One of our beehive hosts recently sent us a link to a portion of Eddy Izzard’s classic beekeeping skit. It’s a highly comical, if not entirely accurate take on beekeeping. At the end of the day, I have to agree with Izzard: sometimes beekeepers do lose it. Sometimes we are covered in bees, and the veil and gloves aren’t enough to protect us.
As Izzard suggests, Keeping bees is a strange term. How do you keep a group of winged creatures that numbers in the tens of thousands, communicates, organizes, makes some decisions democratically, and routinely moves on to new homes without your help? It might be more appropriate to say that we manipulate bees (or attempt to do so).
Listen to the bees
I’m a naïve second year beekeeper with minimal experience harvesting honey, in part because 75% of our hives last year bit the dust. We didn’t use our smoker much last year; the bees seemed mellow enough, and the smoke was difficult to direct (most of it always seemed to gush out the leaky backend).
This year, we are using it more. But when I found myself sans lighter at a recent hive inspection, I decided to go ahead without the smoke. I should have known better. The bees are cranky lately, eager to rob other hives and defensive against the possibility of losing their own hard-earned stores.
It was late afternoon when I opened the hive in question. The sun was on the entrance, and the bees were very active–more active, in fact, than I’d ever seen them. I removed the lid and inner cover and immediately detected the telltale scent of banana oil—bee attack pheromone.
I’m young and stupid; I kept going. It was when I lifted out the first side frame in the upper brood box that I realized how mad they were. They rose up out of the hive in an angry, buzzing, cloud. My first irrational thought was that they were about to swarm on the spot. I have only ever seen that many bees issue from a hive when it is swarming. But these bees were not honey-heavy, nor were they house hunting.
The activity was so intense that I knew I had to halt my inspection. Unfortunately, the bees were spilling over the edge of the brood box, and there seemed no way to replace the inner cover without squishing multitudes. I speed-walked away across the backyard (the one Olympic sport I’m fairly good at).
I returned to the hive after several minutes, but the commotion had by no means settled. Instead, a group of bees instantly picked up my scent and was after me. I was stung once on each shoulder through my heavy suit and shirt. So much for a sense of security and protection.
It was a full twenty minutes before I finally managed to approach the hive from a different direction and replace the inner cover and lid with minimal carnage. Even then, a group of bees followed me to the foot of the yard, repeatedly body slamming my veil in their quest to sting my face. I stood still with my heart pounding and made a feeble attempt at Metta, a Buddhist meditation practice centered on loving-kindness.
When the bees finally moved on, I jumped in my car, still suited up with both shoulder bee stings flaming, and went shopping for a consolation jug of grapefruit juice.
I’m struck by how quickly a mild-mannered hive can become aggressive when winter food stores are threatened. These bees paid me no mind when I walked up to them. They weren’t out to get me until I breached their home. I’m also struck by how effective smoke is at keeping bees from becoming agitated in the first place. We are using eucalyptus bark harvested at a nearby high school to fuel our smoker, and boy has it worked when we’ve bothered to light it.