasts for several minutes and for most people, that's the worst of it. For most people, getting on with whatever needs to be done provides enough distraction to move the focus from the site of the sting.

I moved away from the hive and tried to get a look at my ankle. The unfortunate worker bee was curled up below the elastic of my bee suit and she was caught up in my sock. A bee sting causes some misery for the person stung, but it's a death sentence for the bee. I brushed the bee away and finished closing up Hive 1. Oh, did I mention the really bad word I yelled when it happened?

Doggedly, (stupidly?) I moved to Hive 3. I'll admit that the last hive got a very brief inspection. I got into the 2nd box from the top and decided to quit for the day. I had not taken Benadryl before I went to the hives (see how confidant I was?) and I wanted to get some in my system, the sooner the better.

I stumbled my way back to the garage, doffed my bee suit, picked the stinger out of my sock, swallowed a double hit of antihistamine and looked at my poor ankle and foot, already swelling. Here it is, two days later, and I'm finally able to write about it. Since Sunday, while treating myself with expensive topical prescription medicines and ice packs, through the haze of Advil and Benadryl, I have asked myself over and over why I subject myself to this. I was deeply discouraged.

I thought about why this happened, two stings in spite of all the protective clothing. I thought about what I did wrong. I thought about how to be a better beekeeper, which in this case means one who gets stung less often. I should not have opened the hives on a cloudy day. I can't come up with any other reason for the sting on my hand. The sting on my ankle would not have happened if I hadn't pushed on when the bees seemed agitated. I should have abandoned the inspection, but the bee suit gave me a false sense of security. Next time I'll pay closer attention to the weather, pay closer attention to the mood of the bees, take Benadryl before I suit up and I'll wear boots. I always knew that a bee suit is not foolproof; the heavy fabric is sting resistant, not sting proof.

In the morning, before things got ugly, I had visited the hives and saw that the bees were laden with pollen as they returned to the hive. That's a good thing as they need the pollen as their source of protein.

Sting count: 11