Bee Stings

Let’s talk about stings ‘secretly”, just so you can maintain your superior masculinity and nobody will ever know that you hate to get stung. Get stung, it makes you more appreciative of your expertise after you learn to work your bees using little or no protective clothing and getting FEW or NO stings! Don’t lose faith now – let me teach you how to enjoy your bees, and make you feel 9’ tall! Get rid of all those anthropomorphic ideas about bees, and depend on your knowledge of bee behavior gained from your understanding of the genetic stimuli of apis mellifera provided by their Maker.

Let me put all that in “plain talk”. Since our honeybee is a social insect in contrast to being individualistic, it’s whole emphasis in life is based upon colony survival rather than self survival; but I believe that she accepts her own death if need be to accomplish this genetic goal.

Hence, she is not aggressive, daring you, the beekeeper, or even a mother mouse building a nest in the brood chamber. However, she accepts her own death if need be to defend the colony. hence, the genetic behavior of a bee is non-aggressive but very defensive of the colony. I do not have to explain to you the importance of the senses of sight, smell, and touch to we humans. Are not they at least the same for bees with some variation?

The chief sense of a bee is ODOR (smell) rather than sight. It finds the clover bloom or tulip poplar big yellow flower NOT by sight, but by the odor of the nectar. A worker bee feels secure way up in a super by the smell of queen pheromone coming from the brood chamber below, not by sight and in the dark too. Perhaps you have smoke alarms in your house (check the batteries). In the dark, you would know if your partner peeled a banana, wouldn’t you?

One of the many chemicals of bee venom is isopentyl acetate, like oil of banana, and when a bee leaves a sting in you, your gloves, your pants,etc, the other bees think to themselves: “One of my sisters is in trouble and had to sting something – I better dash off to there and standby to give help if needed to protect our society, the colony!” In the dark as well as light – no difference. At the risk of you thinking I am anthropomorphic (I am not), let me ask you how you feel by being squeezed, slapped at, stepped on, or having a blanket thrown on you head.

How do you imagine a bee feels if you slap at it because it is buzzing your nose, or squeezed as you move a frame around in the hive, or get its wing or legs caught up in the long fibers of your beautiful wool sweater. Further, I don’t imagine you are Babe Ruth with a baseball if you had lousy eyesight. In spite of the fact that our bee has five eyes (hope you knew), they don’t see SLOW movement very well, you (particularly your hands) should always be in first gear and surely don’t wear red clothes in the apiary, because being red blind, they will bump right into you.

Take 5 and get a coke to give yourself strength for the next part. You gotta know these things and use the knowledge to enjoy your bees as you work them in your bathing suit. I need you to put on these demonstrations since I can’t perform very well with these blasted strokes. It is our JOB to convince the public of the importance of bees and their safety.

Why does EAS and Montgomery County Fair ruin your vacation by scheduling their events in late July and August? Not only are those months generally poor honey production months, but it is hot and humid. With no nectar flow, plus hot and humid weather, bees don’t go out foraging very enthusiastically plus they would have a hard time curing that nectar into honey in hot, humid conditions..

Hence, bees are “home” and “cranky”, so rather you working them at the wrong time and getting stung, it is better for you to go to EAS and the county fair to learn more yourself and for you to explain the wonders of beekeeping to the public. How much do you know about botany, that is the science of plants?

A good beekeeper is aided by having a working knowledge of botany. For example, what time of day, or under what circumstances, does a plant yield nectar? Morning? Afternoon? All day? Bright sun, cloudy drought, after rain?

You might ask “SO WHAT?” When foragers are home, the colony is crowded, and you are going to accidentally crush bees and set off a sting alarm, not to mention having difficulty seeing things easily because the frames are crowded with bees. Didn’t you get mad with the crowds when Christmas shopping? Speaking of shopping, I’ll bet you and yours have wonderful expensive “smelly-stuff” like perfume hair spray, deodorant, after shave, fancy soap, powder and even chewing gum. Wonderful for you, but are any of these smells naturally found in nature? Perhaps, although delightful to you, they might be offensive to a bee and looked upon as a colony threat. Hence, the defensive attitude rears its head and you get stung because you wore Chanel #5 perfume or Old Spice Aftershave lotion.

Here is more education for you: your exhaled breath contains carbon dioxide, which can be used as an anesthesia for bees, and since they don’t like it, they become aggressive. This is why a bee constantly “flits’ around your face, because it is aggressively aroused. Remember that the next time you think about moving bees by blowing your breath on them.

If you want to look for eggs or small larvae in brood cells covered by bees, forget breath blowing, just but your bare fingers on the bees over the cells you want to inspect, and they will nicely move away from your fingers particularly if they smell natural (soiled with propolis). I am still on the subject of STINGS, so keep reading.

What I am about to say is not “old wives Tales or the reasonings of some old non science trained by his Daddy beekeeper, but the thoughts of maybe the world’s greatest medical allergists, Drs. Golden (retired) and Valentine of Johns Hopkins Research Hospital. The number of truly allergic humans to bee stings is less than 0.1% (almost zero). When you are stung on your finger and your arm swells up to your elbow or even your shoulder, that is NOT an allergic reaction but rather it indicates that your immune system is working well, and beekeepers should get stung in order to build a natural tolerance to the sting.

Most allergists mention 250 stings per year as a good number. A bad situation can innocently happen, as it did to me. I started beekeeping in Bethesda in 1933 (before most of you were born) and got a lot of stings through my clothes, under my veil, through my gloves and mostly with no protection because there was nobody to teach me as I teach you. Swelling got less and less as the years marched by and I soon said it was too hot for a bee suit and a veil and I couldn’t mark a queen with gloves on, so after about 15 or 20 years, I rarely used any bee clothes, and because I became a better and better beekeeper. I wasn’t getting very many stings from my 30-40 hives until May, 1963 (30 years since I started).

I was experimenting with a SHAKE-SWARM and suddenly got 30-40 stings and went into anaphylatic shock. Suburban Hospital gave me adrenalin and I went home the next day, told to STOP BEEKEEPING!! I went to see Dr. Golden at John Hopkins who desensitized me with a massive series of injections of diluted venom and he described my problem: As I become a better beekeper, I got less stings and my anti-venom titer fell too low, so that when i get a bunch of stings at once, my body reacted to shock. The treatment was: Get more stings. Maybe a sting a day, even in winter. Diabetics (my wife) have to take insulin shots every day.

Why can’t I take a sting a day? I do! I know that I have gone to the extreme, but it works. I enjoy my bees and I don’t get hot with all that protective clothes. Approaching the end of this long epistle, in watching, teaching, and training beehavers over these many years I can safely conclude that 95% of their bee problems stem from one principle reason followed by perhaps just two secondary reasons: The principal reason for poor beekeeping and gettin stung is the FAILURE to accept and understand anthropomorhism and genetic bee behavior. The two secondary reasons attributing to poor management and being stung are cloaking yourself with protective gear and then trying to handle the bees with total disregard for nature’s way and hence forcing them into defensive posture of stinging for colony protection.

The purpose of an alarm pheromne is to summon help from other bees to protect the colony. When a beeHAVER wears gloves to avoid stings, what happens when he carelessly crushes a bee, or moves too abruptly that he dares the bee to sting?

His glove is suddenly covered by the odor of isopentyl acetate which encourages other bees to help by stinging. The other secondary reason for being stung is ignoring natural bee behavior by moving TOO FAST (they can detect fast movement), wearing offensive (to a bee) smells, colors and fabrics; and don’t forget they are worked at convenience of man’s time (like after work or a cloudy Saturday) rather than on bee time (like when foragers are out in the field nectar collecting). I will end this by perhaps offering you (the truth that hurts) when I say: just as “dirty hands are a part of farming” and “greasy hands are part of auto repair”, “bee stings of the hands are part of beekeeping”: and he who tries to avoid stings by protective clothing rather than minimizing the number of stings by having a good knowledge of genetics and bee behavior will always be a beeHAVER and never gain enjoyment of being a good beeKEEPER.

If I have bored you, although you are the loser, I apologize. If you say, “wowee, I am scared, but George, I have watched you handle bees and seen your enjoyment as you told the public about the importance of honey bee pollination to our human stomachs, so I am going to try to learn and become a KEEPER instead of a HAVER”, you have just made my day!!!

George Imirie
Certified EAS Master Beekeeper

Scroll to Top