When Absolutely Everything Goes Wrong!

By:  William Powers

Lessons Learned The Hard Way

Mentoring new beekeepers is one of the few aspects of the science that provides a sense of contentment to an apiarist. Helping humans make the successful transfer from classroom to the beeyard is both a teaching moment and a personal refresher course as the newbee poses questions about aspects of beekeeping we may have all but forgotten. It’s rewarding to talk about what is to be done and stand back and let the work proceed, ready to step in if help is needed.

This year I’m providing some mentoring to a millennial working on an organic farm in the Blue Ridge three hours from my home in the lower Piedmont. That’s where I take many of my colonies after I pull honey in late June. I learned of Tyler Huskinson after he took a local course and purchased two nucs. Springhouse Farm owner, Amy Fiedler, who had kept bees, e-mailed me when things did not seem right in one box. From what Amy said about angry behavior and little, unfilled queen cells, it seemed that the colony was queenless. That turned out to be the case, and she helped him get a free replacement queen from the seller.

We decided that when I brought my first load of bees  to the farm that we  would go through his hives if he would help me unload mine. An equitable arrangement. As we unloaded my girls he mentioned that  the  requeened  hive still was pretty testy about human interactions. So we saved it for our last action that day.

The first of his two hives smelled sweet and was indifferent to our visit without our using any smoke. Staying smokeless, we approached the second colony. Because my perspiration pheromones trigger attacks, I nearly always have to wear gloves and helmet. By wearing the full gear, I often don’t use smoke – I just work slow. Tyler had been encouraged to work with bare hands, and was determined to do that. But this was his first trip into a colony without using the smoker. When he opened the inner cover, the again queenless bees rose with the usual roar and sharp scent and went right after his hands. He tried to stay calm and focused, but when his hands were covered with stinging bees, pain superseded the plan. He retreated while I confirmed the lack of eggs, larva and brood. I closed the box and found him with hands swelling to twice their normal size. Three days of pain followed as using hands is an essential part of work on an organic farm. It was a hard lesson for him to learn. But now he knows that bee gloves have been manufactured for centuries because they have a purpose. From now on, if things seem funky he will light the smoker and put on the gloves to determine what’s going on in there.

A few days later we talked about requeening again, but Tyler decided that a merger was a better way to go. The honey flow was on, and the extra bees would boost collection in the happy hive. He also figured the calmer queen would take the edginess off the queenless group. We discussed the procedure and he did it by himself, seemingly flawlessly.

Some three weeks later, with the honey flow finished, I visited Amy’s again. I brought up some supers in case some colonies needed extra room, but the pressing need was to treat all the bees for Varroa. Tyler and I would look at his colony, too – as it was still pretty chippy about human interactions.

It rained the night before I left, so I didn’t load the supers till morning. Then, a few early odds and ends tasks made me decide to wait until rush hour was over before departure. Getting underway, I heard on the traffic report of some Charlotte construction backup on my normal route, so opted for one with no congestion. Of course, after the radio report and before the next one, a wreck blocked one lane on my alternative route. The net result being that I arrived at noon, not nine.

As I pulled up to the row of hives Tyler was waiting. I know the farm crew eats together. I felt time pressure to work with him first so he could get to beans. As I zippered together my bee suit and hood, I decided we could save a few minutes if I used a new trick I devised to distract the bees while I added medication. On the bees in my apiary, instead of using smoke, I had been gently wafting some BeeGo or BeeQuick over a colony. While they cursed, complained and retreated I did my work.

So I grabbed the spray, my hive tool and walked toward his hive. I did a mild double take as I saw he had a hive body over two supers and another hive body. Rather than have him do the spraying and opening, I asked him just to take charge of rearranging the woodenware. I would take the hive apart to look for queen and add meds. I pulled the top cover and let go with two pumps of spray before removing the inner cover. The response was the usual roar of disgust and hasty exodus from the top boxes. Barely pausing to put down the spray, I pulled off the top box while bees were still in retreat. I kept going. Bees were dropping out of the bottom of supers as I handed them to Tyler. When I got to the bottom hive body, I dug right in with my hive tool and pulled a frame. I saw no queen activity, so I pulled another. Frustrated, I pried another one side and saw comb beautifully filled with capped brood.

As I said out loud “Good news” I also found out how far one can push the bees with a push of spray. As I saw the brood, the bees stopped their withdrawal and turned to fight. A rage of bees came up out of that hive body like a Polaris missile out of nuclear sub! And they saw what I had not noticed. In my rush to get to work, I had not completely zipped my suit together and there was a tennis ball sized hole right under my chin that they were pouring through. They exploded in my helmet like a cluster bomb!

With gloves on, I could not zip the opening closed, and certainly did not want to seal every bee in with me. I started to walk away – and then run! I was trying to pull off my gloves at the same time I was trying to swat bees inside my helmet – an impossible challenge. I was now 30 yards from the hive and still bees kept coming after me, and any that got inside my gear were stinging. Tyler was chasing me, trying to use the spray to drive off  the bees, but they were not having it.

Somehow, I found myself on my knees pulling gloves and suit off over my head – turning gear inside out. Hoping they would stay on the clothing, I ran toward the barn. But the bees knew their target – saw I was even more vulnerable – and stayed after head and hands.

I did not know what I would do next, but one of the lads working on repairing a chain saw, picked up a hose and started to spray my head with icy cold well water. This stream subdued the armada of bees. But my savior paid for his heroism with a sting or two.

With the stinging stopped, I now could think. But I had to think fast as the pain was mounting from pricks to a wall of hurt. I realized getting into Amy’s barn was where I needed to be. That place is the coldest place in the county. It is also dark in there. Bees don’t often venture into cold, dark places. I hoped I just might be safe in there.

Staggering past tools and packing supplies at the barn door, I found Amy and her crew waiting for me. One had an ice pack. One had two tabs of Benedril. One had an aspirin. And one sat me on a bale of hay, and wielded a big kitchen knife to scrape out stingers. What I thought was a barn was actually an emergency room staffed by caring angels. I moaned and groaned and tried to explain what had happened and that it was my fault and it had nothing to do with Tyler’s bees.

In 10 minutes time the pain and swelling were walled off by the medicine, and the stingers were gone, except for the one in the roof of my mouth – no kitchen knife was going in there!

The crew drifted back to their lunch and I assessed what I needed to do next. I still had varroa to deal with, so I walked to where I left my gear. Bees were still hovering around the jacket and came after me as soon as I got near. I retreated to the barn where I decided I needed to get the bee venom scent off my head. Amy has an outdoor shower where I made a very soapy wash followed by a poor rinse. That soapy scent helped as I retrieved and donned my gear. I walked back to my truck checking and double checking I was properly attired to work with bees.

Then, in the most traditional way, I lit the smoker and started in with the Varroa treatments. Tyler showed up and we got the job done with no trouble from any colony. We even added a few supers to my girls. Well, except Tyler decided he would do his colony the next day, and having not an iota of macho man remaining, I made no objection. I got out of my gear and drove back to the barn. I wanted to thank everyone again, but a minivan loaded with pre-schoolers arrived and I noticed bees hovering around the supers still in the truck bed. I decided to avoid putting the kids in harm’s way. I drove to the road, changed out of my sweat soaked tee and started the long drive home.

As I drove I reflected on what a hard lesson I brought upon myself. I let time pressure rush me into careless preparation, I took a practice that worked in a simple setting and pushed it beyond its limits. I had no plan to follow if anything went wrong. A triple failure for a 20 year veteran of the beeyard. Very, very pitiful!

After driving 15 minutes, I knew I needed to regain some energy. I started to look for some food. With a swollen face, I did not want to go into a store or restaurant. So I made a rare stop at a fast food drive through window. I got a couple of basic burgers and a large coke. The burgers were soft on my swollen lips and in my sore mouth, and the caffeine in the soda off set some of the drowsiness of the Benedryl.

I was in no mood for music or talk or rushing along the road. So I drove along at posted speed as cars and trucks sped around me. My legal drive got me to Charlotte in time to join the evening rush hour. For me, at that moment, going along at slow speed or stop-and-go was much better than weaving through high speed inner belt traffic. I finally turned on the radio, and heard a sports report about some upcoming fight. Thinking of boxing, and what had transpired at the farm, I recalled what the referee says to the fighters just before the first bell – and how I should embrace it, “Gentlemen, protect yourselves at all times.”

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