Sometimes I look out the back window at the hives and wonder how someone who was pretty much terrified of getting stung could keep bees. That would be me. Like any other kid with lots of time on their hands in the summer, I would watch with fascination as honey bees and bumblebees went from flower to flower collecting pollen. We would catch bees in a jar then let them go. One friend was even brave enough to catch bees in his cupped hands, and release them saying “They won’t sting you if they’re in the dark”. He could never convince me to try it. He was the same kid who would catch those big black and yellow garden spiders and hold them in his hands.
A few childhood episodes where I came out on the losing end with wasps and yellow jackets put fear of stinging insects into my heart. I do have to confess that one of those incidents involved a hornets nest in the eaves of our back porch and a bb gun. I got stung right under the eye. The other episodes were no fault of mine. I once felt something crawling on my leg and looked down to see a wasp.
Panicking, I started shaking my leg to get it off and got stung. As a kid we were visiting relatives in North Carolina. My uncle took me down to the chicken coop to collect eggs and I got stung in the armpit and he put mud on it. All I remembered about all of these incidents was the fear and the pain.
After that I was always afraid of getting stung. I would still watch bees on flowers, but if I was 30 ft up on a ladder and a wasp started buzzing around, my adrenaline would flow, the hair on the back of my neck would stand up, and I’d just as soon jump, than stay there.
When we bought our house, I cut a little doorway through the closet wall to create a crawl space over the kitchen, placed plywood over the joists, installed a light with a pull chain just inside the door, and had some storage space. All of this took place late in the fall. When summer came around, I crawled in one day pushing a few boxes of stuff. It was warm and toasty, and the light attracted one of the mud wasps that was nesting in there. My heart literally started racing and I dove through that door as fast as I could and closed it behind me.
I think the brown wasps with the legs that dangled down scared me the most, and there were always some of those in our shed. I always had the feeling that they were just waiting to latch on to me and sting. The thing is, they never did sting me. If I stood still and watched, they would fly by me but didn’t fly after me. When I opened the shed door to get the lawnmower, I kept one eye in their direction, but never had one come after me.
There are around 4000 species of bees native to North America (Winfree et. al., 2007). Of these more than forty are bumblebee species (Befriending Bumble Bees, Evans/Burns/Spivak)
The close encounters of the stinging kind are usually not with bees at all, but with insects like hornets and yellow jackets. The problem is, most people clump them all together and say “I was stung by a bee”
So how did I overcome my fears? Well as I mentioned in the piece “Is Beekeeping for You” we had agreed to let a friend put two hives in our yard. His name is Paul Dugal. He came down a week before the bees arrived and found a spot and set up the hive boxes. The following week, he brought two packages of bees. We watched him from a distance as he explained what he was doing as he put the bees in the hive. After the first or second inspection, he showed up one day with a spare old veil with safari hat and asked if I wanted them. I agreed and went into the house and put socks and work boots on along with long pants and two long sleeve shirts. I put rubber bands on my shirt and pant cuffs. We went up to the hives and I stood absolutely still about 5 or 6 feet away, with my hands in my pockets.
After a few visits to the hives, I gradually moved closer, and got a better view of what was going on, but those hands stayed in my pockets. The next time around, Paul brought Lloyd Vosburgh with him. They lit up the smoker and cracked open the hive. After pulling the empty end frame out and sliding others over, they asked me if I wanted to pull out one of the frames. I had no gloves, but I said yes. I’m not sure if it was to convince them that I wasn’t afraid or to convince myself. I asked the obvious question “Will I get stung?” Paul said, “It’s possible, but not likely”
I was feeling a little nervous. Paul said “Stand on the side of the hive and move slowly” I though to myself, “I’m going to be pulling out a frame bare handed, with maybe a couple hundred bees on it that can sting me.
Two things came to mind. The first was “No matter what happens, hold onto the frame and don’t drop it” The other was, I think, one of the most important realizations that started to turn the tide for me. That was, “how bad can a sting really be?” I mean, a honey bee can only sting you once. Granted, there are tens of thousands of them in the hive, but what’s one or two stings? I’m not afraid of getting shots, and needles are longer than a bee sting. Of course, there’s a difference between a needle with medicine and a barbed stinger with poison in it, but was I going to let a tiny insect psyche me out? I decided it wasn’t.
So, I carefully pried each end of the frame up. Paul said find a spot to grab and as you place your fingers on the frame, the bees will move out of the way. I did,
and they did. It was amazing. I slowly pulled the frame straight up and bees started crawling on my bare hands. “Don’t drop the frame” I told myself.
Lloyd pointed out the different sized larvae. He and Paul explained the brood pattern, showed me the stored pollen and nectar. Worker bees went about their business on the frame as we watched, and I didn’t get stung.
That was my revelation. I was in total awe and there was no turning back. From that day on, I looked forward to Paul’s visits. I was eager to learn. I started looking at all bees, wasps, and hornets in a different light. I started looking at bees and wasps. I noticed them on flowers, I searched them out and started taking pictures of them. I acquired more books on beekeeping. I had conquered my fear.
That day took place in spring of 2004. That winter I ordered bees of my own. I built four deep hive boxes and four supers with all the fixings except for frames and foundation. I borrowed a hive tool and traced the outline onto a used lawnmower blade. With a hacksaw and disc grinder, I had my own hooked hive tool a while later.
I went to the recycle bin at
the landfill and picked through the cans until I found two I thought would work for a smoker, and fashioned one from those cans, and some leather, wood and other materials on hand in my workshop.
I was once taking a break in my garden after doing some weeding. I watched this wasp going from one cabbage plant to the next. It would land, crawl down inside, and a few moments later crawl out and fly on to the next one. After repeating this several times, it crawled back out with a cabbage worm and devoured it right in front of my eyes. We were helping each other. I was providing it with food, and it was ridding me of pests.
Becoming accustomed to bees
There are some things you can do to avoid unpleasant encounters with bees and wasps. One is to not wear perfumes when you are going to be outdoors working in your garden or at a picnic or other social function. If a bee flies near you, stay calm. The best thing you can do is to not move. The worst thing you can do is start flapping your arms around in a panic. Bees have a different buzz when they are angry, and Honey bees will often “bump” you without stinging when they are angry.
If you have bees in the ground, give them space and you can usually live without confrontations. The same goes for many wasps and bees nesting outside soffits and other spots. Sometimes you have no choice but to get rid of a wasp nest if it’s in a high traffic area such as over your back door, but remember, many wasps are carnivores and eat garden and other pests. They all serve some purpose in the grand scheme of things. If you live in an area that has africanized honey bees, the rules are completely different when it comes to being near a hive.
A safe way to get close to bees is to look for plants with flowers in bloom that attract bees. Some examples would be, any fruit tree, squash, cucumbers, and similar garden plants, dandelions, milkweed and loads of other flowers. If you see bees on these flowers, stand or sit nearby and just observe them. Try to determine if they are collecting pollen(visible on pollen baskets on their back legs) or nectar. Get a little closer and observe. Notice that they are busy working and don’t pay any attention to you. You could even touch them while they are on a flower without worrying about being stung, but for now, just spend time watching them.
Now when I see the sight pictured below, my heart beats a little faster, not out of fear, but out of excitement. I see beauty in their colors and shapes, in the way they work together for a common cause, and I want to learn more. Happy Beekeeping!