President’s message (August 2022)

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While Bill Fosdick is away on vacation, Bill Cavers, our Membership Secretary, has put pen to paper and crafted this sage advice for new and not-so-new beekeepers:

A stinging commentary on beekeeping

I suddenly realized that I have been stung by honey bees more times since I started beekeeping three years ago than I have been stung by all other animals in the whole of my life before that. And in a lot more places and in more varied ways than I ever thought possible. And there has been a commonality in all of them – none have been pleasant.

A friend related a wonderful saying to me:

Good judgement is what you gain from experience, and experience is what you gain from exercising poor judgement. 

I’ve also realized that our club has a large number of new or newish beekeepers, so I’m writing this on the off chance that my experience can allow some other members to minimize their pain in acquiring good judgement…

Before you go in

Wear your gear. Yeah, we’ve all seen those videos of people scooping bees with bare hands, and I have too. But you know what? NONE of them show experienced or older people scooping bees with their bare hands…

And make sure you’re wearing your gear properly. It’s a dreadful thing to be working in a hive and suddenly realize that you have some bee “friends” inside your suit! Remember, those bees are not your friends! And even if your bees have been very docile to date, I’ve found that Murphy’s Law always, always wins out. Here are some pointers:

  • Wear proper clothes under the suit. Bees can sting through a suit when it’s tight against your skin, so no shorts and T-shirts. Wear long thick pants like jeans, and a thick long-sleeved shirt. Even consider wearing another long-sleeved shirt or sweatshirt as a second layer. Makes it a lot hotter in the suit, but I’ve found it beats being stung 7 times in the course of a single minute when you’re deep into a hive! Yup. That’s happened to me…
  • Wear proper shoes. Boots that go above the ankles. No sandals. Tried that once. Didn’t learn, so wore my Nike runners. Again, only once. I now wear my Blundstones, and am seriously thinking of upgrading to gumboots.
  • Wearing a ball cap or Tilley hat under your hood keeps the veil away from your face. If the veil touches your skin, the back end of a honey bee can, too! (Serves as a sweat band, too. It can get pretty hot inside your gear in the summer sun!)
  • Use 1″ masking tape to fix your sleeves onto your hands before putting on the gloves. Putting on your gloves tends to make your sleeves ride up, leaving a single layer of suit around your wrists and your bees can sting through the suit! I got two on each wrist on one single visit to an irritated hive. I also recently had a bee burrow – yes, burrow! – under my elastic leg opening! So with…enthusiastic… hives, use the masking tape down there, too.
  • Make sure your zippers are done up fully. Repeat – Fully. A favourite opening for heat seeking manically psychotic bees is through that throat area where the hood zippers meet. So make sure that the front suit zipper is right up to the top, make sure the hood zippers are fully zipped, and make sure the Velcro pad at that throat area where your hood zippers join is firmly patted down. And consider putting masking tape to cover that opening, too.
  • Put your hood up before you enter the “firing range” or, like me, you can put it up later and zip a couple of bees into your hood…

While you’re in

  • Move slowly and deliberately. Don’t jerk or leap around – unless you’ve just discovered that you have bees inside your suit, then that’s allowed. It’s called the Silly Dance.
  • Minimize any damage to your bees. Injured, alarmed bees release pheromones that trigger the alarm reaction of the other bees. And there are thousands of them in that hive… Remove coverings gently. Remove the most peripheral frame in a box first; that gives you space to slide the other frames apart before removing, minimizing the risk of crushing or rolling your bees – especially the queen.
  • Peppermint spray of 4-5 drops of peppermint oil per liter of water in a spray bottle works pretty well. And so does spraying them with 1:1 sugar syrup; keeps them licking it off and eating it rather than making kamikaze runs as you. But a smoker works best. Believe me. It is more of a hassle to get it going, but if you’re going into an aggressive hive you want the cards stacked in your favour. The peppermint spray reduced the number of psychotic bees trying to kill me down to a mere few hundred, but the smoker worked way better! But don’t use a smoker in dry, flammable areas unless you have a way of putting out fires…

After you leave

  • Before you unzip and flip back your hood, use your bee brush to brush off your suit, especially your hood and shoulders. You can frequently get hitchhikers that you can’t see. Yup, got stung that way, too.
  • Keep your suit clean! If your suit is covered with angry bee pheromones or dead bee guts, your bees will be alerted immediately the moment you next enter the hives…

So you’ve been stung. What now??

  • If you can, use your fingernail to flick out the stinger. With honey bees the stinger comes with a venom sac that pulsates, and each pulsation injects you with more venom. But this is frequently not an option when you’re in the thick of things!
  • Lee Valley sells a gizmo called a Therapik (currently $21.50). It’s a battery-operated device that you place against your skin over the sting and pull the trigger; it generates heat that denatures the bee venom protein, destroying it and significantly reducing the reaction. But. You need to use it quickly, and you need to hold it against the sting until it hurts – like 30-40 seconds. I’ve had a bit of a burn as a result, but it’s been a lot better than the pain, swelling and itching that could have occurred!
  • You may want to consider taking an antihistamine to minimize the reaction. Benadryl (aka diphenhydramine) is a gold standard at a dose of 25mg-50mg, but it is quite sedating. I use Reactine (cetirizine) at a dose of 10mg-20mg. 20mg is the max daily dose. But if using an antihistamine, remember that it won’t work until it has been absorbed from your stomach, about 30 min on an empty stomach, significantly longer after a meal. So while waiting for it to kick in, apply ice; that will slow down chemical reactions, and cause constriction of the blood vessels slowing/preventing the spread of the venom.
  • Have you had a previous reaction? Discuss this with your doctor and consider getting an Epi-Pen as a backup. And if you already have an Epi-Penread the instructions before you’re in the poop! And if you have ever had a significant reaction, pleeeeaaase do not go into a hive alone, when there is nobody around to back you up!

But, also remember this. I’m trying to stress good judgement and good practice in your beekeeping. And despite my having been stung a few times, my love of beekeeping has not abated.

Good beekeeping to you all,

Best regards,

Bill Cavers
The Membership Guy

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