Bumbling with bees

In one midsummer night’s dream, I was suspended just above the ground, held aloft by a dark amber electric storm of warrior bees, female warriors, stinging and roaring with one hellish voice.

That day, it had happened for real. They didn’t lift me from the ground, of course. That’s where I ended up. Some lessons for beginning beekeepers are hard-won.

There are stories to tell about setting up the hive next to the tree line at the back of an indulgent relative’s yard and the pleasure of watching my bees at work. But I’ll tell this one about stings, because that’s what most people want to know first. Often, they’re horrified that I would happily work with and among what could be 90,000 or more bees in my hive.

Because prudence tells the beekeeper to cover himself with sting-resistant cotton coveralls, a light pith helmet and mesh veil, boots and heavy gloves, the results of an unhappy encounter are minimized. Because his most important tool, the smoker, distracts the bees with white puffs and drives them into the hive, the setting is under some control.

The basic hive is a wooden base holding two stacked rectangular pine boxes. These “deeps” are where the lascivious, and gravid, queen creates both her female workers — and the stingless, nearly useless male drones who will service her in an airborne gang bang. They come, one after another after another, each bending backward after his turn and falling to earth dead, gutted because his sex organ stays in the queen and tears away when he’s met his sole purpose.

Whatever honey they store in the deeps, about 80 pounds of it, stays there to nourish them during the long winter. If I tend them properly, they’ll likely make it through.

Now there’s a third, shallower box on top, a “super” that I made from pine and painted a cheerful apple-green. Inside, nine rectangular wooden frames hang, precisely spaced, from metal brackets. I fitted each with paper-thin beeswax foundation. On this, the bees “draw” the comb from wax glands on their bellies, and there they’ll store the honey that I get to take. I’ll soon add another super. By the end of the season, the supers could hold 60 pounds of honey made from nectar sipped from blossoms in urban lots, window boxes and gardens within a radius of at least five miles.

Before adding the super, I smoked the thronging hive entrance and under the cover, and waited for about 30 seconds while the bees withdrew. I worked without gloves, as I had before, having read they make you clumsier and more prone to upsetting the colony. Removing the cover, I lifted out one of the middle frames in the top deep. There was a rough circle of empty cells on both sides. I didn’t know what this meant, and began to stew about whether the queen was dead or gone.

Replacing the frame, I stacked on the super and the cover. During this, I was stung five times on the left hand and twice on the right. I watched the bees as they stung, each purposefully, but almost apologetically, bending her abdomen perpendicular to the rest of her sleek body and pushing in the hypodermic barb. As in the drones’ sex dance, she then pulls away, leaving a pumping venom sac and a string of guts behind before she flies or falls off to die.

I carried an epinephrine pen to inject myself against anaphylactic shock if need be — there wasn’t — but by the next day, my left hand was painfully and grotesquely swollen, and stayed that way for several more days.

Then I returned to the hive, overly concerned about the empty cells — and wearing gloves. I smoked the hive, inspected the super and found two frames almost covered with pristine, fragile white comb. The bees ignored me. Setting aside the super, I lifted off the heavy second deep, and uncovered a boiling, roiling mass of bees in the bottom. Among them were pearly white larvae, reassurance that the queen was active. I didn’t notice that my girls, my pretty bees, took great offense at that intrusion.

With furious sound, thousands engulfed me. They stabbed impotently at my bee suit, veil and gloves. I tried smoke; they were fearless. Some worker-warriors found their way into my gloves and boots, and led many more. I hastily reassembled the hive — crushing many little bodies in the process — while trying to stay calm and ignore the stings.

Then I ran out of the beeyard, trying to peel off my sweat-soaked coveralls. Still they stung, and before I could get away, I’d dropped on a neighbor’s front lawn, flailing around like a Marx Brother in a haz-mat suit.

It was three days before I could accurately count how many times I’d been hit, how many of my bees had sacrificed themselves in keeping with their nature. There were 61. But, also as I’d read, the earlier stings seemed to have begun my eventual immunity to bee venom. There was a torment of itching, but little pain and much less swelling. I won’t make the same mistake again, but when I make another, it’ll go easier.

Enjoy your honey. Much battle, pain and sacrifice may have been part of the drama that put it on your table. Once while inspecting a frame, my finger poked through a few cells. I tasted the honey. Every sweet drop is worth it.

Ric Bohy is editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]