FAQ: I'd like to keep bees, but I'm afraid of being stung....
> First, I am not too excited about
> getting stung, but I suppose I might be willing to
> endure the adjustment period. Second, I really do not want to develop
> allergic reactions to bee stings (nor do I desire the same for
> my children). Beekeeping seems to be such an advantage - pollination and all
> that honey, but I am just really concerned about the
> allergy problems.
In my experience, personal allergy is not likely to happen to beekeepers. I've only known a couple to ever have a problem, and I've known many hundreds of beekeepers. The only time I ever had a problem was when I was taking a pain killer drug in the ibuprofen family, and I had a systemic reaction that was similar to an allergic reaction. I suspect that many of the emergency room tales involve an interreaction between a drug and bee venom. As a beekeeper I avoid any of the drugs of the ibuprofen family. (If I were among the rare people that are truly allergic, I would run, not walk, to a compentent allergist and get the series of shots to build up my body, even if I never had any honeybee hives near.)
Beekeeper family members are more likely to have a problem than beekeepers. It is thought that venom on clothing dries and becomes crystalline dust in the home. Breathing this dust seems to be more likely to trigger allergic reactions than being stung. Family members who work bees do not have this problem. There are two solutions; one to make sure family members have an occasional sting, the other is to change clothes and wash them outside the home.
Most folks are scared of being stung, and I can't blame them. But a honeybee sting is nothing compared to a hornet or yellow jacket, and this is the frame of reference that many folks have. It's not the same thing, not even the same venom. Bee stings are designed as an irritant to drive away intruders/robbers. Your body can learn to handle it. Yellow jacket and hornet stings are nerve poisons to paralyze their prey. It doesn't seem that your body can adapt to this venom, at least not for me.
The first day I worked bees with a commercial beekeeper I got the "sink-or-swim" introduction to beekeeping. He had a reputation for mean bees, though I didn't know it at the time. Good breeding can prevent a lot of the problems with mean hives, and this beekeeper has since cleaned up his operation, getting rid of the nasty ones by culling queens and breeding gentle ones.
Anyway I got quite a few stings that day, even though I was well bundled. I was sore and a bit swollen that night, but have never had much of a problem since. Today, I welcome a few stings, because they energize me and reduce the swelling of arthritis. A lot of stings feel like the flu, aching joints and a fever. It's been several years since I've had a really bad day with the bees. Usually it involves moving a truckload of bees on a day when they should be left alone, but we can't because we are many miles from home, paying help and motel bills, etc., so the work must go on regardless of what the bees think about it.
For me, bundling up to prevent ALL stings means that I am apt to have heat exhaustion when working bees. So I work in a t-shirt and tan dickie pants. Often I wear sandels for footwear. Unless you are in a very cool part of the country, or have africanized bees, I recommend you learn to work without "spacesuits" also. You will be comfortable. You will also breed good bees, so they are not apt to chase you around too much. You will learn to not work them on days when they are apt to be grumpy. You will also learn to be gentle and calm in your work. The only stings you receive are occasional when you happen to mash one with your fingers, or when it is time to quit for the evening. I will not allow my help to bundle up for more than the first couple days either. By the third day they will have to at least remove the gloves for routine work, or they are history.... If I let them wear gloves, they will be clumsy and stir up the bees, then I get stung. If they don't wear gloves, they will learn to handle the bees correctly.
When I am stung, I have a moment of pain, which generally subsides to nothing in one or two minutes, unless is is right on my ankle bone or some areas of my neck. There is no swelling unless it is around my eyes or lips, and even there it is only minor. Usualy within a half hour, I cannot locate the site of the sting.
It is a source of amusement, sometimes irritation, that the first question I get whenever folks find out I'm a beekeeper is: "Don't they sting you?" Of course they do. But that is only a minor part of beekeeping, and certainly not the important part. If bees did not sting, they could not survive, because they store away the golden treasure of summer sunshine (energy), and every creature wants to steal it.
If you have not opened a hive on a sunny spring morning, had the nectar drip all over your feet, sniffed the concentrated fragrance of a million flowers, and watched the bees celebrate the coming of the "time of great sweetness" by dancing all over the frame in your hands, YOU HAVEN'T LIVED!
If you haven't stuck your finger into a piece of burr comb, and lifted your veil to stick this fresh, sweet, sticky liquid sunshine into your mouth, YOU HAVEN'T LIVED! Honey is almost always wonderful, but no honey can compare with fresh honey straight from the bees.
If you haven't gotten high, watching your bees coming home and plop heavily at the entrance, with bellies full, and with the little golden pelllets of pollen on their legs that tell you that they are busy making fruits and vegetables for you, the birds, and all the wildlife, by pollinating the flowers, then YOU HAVEN'T LIVED!
These are God's little creatures, and you, once you get the "bug," will never cease to wonder at the miracle of creation that these little critters represent. They work in harmony with all their family, they always want to work, and they give us more gifts that we could dream. As you get deeper and deeper into this, you will see that science and craft will combine and you will personally "bloom" as well.
You will NEVER ROB your bees. Instead you enter into a partnership with them to take care of them, to protect them from pesticide misuse, to protect them from sickness and parasites, and to make sure they have enough feed for winter or long summer dry spells. Then you can also harvest a surplus, if they make it, and most of the time they will.
More on bee stings and physical reactions