Beekeeping: A Short, Cautionary Tale, From a Beginner

In recent weeks I have thought of the need to add a 5th box to the bee hive; I have been seeing many bees congregating at the hive entrance, and was worrying that they might have expanded to fill the available volume, and bee looking to swarm.  Since Nathan was around as an able assistant, having helped me to add the 3rd and 4th boxes back in June, the time to add the 5th box had come. After adding the 3rd and 4th boxes, I summarized the event in a blog post by stating, “The process of adding the boxes went more smoothly than I probably had any right to expect; it was executed without incident.”  As it turns out, I indeed did not have any right to expect that it would go so smoothly.

Nathan and I assembled the necessary materials; the 5th hive box with top bars, a bee brush, the sugar-water spray, and a hive tool, suited up, and headed for the hive.  I took off the roof of the hive, leaving the quilt and 4 boxes sitting on the hive floor.  Nathan sprayed the bees at the entrance lightly with the sugar-water mixture.  I was worried about how heavy the hive would be.  When using a Langstroth hive, additional hive boxes are typically added above existing boxes, however with a Warré hive the new box(es) are added below the existing boxes.  Of course this requires that the existing boxes be lifted off of the floor to enable the addition of the new box(es).  And by now I expected those boxes to be full of comb and honey.  Keep in mind that honey is heavy, while water weighs 8.3 lbs. per gallon, honey weighs 12 lbs per gallon.  In the four existing boxes there could easily have been 80 to 100 lbs. of bees, comb, brood, and honey.  Of course the consequences of dropping the hive while attempting the move it, is not something I enjoy imagining.  Fortunately the hive did not seem to weigh more than 50 or 60 lbs., although my sense of the weight might have been off substantially, as I was more than a bit distracted.  No sooner had I lifted the hive off of the floor than the bees attacked with a vengeance.  With 50 or 60 lbs. of hive in my hands, I was unable to defend myself, or even to run for my life, so in short order I took four stings to the head and two to my right leg, but who’s counting.  The bees were exceedingly unhappy with me, and would not let up in their defense of the colony.  Six of them made the ultimate sacrifice.  I went ahead, with great haste, and looked into box 4 to see if it was full of comb.  Box 4 was unexpectedly found to be empty of comb, so as quickly as prudence would allow, I replaced the hive on the floor, returning the colony to its original arrangement, without having added the 5th box.  After putting some distance between ourselves and the hive, Nathan and I discussed the need to put the roof back on the hive.  I thought it would be no problem, because with the quilt in place the hive is closed up, from the bees point of view.  I got within about 30 or 40 feet before they renewed their attack.  Discretion being the better part of valor, Nathan replaced the roof on the hive.

A reasonable person might ask, “well, dummy, how is it that you got stung with the bee suit on?”  And, that would be a great question.  The answer is that I did not properly don the bee suit, while Nathan did, and he escaped unscathed. In short, the top of my head was exposed, and there was another vulnerability in my preparations where the bee suit met my boots (see picture below).

I got lucky at the June install of boxes 3 and 4

The picture is from the June install of boxes 3 and 4, and it is exactly as I was also ill-prepared for the install of box 5.  If I had been wearing a hat, and if I had better secured my pant legs at my boots, I would not have been stung. Still, I was amazed at how quickly the bees found the gaps in my protection; it took only seconds, and very few of those.

By the time we got back the house Geri had two Benedryl capsules at the ready, and I took them immediately.  Then I asked her to get her tweezers, which she did, and she pulled four stingers out of my head, while Nathan pointed out where he had seen bees burrowing into my hair, and another two out of my right leg, just above my boot.  I do not know if pulling the stingers out is supposed to help, intuitively it seems like the right thing to do, but I do know that within a half hour I felt just fine.  Aside from a little itching, there has been no lasting discomfort.

All involved got a large dose of adrenalin for the day.  Which reminds me, we have stocked our medicine cabinet with two EpiPens to treat anaphylaxis if necessary (Epi is short for epinephrine, which is another word for adrenalin).  Obviously I am not allergic to bee stings, but we occasionally have guests who are, and it seems like a good idea for beekeepers to have EpiPens available.

Another lesson learned is that I need to find a mechanically advantaged method for lifting the hive off of the floor, it is simply too risky to be doing it by hand.  I could easily have panicked and dropped the hive boxes full of honey and bees.  I will be doing some research on how others are adding boxes to their Warré hives.  More generally speaking, it was yet another humbling reminder of how much I have to learn.

Did you know?  “…about 50 U.S. physicians report good results using <bee venom> to treat not only pain but arthritic conditions, multiple sclerosis, and other health woes.”

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— John, 11 August 2014