Category Archives: honeybees

The War Between Fear and Common Sense

Phobias, by their nature, are stupid.  They are effectively emotion overriding common sense.  Compared to the number of automobile accidents in a given year, airplanes have a much higher safety record, yet people are still terrified to fly.  Others cannot stand heights, even if there are numerous precautions that prevent you from going over the side of the Empire State Building.   

No matter how much you show yourself or others the numbers, be they statistics or simple facts, a phobia will almost always win the fight. 

But sometimes you can learn to live with and eventually overcome them. 

My first recollection of bees wasn’t a positive one.  According to my mother, a neighborhood pal convinced me that bee stings would kill me.  Being 3 or 4 at the time, her words were the Gospel.  Never mind the fact that I wasn’t allergic to stings, the seed was planted. 

Soon after my friend altered my perception I stepped on a bee in my front yard.  My reaction was nothing short of horrified. 

Thus began my fear of bees.

The terror of stings continued over the course of my life.  There was the time when I was ten and a friend and I were walking in the woods of my family home.  We disturbed a ground-bees nest and attacked immediately.  We were stung several times and raced to the safety of the indoors.  While standing in the kitchen, sobbing and shaking and being consoled by my mother, I noticed a ground bee (aka: yellow jacket) circling my feet.  With a scream, I ran upstairs and barricaded myself in my room to include shoving a towel in the crack under to door to prevent the bee from following me.  I spent the rest of the day locked in my room, stricken with fear. 

There are other stories.  Our Husky getting into a ground bees nest while walking the property that became the future family homestead.  Disturbing a nest while inspecting a tree house at a home my parents were thinking of buying in Alaska.  Stepping on a nest during Marine Corps officer training.  Having a hornet accidentally fly down my shirt while driving with the window open. 

As I grew older, my outward reaction decreased, but the internal reaction remained the same: uncontrollable fear.  A fear based on a childhood conversation long lost in the file-cabinets of my mind, but remembered on a sub-conscious, instinctive level.  Common sense dictated that stings, while painful, were not fatal, yet there was no convincing my conscious mind of that fact. 

Why then, was there any desire to get into beekeeping?  I wish it was based on an initial desire to overcome my fear, but the reality is far less impressive:  I was wooed by the science of honeybees.  That fascination grew into education and the more I learned, less intimidating they became.

But educating myself did not completely cure my fear and even now, after years of keeping bees, I occasionally feel the rise of panic when things get busy in the hive.  That being said, the fact that the hive and it’s 60,000 some-odd inhabitants does not terrify me anymore is a personal milestone.  Having spent time with honeybees up close, I now understand their nature more than I did when I was 4 and that, more than anything, is reason enough not to fear their sting.

One caveat: as of this posting, I’ve yet to be stung by my girls.  I am still fearful of the day when, not if, it happens, but experience has helped me overcome the irrational fears and follow a road I would never have taken years ago.

Lessons learned from experience:

Honeybees, unlike hornets, wasps, and yellow jackets, are not aggressive.  Unless you threaten the hive or attempt to squash one in your hand, they won’t normally attack. There may be times when they get extra defensive (i.e. late summer as the nectar flow winds to a close, evening when more bees are in the hive, rainy days, etc), but by and large, the hive usually has more important things on its mind.  Mine barely notices me when I work it.

Honeybees are curious.  Pop the top on a hive and you’ll have hundreds of girls come out to see what’s going on.  If it’s chilly, they’ll take a break on your suit to warm up.  They like to investigate, will bump your veil to say “hello” and will wiggle into cuffs, under shirts, or up your sleeves if able.  Slow movements and a keen eye for where they are keeps everyone happy.

Stings kill the bee, therefore it is a last-ditch option.  Given a choice, their natural reaction in “the wild” (aka more than 20 or so feet from the hive) is to run.  Foragers are usually more concerned with getting the nectar or pollen they’ve harvested back to the hive than they are trying to sting you.

In the end, it’s hard to explain a fear to yourself.  Rational thought and common sense usually take a back seat to inexplicable emotions.  But with a little education and a willingness to take a risk, you may open the door to a fascinating new hobby.

The Population Boom

Since Spring is just around the corner, now is the time to prepare for the inevitable population explosion that your hive will experience once temperatures remain above 50 degrees.  Depending on your breed of bee, the speed of this boom will vary.  Carniolans (which I keep), maintain a small cluster but explode in a short period of time while Italians, who have a larger winter cluster, are slower by comparison.  No matter which ones you keep, your girls will run out of room unless you’re ready.  The key to providing them the space they need is your woodenware. 

Several lessons learned from past seasons and the population boom are:

1) Have a lot of spare supers and frames.  If you think you need 7 supers this year, you’ll actually need 10.  Between the sudden build-up of bees, wear and tear on supers/frames, and your annual swap of foundation, you’ll run out of gear quickly. 

2) New foundation.  It is generally recommended to swap out comb every two to three years.  If you started a hive of brand new foundation last year, you may want to swap 30% of the comb out this season.  That way you are always changing only 1/3 of the comb which is easier for you and the bees.  An easy way to keep track of foundation is to write the year you install it on the topbar of the frame. 

3) Repair/Repaint: 99% of supers and frames are made out of pine these days.  It’s a fast-growing wood which means it’s light as well, but also not very durable.  If you painted or stained the exterior of the super, you’ll have more life out of it, however pine will never be as durable as oak or hickory.  That being said, make sure to check your supers and frames for wear and tear.  Pay special attention to the bottom board since it takes the worst beating from the elements.  Replace, repair, or repaint whatever needs fixin’.

4) Chow: Spring will bring lots of new pollen for the girls and they’ll spend the first few weeks restocking the larder.  You can help them with some pollen patties placed on the inner cover.  I try not to use too much since I’d rather they learn to deal with what’s available, but every now and then it’s okay to give them a little boost. 

5) Swarms: At this point, the queen is back to laying eggs which means in a few weeks, you’ll have a lot more girls inside the hive than you do now.  Given another couple of weeks and the population will rapidly be on the rise.  That being said, the bees will be loading spare cells with pollen, nectar, etc, and will run out of room quickly.  Lack of space will likely drive them to swarm, so keeping ahead of them with supers is key.  Make sure they have plenty of room (without adding too much) and check the bottom of the frames for swarm cells (queen cells which look like peanut shells).  It’s very difficult to convince the hive it doesn’t need to swarm once they’ve made up their mind to do so, therefore staying ahead of the ballgame is key. 

Despite the cold and snow, now is the time to make sure your girls have everything they need for the population boom they’ll experience in the next two months.  Proper planning will help minimize issues and keep them happy.  And happy bees will make you a happy keeper.