Happy Bees Equals Happy Beekeeper, and How To Treat Bee Stings.

bees

Q: What do you do when working the hives to minimize stings?

Q: Anything you recommend for bee stings if someone has a minor reaction but nothing life threatening?

Q: What do you do when you get stung?

In reality, the answers are all related.

A: Don’t mind it too much. What I am saying is don’t get worked up yourself. Pumping out fear pheromones with an open hive all around you is not going to help the situation. Stay calm and deliberate in you motions. Dropping a frame, or worse yet a full hive box, is not going to calm things down.

Make sure the stinger is removed if you are stung by a honeybee. Most other stinging insects like wasps and hornets don’t leave a stinger behind. Sometimes a honeybee will hit you and will not leave a stinger behind, but it is rare. Keep in mind the bee died to deliver the warning to you. Take it seriously.

Try not to mash the base of the stinger as you remove it. Try brushing it off with the edge of your hand or your hive tool. Grabbing the base of the stinger mashes the poison sacs and squirts it through the stinger into the wound. It works just like depressing a hypodermic needle. Move quickly (but calmly,  see above) to brush off the stinger because the sacs will constrict, pumping the poison in by themselves even if you don’t help them along.

Analyze what just happened. Did you mash the bee? Did you step into their flyway? They might not really have intended to sting you at all. The real problem may be that you are not paying attention. Are you slamming hive bodies around? Is your smoker too hot, turning to ash, or are you using too much smoke? You are probably to blame there as well. Lighten up or take a few minutes to repack your smoker and they likely the hive will relax as well.

I have talked before about having a nearly zen calm approach while working the bees. They pick up what you put out. I find it helpful to have someone along to take photographs or just to watch. If I am explaining things to the other person, I forget to be nervous. Also, if the unprotected person 10 feet away is getting buzzed, then I need to step away and assess what is going on for a minute. It can be easy to feel invulnerable behind gloves and a veil. Be respectful and cautious and the hive will respond the same way.

Sit down in a shady spot near the hives and watch them for a few minutes before you get the smoker going or open up a hive. Talk to your helper/observer/photographer about what you are going to do and why you are doing it. Get your game face on. Calm beekeeper equals calm bees.

I prefer to work a hive in the late afternoon, on a warm sunny day with minimal wind. Most of the more experienced bees will be out of the hive gathering nectar and pollen. The hive as a whole will have a good attitude. Grumpy bees on a cold, cloudy, or windy day are not bees you want to interact with. Don’t ever allow yourself to be in a position where you have to do something to the hive today. You don’t. You are not that important to their continued existence. Nothing else really matters long term.

The bees react to your smell. Scent is a powerful communicator in the darkness of the hive. Think about what you are communicating to them by the way you smell. Before you ever even approach the hive, you should take a shower if possible and wear fresh clean clothes laundered without scents. Natalie will be posting shortly about the soap nuts we use for laundry. I really think they make a difference in minimizing odors that might set the bees off. Yes, you will probably get hot and sweaty, but it will be fresh clean sweat. Make sure you don’t bring chemical smells to the hive with you like gasoline, aftershave or paint.

Sometimes you just need to move away from the hive for a minute, or run off if things are really hot. If some of the bees are ramming or popping your veil, it is probably time to move off for a bit, even if no one has been stung. If you are working bees in the backyard, run to the front door. You probably won’t have anyone with you by the time you get there or you will be down to one or two really ornery ones. You can handle one or two once you are inside. Really, they are quite small. You can take them.

Ease back into the hive area a few minutes later. If both you and the bees are calm now, then keep working. If not, close things up and try again another day.

I have successfully used Benadryl and ice for swelling, and Ibuprofen for pain, in the very few instances when I have an unusual reaction to a sting or stings. This should be enough as long as your breathing is not restricted. If your breathing is restricted beyond a slightly tight feeling in the throat, then you should call an ambulance or go to a nearby urgent care. I can’t make a judgment call for you as far as where the line is for you. I have noticed that most medical professionals don’t like it when I mention that sometimes I react to honeybee stings. They certainly take it seriously and so should you. In extreme cases where a sting can result in Anaphylactic shock, your life could be at stake.  Natalie who takes all the photos and video of the bees has this reaction to stings, you probably shouldn’t work hives if this is your reaction, but you should not live in fear either.

If you have a reaction which involves a rash, hives, or the slight tight feeling in the throat, you should discontinue working the bees to avoid any additional stings until all symptoms have disappeared for at least a week, longer would be better.

I almost never get stung, and my reaction to getting stung is not predictable. It does seem to be worse if it has been a really long time since the last time I was stung or if I get stung several times in the same visit to the hives. It doesn’t keep me from working hives, but it does make me a little more careful next time I open a hive.

Most of what I am talking about here is preventing stings before they ever happen. Stings will always happen if you work with bees long enough. When they do happen, assess the situation and respond appropriately, even if it means closing up and returning on a day when conditions are better.

Don’t worry, be happy, and so will your bees.

-Kevin

Remember what Fonzie was like? Cool. That's how we're gonna be -- cool. Critical is fine, but if you're rude, we'll delete your stuff. Please use your PERSONAL name or initials and not your business name and do not put your website in the comment text, as both come off like spam. Have fun and thanks for adding to the conversation! (Thanks to Brian Oberkirch and Tim Ferris for the inspiration)
  • Francina

    I opened my hive to check on them a couple of weeks ago on a warm dry afternoon and was stung three times, almost simultaneously, as soon as I lifted a super off the hive body. Were they just defensive? Was it too hot? Too much smoke? Don’t know. I have so much self-doubt about beekeeping and was startled by the stings. I immediately put the hive back together and went inside. Sometimes, they get super mad at me when I’m just filling up the feeder jar with water or sugar water.

  • Kevin

    Hi Francina,
    Everyone goes through this. The first time I opened a hive on my own I had to run to the front door as I describe in the post. The previous visits to the same hive in the same spot (my backyard) with the assistance of the beekeeper who sold me the nuc went by without a hitch. Best thing I can tell you is reread the post. In fact reread all the posts here about bees! Then get back out there an try again. My biggest breakthrough was having someone else along who know even less than I did to take photos. I literally forgot to worry because I was so busy showing him things and explaining things to him. I did have a lifetime of experience helping my father under my belt, but there is no reason that it would not work for the newest beekeeper. There is someone you know who is interested in bees who knows less about them than you do.
    Keep at it, and keep us posted.
    -Kevin

  • BackyardEcosystem

    Hi Francina,
    Everyone goes through this. The first time I opened a hive on my own I had to run to the front door as I describe in the post. The previous visits to the same hive in the same spot (my backyard) with the assistance of the beekeeper who sold me the nuc went by without a hitch. Best thing I can tell you is reread the post. In fact reread all the posts here about bees! Then get back out there an try again. My biggest breakthrough was having someone else along who know even less than I did to take photos. I literally forgot to worry because I was so busy showing him things and explaining things to him. I did have a lifetime of experience helping my father under my belt, but there is no reason that it would not work for the newest beekeeper. There is someone you know who is interested in bees who knows less about them than you do.
    Keep at it, and keep us posted.
    -Kevin

  • http://www.backyardecosystem.com/ Kevin

    I was at the Doctor earlier this week for non-bee related allergies and he reminded me that a meat tenderizer like A-1 applied to a bee sting can reduce the swelling, help with the pain, and counteract other reactions to the poison. So make sure you have some A-1 on hand next time you get ready to open up a hive.

  • Opal

    I just stumbled upon your site a few moments ago. I’m really enjoy it immensely. I’ve read about honeybees since I was a child but I’m a first time beekeeper. I’m really enjoying the experience. I too shower and wear freshly washed clothing before I interact with my honeybees. I do wear a beesuit though when I open the hive, when I’m just hanging out with them I don’t wear a suit. I’m sure one day I’ll eventually get stung and I’m fine with that. Having gotten stung before (mowed over a yellow jacket nest last year when I was cutting the lawn) I realize the importance of staying calm.

  • http://www.backyardecosystem.com/ Kevin

    Bees are only going to sting as a last resort. Yellow Jackets, not so much. I have never worn an actual suit that I recall, just gloves and a veil. I occasionally try to go without the gloves, but having them walk on my hands tends to distract me from my task.

  • Opal @I’m Celebrating Life

    I agree, over the years I’ve been up close to the honeybees/bumblebee and have even showed how gentle they are to others. It gave me a chance to talk about them, while showing people they aren’t something to immediately swat at. The buzzed along not minding us at all. You’re right, they will give you warning signs if you’re agitating them. If you recognize those signs you can usually avoid getting stung.

    We have the yellow jackets, hornets, and wasps that love part of our property that has fruit trees. A few years ago I started seeing the Japanese giant hornets a quick Google confirmed that they are in Maryland. They look nothing like the Cicada wasps (we have those too.) All those critters are drawn by our pear tree.

  • http://www.backyardecosystem.com/ Kevin

    I agree that 99% of “bee stings” are a cases of misidentification. A bee away from the hive has to be crushed to provoke a sting.

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Backyard Ecosystem began as an expression of my determination to make a difference in our own backyard. Literally and metaphorically making a difference at the micro level of my yard and to operate at macro level of treating the entire planet as something I am an integral part of and whose destiny is shaped everyday by what I do in my corner of the world.

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