If you’re a bee keeper, either for fun or profit, you will know the joy of seeing a healthy hive and harvesting some of the liquid gold we call honey. But beekeeping is not without its risks and there are some basic things you can do to ensure your safety.
If you’ve ever been stung by a bee you will know it is not pleasant and while they will generally only sting you if they feel threatened, that sting can be nasty. For some people it can be life threatening and generally the more stings you get the worse your reaction will be.
Recently while opening one of our hives I was stung by at least 28 bees and ended up in hospital! So I am writing this blog partly so I can work out what went wrong and partly so that I can warn you before you perhaps make the same mistake. While in hospital I had enjoyed a cocktail of drugs to keep my airways open and the full-torso rash at bay, and since then I have had some time to reflect on how we could have done things better.
So what happened? We didn’t smoke the hive before opening it – the smoke calms the bees down. We assessed the need for smoking and decided that as we were just putting a super box on top of the brood box, we could be in and out in a couple of minutes, not disturb the bees too much and we would be okay. Once we got the box open, I just couldn’t resist the urge to pull a couple of frames and check the health of the brood. By the time we were pulling the second frame up, I was bitten on the neck, through my suit!
I stepped away from the hive, telling my husband that I had been stung and then realised the bee was inside my suit! As I walked away from the hive, I undid the zip of my hood to release the bee – not thinking about the multitude of bees which had swarmed onto the outside of my hood when we opened the hive – essentially I panicked. And then it really began in earnest – more bees flocked inside the hood and got caught in my hair. Finding themselves struggling to get out of my hair, they reacted as bees do – by stinging! My quick thinking husband handed me the hive brush to knock them out of my hair but it took a few minutes to get rid of them all and by then the damage was done. As I had never been stung by so many bees before (prior to this I had only been stung by 8 bees in one hit), I did not know how I would react physically. We called 000.
Shortly thereafter, I was given a chauffeur driven ride to the nearest rural hospital courtesy of our Ambulance service. On route, the Ambo’s gave me antihistamine to slow the reaction and loaded me up with a cannula so that they had direct access to my veins for the administration of emergency drugs if they were needed. Upon arrival they administered pain killers and adrenaline to stop any potential throat swelling which can block breathing. Within an hour I had a full-torso, angry, red rash and cortisone was administered to deal with that (I wasn’t taking photos at that stage, so I can’t show you the damage). Although I have never had a generalised reaction to bee stings before, the number of stings I had endured was obviously more than my system was happy with, hence the rash and generalised reaction.
Eventually I was released from hospital without the need for an overnight stay and I went home to sleep and heal.
So what went wrong?
Firstly, we didn’t check each other’s suits were correctly fastened before approaching the hive. A quick check would have shown that the Velcro at the neck of my suit was not correctly done up and would have prevented that first bee getting in.
Secondly, we approached the hive with one plan and then we ignored our plan and did something else! Plan the hive visit, and then follow your plan – don’t decide to do something else without re-planning your approach.
Thirdly, we didn’t smoke the bees before we opened the hive – no wonder they were angry with us. No matter how placid you think your bees are, administer some smoke before removing the hive lid and checking the frames – it makes the bees a little more docile and less likely to sting!
Lastly, when I realised there was a bee in my suit, I should have realised there were hundreds more outside – if you’re not allergic to bees, one sting won’t kill you – even if it is on your face – sit out the one sting to avoid multiple stings. Don’t remove or undo your suit until someone else has confirmed that there are no bees on your suit. I panicked at the thought of that one bee stinging me on the face and then lost my ability to think calmly and rationally about the situation and how to respond to it.
We’ve now implemented a safety check before we approach the hive. This includes checking that every fastener is done up correctly and there are no potential entry holes for the bees. Secondly we will “Plan the hive visit and visit the hive as per the plan”- we won’t be changing the plan mid-visit without re-assessing the dangers and risks. When the bees started getting overly aggressive, I should have aborted the hive visit, but we pushed on – if you don’t feel comfortable and safe – don’t proceed with going into the hive. Even bees have bad days.
So now, under doctor’s orders, I now have to carry a pair of epi-pens in case I get stung at any time. Not a bad outcome considering it could have been a lot worse, or even deadly. I will continue to keep bees, but with a new found respect for them and for my safety.
So remember, if you are visiting a hive, you are entering the bees’ territory and it needs to be done in a manner which is safe for everybody – bees and humans included. And when that happens, you can enjoy the fruits of their labour with toast and tea instead of with adrenaline and cortisone!