Friday, September 22, 2017
The first “bee” I remember meeting was when I was pretty young. It apparently was not happy to meet me and showed its displeasure by stinging me. My mother called it a sweat bee and told me if I didn’t bother it, it would not bother me. After that I made it a point to give them a wide berth and all was well.
My youngest brother, Duane, was not as willing to leave them alone. When he was about five, a young man who visited the house showed off his favorite trick — sneaking up on a honey bee and grabbing it by the wings so he could look at it without getting stung. Duane could hardly wait to try it. It wasn’t long before he came into the house crying that he had been stung. “Were you bothering the bees?” Mom asked.
“No! I was only going to pick it up by its wings,” he answered.
“Well don’t try to hold the bees!”
“OK” he answered, as he went back out to play.
Five minutes later he was back in the house, howling that a bee had stung him. “Did you bother the bees? I told you to leave them alone!” my mother said.
“I didn’t try to pick up the bee,” my affronted brother answered. “I only kicked it with my foot.”
That was pretty much my whole interaction with bees until I was an adult…an adult with a spouse who decided to become a beekeeper. I soon became a bit more knowledgable about what a bee was. Honey bees are a thing not to be confused with bumble bees, wasps, hornets, yellow jackets or various other stinging insects. Some varieties of honey bee are more aggressive than others. Before I knew it we were the owners of 20 hives of bees.
When Roger worked with the bees, he usually wore his bee suit for protection but sometimes the bees just didn’t seem to care that we were around. If he needed to pull honey frames out of the hives, he usually used his smoker on the bees which made them pretty docile.
Because we lived in Alaska, bees didn’t overwinter very well, so every Spring we received screen covered boxes of bees with a special container for the queen bee inside. Roger worked at the main post office in Anchorage at the time and soon became known as the man to contact if there was a bee problem. More than once he made the hour-long drive home with boxes of bees, always with a few loose ones crawling around on the back window. He sometimes got strange looks from passing motorists.
In spite of wearing a bee suit, stings were not uncommon. It seemed like he almost became immune to the stings after a while and would not react as strongly as he did at first.
Sometimes when the hives got too crowded, the bees would swarm and try to go off to make a new colony. Then he would put another super on the hive with new frames for the bees to fill, or start a new hive.
The bees feasted all of the short Alaskan summer on fireweed which made a wonderful, light honey. In the Fall, because they could not overwinter, he’d vacuum the bees up into his shop vac. One year he decided all those little bee bodies would be good fertilizer for our greenhouse, so he dumped them all in there. Who knew that that many dead bees could stink so bad or be potent enough to kill the tomato plants?
With the bees gone, we could pull out the frames of honey. With a heated knife we skimmed off the wax on the top surface of the honey combs and then placed the frames, two at a time, in the extractor. The children loved to help spin the extractor which made the honey come out of the combs with centrifugal force. At the bottom of the extractor was a spigot where the honey came out.
Mostly the children stayed clear of the area around the hives but Blaine did get stung at least once. Shortly after, I noticed he had a large, hard lump on his head (not where he had been stung). The doctor explained that it was a very swollen lymph node clearing the bee venom from his system.
Eventually we had to give up raising bees, not because of allergies to bee stings. but because Roger became allergic to all the pollen stored in the hives along with the honey.
One day at school, one of the teachers was reading a book to his class. It was called “A Taste of Blackberries” by Doris Buchanan Smith. It told of a young boy who was apparently highly allergic to bee stings and the impact his story had on his friends when he died as a result of a sting. It had never before crossed my mind that a bee sting could be any more than a painful inconvenience. I have heard many people since then say they are allergic to bee stings, but most of them are not. Everyone reacts with a painful, red area around the sting, but some have far more serious reactions.
Our youngest daughter was stung several times and reacted stronger than most people. On her the red area around the sting would grow quite large. At Girls Camp one year, she was stung. The nurse was concerned about how large the reddened area was becoming, so used a red pen to mark the edges of the red area so she could tell how much it was growing. She was concerned about possible cellulitus. Another sting a few years later reacted worse. The doctor advised us to keep Zyrtec or Benedryl on hand to treat her if she was stung again. In retrospect I think perhaps her mild allergy was likely one of those tender mercies as you will see later.
After we moved to Utah, through the wonders of Facebook, I was introduced to a man named Gerd Meyer. Gerd lived in Wechold, Germany, a small town that also happens to be the ancestral home of Roger’s maternal ancestors. The local church books cannot be filmed, so doing genealogy in that area of the world was difficult. Gerd was a retired scientist who developed an interest in genealogy and village history after his retirement. He led a Facebook group devoted to helping people with their ancestral roots in that town. Eventually Gerd asked his good friend, Matthias Steinke, to co-administer the group. Together they were so helpful in making genealogical connections. It was in August of 2016 that Matthias posted a sad message to the group. Gerd had been helping his daughter remove a bush from her yard when he was attacked by a swarm of wasps living under the bush. He was stung several times and quickly became unconscious and died soon after.
In the mean while, our daughter who is mildly allergic to bee venom, grew up, married and became a mother to two little girls. They are of the urban homestead persuasion, so like to do things to be a little more self sufficient. So it is that our son-in-law decided keeping bees would be a fun hobby. Because of her previous mild allergic reactions, they took the precaution of getting her an epipen in case she needed it.
They kept bees for a couple of years before moving to this area. Even their little girl had her own bee suit and enjoyed helping her dad check on the bees.
After a time, the family moved near our area and the bees even came to live in our yard while a new fence was being constructed at their house…much to the consternation of some of our neighbors, I believe. We enjoyed watching the battles between the bees and the yellow jackets and were happy to see that the bees won by the piles of dead yellow jackets outside the hives. Sadly after quite a hard winter, the bees didn’t make it, so when Spring came, they ordered new bees to start a new colony in their backyard. During the process of introducing the bees into their new home, a couple of the ungrateful little creatures stung our son-in-law. That was not particularly unusual as he’d been stung before with no problem. While he was working with the bees, the 5 year old was playing in another part of the back yard. Daughter was showering the 3 year old who had somehow gotten into the mud, when son-in-law came into the house rather agitated. He suddenly was having trouble breathing and was turning red all over. Bee allergy! This is where the tender mercies come in. I think daughter’s experiences from years past were in preparation for this exact thing. She grabbed her epipen and they used it on her husband before bundling 3 year old into pajamas and handing her to a neighbor along with asking the neighbor to find the 5 year old playing in the back yard. Then they left for the ER, where they gave him the equivalent of another epipen. He was there for a number of hours before he was deemed to be out of danger from his anaphylactic reaction.
After they called us from the hospital, we went to pick up the children and bring them to our house. The wide open garage door and the front door standing open testified to their hurry to get to the hospital. Fortunately son in law survived. He was advised to call 911 if it ever happens again.
Bees obviously have their good points and maybe a few bad points, but usually they are worthwhile for the delicious honey they provide. For most folks it is worth the risk.