When people find out I keep bees their first question is usually, “Why?” and a close second is, “Do you get stung a lot?” Basically, the answer is no. No, I don’t get stung a lot… or ever, really. However, I do want to tell you about the few times I or my husband have been stung because I think you’ll notice a trend:
1. The very first day we brought our first nuc home, we suited up and installed them just as we had seen done on YouTube. We got inside, peeled off our layers of bee suits and realized we forgot to put the jar of sugar water in. Now, I’m feeling pretty confident. Heck, I just installed a package of tens of thousands of bees, right? So I put my hood on (but not the entire suit) and went out to put the sugar water in. I opened the lid and used my hive brush to gently brush the bees off the tops of the frames, so I could set the jar down. I didn’t use any smoke and, let’s be honest, what could be more invasive or threatening to a species of any kind than sweeping them along with a giant, yellow brush? I got stung right on the leg. It was just a pinch. It didn’t swell or anything, so it was no big deal and, thankfully, did not deter me from beekeeping.
2. Once my husband was mowing a few feet in front of the hive and a bee accidentally flew into his eyebrow/eyelid. He swatted at it out of instinct and – BAM – a sting in the eyebrow. This did swell and was quite uncomfortable for the next 24 hours, as you can imagine.
3. Another time, we were out working the hives and a bee started to crawl down my husband’s boot (note to self: pull pants down over your boots). He was holding the smoker, so he swiped a waft of smoke towards the bee, which caused the bee to hurriedly head down into his boot. Makes sense because the reason we smoke the hive before working it is to send the bees into the hive. So, duh, the bee headed to a safer place – the darkness of his boot! In an attempt to get his boot off, he squished her and she stung him.
4. Very recently I was showing the hives to a friend who was over for a gathering. I intended to just open the top cover so he could peek in. Neither of us were wearing any protective clothing and I went to our most docile hive. The cover stuck, so I bumped it with the butt of my hand to loosen it. We peaked in and as I was lowering the cover back down, I got stung just above my knuckle. Now THAT sting bothered me for a couple days. It was swollen for 24 hours and then itchy on and off for several days after.
5. Lastly, and very recently, we were working the hives and my husband got stung through his bee suit. The suit was kind of snug against his arm and while we were working, someone stung him – right through the fabric!
I offer these examples to make one important point: only one of these stings was just a plain “got-stung-while-beekeeping” sting. Three of them were idiocy on our parts. The only two times I have been stung, were times when I was not respecting the bees and their colony.
My husband only wears a jacket and veil these days. He only occasionally wears gloves. I still wear a suit, jacket, veil, and gloves because that’s how I feel most comfortable. You can’t swat when you’re in there and you need to stay calm. I know that I am the most calm when I work the bees this way. My husband tells me that working without gloves means ignoring the tickling of bees crawling across your hands while you’re working or feeling the vibration of the buzzing if one gets between your fingers. Totally cool, but not a point I’m at yet. My advice to new beekeepers is to learn about bees and what makes them sting and then do whatever you can to follow the bees’ rules. After all, you are the one invading their home. Sure you use that smoke to calm them down, but you’re opening an otherwise pitch dark hive, you’re pulling frames of precious brood and honey out of the hive, examining them in the sunlight, and sometimes, no matter how careful you are, you squish a bee while moving frames or putting the lid on. It’s a wonder we haven’t been stung more often.
Here are some facts about honey bees to help you make educated choices about how you work the hive:
– Only female worker bees can sting. Drones cannot sting.
– When honey bees sting mammals, they die. Honey bees can sting other insects (like other bees) repeatedly without dying, however. They die because their stingers are barbed, so when they try to pull out, their lower abdomen is torn apart.
– Bees sting when they perceive a threat. After the sting, a pheromone is released that tells other bees to follow suit. Therefore, if you are near a hive and get stung, you can smoke the area or calmly move away until they settle down.
– Queens can sting repeatedly without dying, but rarely do (well, they sting and kill rival queens)
– When bees swarm, they are unlikely to sting because they need to conserve their energy until they find a new home.
– As a beekeeper, you can avoid being stung by wearing protective clothing (of course), learning how to properly use a smoker to manage the hive, minimizing disruption to the hive when you’re working it, and avoiding swatting and sporadic movements.
– Recently another beekeeper told me clove oil (applied to the hands) helps keep the bees calm while you are working them. I’m completely intrigued by this, but haven’t had a chance to try it out!
If You Get Stung…
If this happens while you are working a hive or have any frames out of the hive, etc, you’ll need to smoke the area, and remain calm. If the sting causes you to have to leave the apiary, calmly replace hive components and then walk out slowly (obviously if it’s an emergency, just get out!). Make sure no bees have hitched a ride on your jacket. I have found they only do this when they are annoyed with me or someone has already stung me and those pheromones are flowing.
You want to make sure to remove the stinger as soon as you can. Removing this will help reduce the amount of venom in your body. Wash the area with soap and water. Bees are actually quite dirty and it’s always important to wash a sting thoroughly with soap. You can use a topical ointment (there are many over the counter bite treatments) or try a natural remedy. I usually ice the area to prevent swelling and I might take an anti-inflammatory (like ibuprofen) if it’s really sore.
I guess, in the end, you have to just accept the likelihood of stings if you are going to be a beekeeper. A honey bee sting is certainly much tamer than that of a wasp or hornet. If you learn to respect your hives and dress appropriately, you can probably keep bees and suffer very few stings over the course of your beekeeping career.