Living in Harmony with Honey Bees

How I think about honey bees

It is interesting – and to be expected, I guess – that there are almost as many ways to think about the bees themselves as there are approaches to beekeeping.  There are some commercial beekeepers, dependent upon honey production for their livelihood, that view their bees as livestock; they manage their bees in order to push honey production to the maximum, even killing the queens in colonies that are poor producers, and re-queening those colonies with a new queen that they hope will provide the genetics to build a population of more prolific honey producers.

At the other end of the spectrum are beekeepers who view their bees as pets, loving them and looking for ways to dote on them like we might dote on a dog or a cat.  And, there are some hobbyist beekeepers who view their bees as the subject of an ongoing science experiment.

Of course, there is also everything in between.  Let me be clear that I do not mean to imply any kind of judgement here, I am merely describing my own observations.

You may occasionally hear someone refer to honey bees as “domesticated.”  I, personally, do not have that perspective.  A bee-centered beekeeper or hive host realizes and respects that honey bees are wild animals, and that the best we can do for them is to provide the healthiest, most natural habitat in a fixed location.  This includes both the cavity that they live in and the forage that surrounds them.  After that, a bee-centered beekeeper will largely leave the bees alone to do their work in the world.  We are stewards of honey bees as part of our holistic approach to caring for the earth.  That’s my perspective and where I’m coming from as a beekeeper.

How to observe honey bees

One of my favorite activities is to sit in a camping chair, several feet from my hives, and watch the bees come and go.  I have seen some absolutely amazing things (you can see some of these documented on my blog LittleMountainTownBeekeeper.wordpress.com).

If you want to observe your honey bees coming and going at their hive, here’s what I would suggest:

  • Bring a folding chair so that you can sit and relax.
  • Approach the hive from the side, and sit at an angle from the entrance; you do not want to sit directly facing the entrance because you don’t want to be in the flight line of the bees.
  • Sit 12 or so feet away so that you do not disturb them.
  • Bring a beverage and plan to spend at least 20 minutes.  Relax.  Breathe.  Be still.  Observe.
  • Bring a pair of binoculars that will focus at 12 feet so that you can look closely at what’s happening at the entrances to the hive.  Watch for them returning with the pollen baskets on their back legs full of pollen.

How to help avoid being stung

Remember that a honey bee worker sacrifices her life when she stings.  She is aware of her value to the colony and will not sacrifice her life unless that sacrifice is in the best interest of the colony.  Another time that she may sting is when she is individually being injured.

To help avoid being stung, here’s what I would suggest:

  • Give your honey bees their space at all times.
  • Be careful not to walk right through their flight lines.  This includes in front of the hive, but may also include a beeline between their favorite water source and their hive.
  • Do not work in a flower bed, or in an orchard, at the same time that honey bees are also actively working there.  Either do your work in the early morning, before the bees start flying, or at dusk, after the bees have returned to their hive for the night.  Or, wait until the blooms are off the plants and the bees have moved on to other forage.

If a honey bee is buzzing around you, do not swat at it or wave your hands/arms in the air.  This actually increases the chances of being stung.  Instead, turn and walk calmly in the opposite direction from the hive until the bee leaves you.

If a honey bee lands on you, do not attempt to swat it.  Even if you are successful in killing her, you will probably get stung in the process anyway.  Instead, turn and walk calmly in the opposite direction of the hive until the bee leaves you.  While doing so, you might want to take that opportunity to view her up close.  She’s absolutely beautiful.

What to do immediately upon being stung

A honey bee worker has a barbed stinger like a fish hook.  After she stings, she will fly away and the stinger, along with some of her internal parts, will remain behind.  Because she leaves all of this behind, the bee will shortly die from this injury.

bee leavning stinger behind

Attached to the top of the stinger will be the venom sack, and attached to the venom sack will be a group of involuntary muscles that continue to pump venom through the stinger.

bee-stinger-venom-sack

So, if you’re stung, you want to remove the stinger immediately.  BUT, do not pinch the stinger to grasp it and pull it out.  If you do so, you will squeeze the venom sack and inject all of the venom into you.

Instead, scrape the stinger off from the side.  Use a finger nail, key, credit card, pocket knife, twig… whatever is handy.  The idea is to scrape the stinger out of your skin, as quickly as possible, without squeezing the venom sack.

What you might do to relieve symptoms after being stung

I am not giving medical advice here.  This is purely anecdotal based on my own personal experience.

People have various reactions to bee stings.  For myself, there is pain at first which I can often relieve with an icepack.  After that, for me, there is a couple of days of itching exactly like a mosquito bite.  And, there is usually local swelling.  But, I have a friend who, when stung, gets a tiny little red mark like a freckle; no pain, no itching, and the next day it’s gone.

However, your reaction may be different from either of those.  If there’s swelling, you might consider taking an antihistamine that you already know works well in your body.  You can google remedies for honey bee stings and see what seems to sound right for you and your body chemistry.

However, if you feel dizzy, or short of breath, you should immediately be taken to a hospital. This is extremely rare, but it would be irresponsible of me not to mention it.

What you might do, preemptively, to potentially reduce your reaction to honey bee stings

I recently spent a few days with Ross Conrad of Dancing Bee Gardens in Middlebury, Vermont.  Ross was trained by Charles Mranz, a world-renowned beekeeper who is considered the father of modern apitherapy.  Apitherapy is the use of honey bee products, including bee sting venom, for human health and healing.  Ross was telling me that it is possible for some people to preemptively reduce their potential reaction to honey bee stings by taking a product called Apis Mellifica.  This can be purchased at Sunshine Market, in Salida, and perhaps at other natural food stores in the area. 

apis-mellifica-6c-by-boiron-extra1

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