The Voice of the South

About Stings
By: Jeff Harris

As the Winter season progresses and my bee work is slowing down a bit, I think about funny things that people say and do when discovering that I am a beekeeper. The two most common questions are usually asked within the first few minutes in these conversations. The first – Do you ever get stung? – seems to be the most ridiculous question. If I am feeling a little mischievous, I will say that I never get stung because one of the first things that beekeepers learn is the telepathic control of bees. We are all like Idgie the beekeeper in the film Fried Green Tomatoes.

After a short pause, the often perplexed look turns into scornful cynicism when the person realizes that I was just kidding them, cued by my inability to hide smirks of amusement at his or her gullibility. After acknowledging that I was just teasing, the person often proceeds to the second question – How many stings have you gotten stung in your life? Still in a playful mood, I have been known to say that I am at 365,405 stings and counting. The resulting glare from my companion tells me that I have probably pushed things a little too far. The honest answer (that I have no idea how many times that I have been stung) is usually met with mild disbelief. Like, how could I possibly not know how many times that I have been stung?

The almost universal experience of the pain from a bee sting is felt by beekeepers and non-beekeepers alike, and the willingness of beekeepers to work with the offending animal is something that many non-beekeepers cannot understand. I explain that good beekeepers learn to work bees in manners that minimize the number of stings received. Additionally, some beekeepers develop a mental toughness that blocks the pain of stings as they work. Let’s face it, most beekeepers do not have time to stop and remove every sting received, and more often than not, work continues unhindered as stings are delivered by the bees.

New beekeepers can be particularly awed by seeing an experienced beekeeper work without veil and gloves. I cannot count how times I have spoken to a group of new beekeepers – all of them dressed in the cleanest white coveralls and the brightest new yellow bee gloves – without wearing any protective equipment myself. Of course, I am showing off my comfort at being around bees knowing of the crowd’s apprehension of actually reaching into a hive for the first time. The event is often highlighted by my mild or total non-response to an incidental sting. Murmurs of “did he just get stung” ripple through the crowd as I continue talking without hesitation about whatever aspect of beekeeping that I was explaining.

It is during these times that I like to freak my audience out by saying that I actually enjoy the feeling in my hands within an hour or so of receiving many stings. I know they are thinking, “this guy is nuts.” However, I explain that although bee venom by design is intended to cause acute pain and inflammation, my body seems to respond with compensatory physiological mechanisms that actually reduce pain and inflammation up to several hours after receiving stings. My hands actually feel warm, and my fingers feel nimble. Most look at me in total disbelief.

What I do not tell them is that I once had the same apprehension that they are feeling. I once wore those clean white coveralls and bright yellow gloves for my first two years as a beekeeper. I gradually realized that my soiled gloves caused many more stings than they were worth, and I finally “pulled the band aid” and went gloveless as a young teen. My confidence increased slowly over time – and then I decided to work with a commercial beekeeper one summer.

The most acute pain that I ever felt in my life occurred the first time we took honey from 120 colonies one morning. The bees starting snooping, and robbing became a real threat by the time we finished pulling the supers. Bees stung my hands with every super that I pried from a hive and carried to load on the truck. I was miserable! The next day, my hands were back into my gloves but barely (my gloves almost did not fit my swollen hands). This fact did not go unnoticed by my boss who chided me for being a bit of a sissy.

Do You Ever Get Stung?

Eventually, the gloves came off and stayed off even when we were taking honey from the bees. However, my boss still poked fun at me for leaving the apiary to urinate. We drank lots of coffee, and eventually I would need to pee while we were working in a beeyard. I almost always walked tens of yards from the beeyard, or I would hide behind some protective trees away from the bees.

One day my boss decided to teach me a special technique that permitted him to urinate beside the truck that was usually parked in the apiary. He also used the technique to drink water or cola under his veil even when the bees were a little “pissy.” His pearl of wisdom was to hold one hand over his head and flail it through the air while taking care of business (drinking or urinating) with the other. He said, “Bees will target the moving hand, and they won’t sting you anywhere near your sensitive regions.” My response was, “Right. No thanks. I will walk 50 yards away.” I had grown accustomed to my boss playing tricks on me, and I just knew this must be one of those times.

I Once Had The Same Apprehension New Beekeepers Have

He continued to practice the technique over the next few outings, and I came to the understanding that he actually felt like the method afforded him adequate protection. Then one day I noticed him standing on the other side of the truck with his one hand flailing. I was about to ask him for help in lifting a hive, but decided to wait on him to finish before I bothered him. I turned to do another task when I heard a loud groan coming from his direction. I looked in time to see him double over in pain. I laughed immediately and exclaimed, “I guess that it does not work every time.” I could not understand his grumbling in response, but I could not help from laughing for many, many minutes. I never saw him flailing his hands after that day.

I told this story to a new graduate student who has only recently worked bees for the first time. I just wanted her to get a sense of what a universal experience it is to be stung by bees. One of the best ways to deal with an unpleasant experience is to laugh about it, and I found the story to be funny. She did not find it as amusing as when I had experienced it as a kid, but I did detected a hint of a smile that she tried hiding from me. Quite remarkably, she actually was comfortable working bees without gloves from her first day onward.

However, I think that I have detected her own special defense against stinging bees. Maybe it is my imagination, but when bees become somewhat defensive, I find her standing slightly behind me. It reminds me of a cartoon that I had seen once in which a skinny beekeeper (she weighs 96 lbs.) stood shielded behind an obese beekeeper. Of course, she will probably deny the accusation, but I am onto her!

Jeff Harris is the Extension/Research Apiculturist in the Department of Entomolog at MS State University.