The Worst Thing That Can Happen to a Beekeeper

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I was really excited for April 2nd, 2020.   I’ve had it on the calendar since early December.  It was package pickup day.

If you don’t know, bees are usually bought in one of two methods:

  • A Nuc (short for nucleus hive) – A small hive.  Already established, just week.  All bees are from the same hive.  Generally sold in 3-5 frame sizes.
  • A package – 3-5lbs of bees, often from different hives, and an unrelated, newly mated queen.  It’s 10-12,000 bees.

Packages are generally available earlier in the season, but they carry more risk.  You have to slow-release the queen, because the workers haven’t yet accepted her as their queen.  She’s in a small cage, with a few attendants.  There’s a hole in the end of the cage filled with fondant.  The idea is that by the time the workers chew through the fondant, her pheromones have spread throughout the hive and they will accept her.  It usually works. 

The upside to a package is that because they’re available earlier in the season, they have more time to build up.  And they’re cheaper.

One of my packages from 2019.

Nucs come a bit later, but you’re buying a single hive.  They’re also more expensive.

Move In Day

My wife & I drove to the bee store for pickup.  We’re in the midst of the spread of Covid-19, but as an agriculture supply company, they can stay open.  They had a great pickup method – pull up in your car, give them your name, they pull the packages & load them in the trunk for you. 

I waited a few hours to install my bees but kept them in the shade until it was time.  I had to work today, and I wanted to wait until a little bit later in the afternoon, to increase the chances that the bees spend the night in their new digs, which I’ve heard reduces the risk of absconding.

My wife wanted to watch me install, so she watched and I explained each step. 

For the last few weeks, when checking on my single surviving hive, I haven’t worn gloves.  I know that many beekeepers operate this way, and insist it helps develop a gentle touch.  Plus, many beekeepers look forward to the first few stings of the season, to build up a tolerance.

I will readily admit I haven’t been looking forward to getting stung – I never do – but I’ve been smoking my hands before working my bees.  I read somewhere bees are less likely to sting your hands if they smell like smoke.  Beekeepers love rumors and anecdotal evidence.

I went through the steps of installing the hives, soaking the bees in the package with sugar water during several steps.  This is supposed to help them calm down before you turn the package upside down & violently shake them into the new hive. 

Several of my new bees weren’t aware of expected installation behavior.  One of the workers in particular was upset at my treatment, or maybe just frustrated that she spent the last two days in a wooden box.  She flew up immediately and stung my hand.  It hurt like hell.  I got the stinger out immediately and finished the install. 

Ouch!

Uh Oh

Normally when I’m stung, I have some pretty good swelling and itching for a few days – strictly localized to the area of the sting.  Today was different.

I looked at my arm and noticed red splotches traveling up towards my shoulder.  Then they started itching.  Hives.

I’ve had hives before, but only from food poisoning.  Like any good self-diagnosing pseudo-doctor, I turned to the internet.  Right there in black & white, under bee sting symptoms, was the following:

Reading this got me concerned.

I’ll readily admit, I spent the next half hour or so carefully monitoring my breathing.  The last thing I wanted, especially in the midst of a pandemic, was a trip to the hospital.  After I decided the danger had passed, came the unwelcome thoughts…

  • Was my hobby over?
  • Did I need an EpiPen?
  • Do I really need to give up beekeeping?

This is decidedly not how I thought this day would go.

Heartbreak and Solutions

Beekeepers aren’t generally dispassionate about their hobby.  Those of us who decide managing boxes of 50,000+ stinging insects is a good idea love what we do.  This really, really hurts.  I’ve spent a lot of time and energy in this hobby, even if it’s one of the most frustrating things I’ve ever loved.

After sending a message to my doctor describing my symptoms and asking about EpiPens, I’ve reached a few conclusions.

  • I don’t want to give up beekeeping.
  • My veil & jacket are pretty good, but I may be upgrading to a full bodysuit.
  • I’m probably getting an EpiPen.
  • This is going to mean a lifestyle shift – I’ll have to bring my new medical device with me everywhere.
  • I’m really not happy about this.
  • I can’t check on my bees unless my wife is in the house – just in case.

True to form, I’ve started solutioning.  One of my first thoughts was looking at full suits. I’m really happy with the jacket I have, but a full suit just seems safer than combining a jacket and pants.   Ventilated is a must. I had been considering several. The Ultra Breeze Large Beekeeping Suit with Veil and Humble Bee 431 (below) were on the top of my list:

I’ve read good things about both of these, but then I stumbled across this article in the BBC about a “virtually sting proof” suit, designed for someone with severe bee allergies. I read about it, watched reviews, and put some real thought into it. I decided to order this one, along with the accompanying gloves.

I placed an order, but the next day received a refund. Ian Roberts, the inventor and owner of OldCastleFarmHives.com, emailed me to let me know that the post in the UK has added a Covid-19 surcharge, making shipping costs (for me) unreasonable. He’s not selling them until the surcharge is lifted. He also let me know that he’s sold over 2,000 of these suits, and has never heard of someone getting stung through them.

For me, the quality of this suit, and Ian’s responsiveness, make the wait well worth it.

The Sentinel Pro II Beekeeping Suit, courtesy of Ian Roberts.

I don’t want to lose this hobby.  I’m going to continue, but more cautiously, for now.  I guess from now on I wear gloves.  And carry an EpiPen.  And I’m going to smoke my hands.

Do you know a beekeeper who is allergic?  Are you?  How have you managed it?

Ben

Ben is a lifelong lover of honeybees, and a moderately experienced backyard beekeeper, who is constantly working on getting better. This site is dedicated to helping backyard beekeepers improve their management practices, reduce hive loss, and improve yield. We want to provide you with scientifically grounded information to help your hives thrive.

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