You’ve seen us. At the beach, on the sidewalk, at the park — we’re easy to spot. Arms in the air like a cheerleader, ducking and dodging like Mohammad Ali. We run zigzag, we hop around, we curl ourselves up like a bomb is dropping. A scream or two is usually inevitable. It’s not insanity; it’s just the bee dance.
Fear of bees is common. I’ve seen grown men break into a sweat just because a wee Apis mellifera landed on a bare arm or leg. Perhaps not as many men as women are experts of the full bee dance, but I am convinced that is due more to a lack of rhythm than lack of terror. Apiphobia is one of the most common phobias, too; some of us are just better at hiding it than others.
There are many reasons people fear bees, some of them quite logical — they were stung as a child, they watched someone else get stung. Some people are truly allergic to bees, and fear is a very reasonable reaction to the possibility of imminent death.
My grandpa once told me the best way to deal fear is to face it head-on. He had a real sense of humor, that guy. Once, at Panama Beach, Florida, I bungee jumped from a 1,000-foot platform to prove to myself that I could beat my fear of heights. I learned to scuba dive in large part to battle my claustrophobia.
Having been an apiphobic bee dancer extraordinaire for years, I got the bright idea that I should keep a hive of bees. If that didn’t cure me, nothing would, right? When the beekeeping books arrived in the mail (all six of them), my husband looked at me like I was crazy. “It’ll be great,” I said. “I will conquer my fear, we’ll help save bees from going extinct, and we’ll have heaps of delicious honey.”
My family looked on in concerned silence as I read the books, watched all the YouTube videos, attended a beekeeping class, purchased all of the equipment for two hives, and ordered two packages of live bees.
When they arrived, Jack Anderson (the guy who’d taught the beekeeping class and who was also, coincidentally, the bee dealer) kindly came out to help me install them in the hives. By “help,” I mean that he did 99 percent of it and I watched, decked out in full protective beekeeping gear (my astronaut suit, the 6-year-old called it). When a random bee landed on my arm, my body involuntarily jerked (imagine a bee-dancing astronaut) and it flew off. When one landed on the netted face screen on my beekeeping hat, I whimpered like a baby. However, I stayed in one spot. I didn’t run away.
I called it a victory.
Initially, a new package of bees is rather high maintenance. You’ve got to make sure the queen is settled in properly. You’ve got to make sure they have enough sugar water to eat until the pollen and nectar come in. That means actually opening up the hive and looking inside. Believe me, I tried all the other options.
Phobias are powerful things. Logically, my brain understood that none of little winged bugs was a hyper-intelligent, supremely evil demoniac intent on my demise. Ha. Logic has nothing to do with it. Still, I had invested hundreds of dollars and dozens of hours; I was not yet ready to admit defeat.
Since the kids were all watching from the bedroom window, and since I dreaded hearing, “I told you so,” I knew I had no choice but to simply reach deep down within myself and find the courage to do what had to be done. I did take reasonable precautions: I put on my astronaut suit, and filled my smoker tool to the brim with last year’s dead pinecones (the smoke doesn’t stupefy them completely, but it does at least cause most of them to withdraw deeper into the hive).
I must admit the first few minutes alone with my hives were somewhat traumatic — probably for the bees as well. More than once, in spite of the bee suit I was wearing (which according to the manufacturer, is really, truly sting-proof, they swear), I had to walk away and catch my breath. I was shaking so badly at one point that I dropped the smoker and almost caught the backyard on fire. I think the bees sensed my unease; the humming of the hive increasing to a more anxious pitch while I was there those first few times.
However, after the first month or so, something amazing happened. I fell in love with bees.
I had almost gotten used to having a bee land briefly on my bee suit as I worked. You can tell if they are trying to sting you, by the way — they sort of squat and grunt, if you will — but usually the bees would land on me, walk around a bit, decide that I wasn’t a flower or anything interesting, and fly away. But once, a young bee landed on my wrist and stayed there, watching me.
I stopped what I was doing and started watching her too (it was definitely a “her,” more on that later). I brought my arm up toward my face so I could see her better though the netting on my hat. As I moved my arm, she turned her body so that she was looking me in the face.
Up close, believe it or not, bees are actually kind of cute. At least this one was. I said, “Well, hi there.” I could have sworn, in whatever language bees speak, she said “hi” back. In any case, I waited until she flew away of her own accord before finishing up with the hive. To my surprise, I found that my breathing had slowed and my heart rate was almost down to normal. For the first time when I went back to the house and I took off my astronaut suit I was smiling after dealing with the bees.
Bees really are very intelligent creatures. In a sense, they really can smell fear. Plus, they don’t like sudden movements. So whenever I worked a hive, I made it a point to move slowly and remain calm. Amazingly, I began actually looking forward to my weekly hive visits. It became the most peaceful hour of the week. Each time I opened the hive, the bees had done some new incredible thing — workers had built new honeycomb upon the frames, the queen had lain more eggs, worm-y little baby bees were starting to grow and hatch in their little six-sided cells.
There is nothing quite as endearing as the sight of a hundred little bee faces gazing up at you from between the frames when you first take the lid off. “Hello, girls!” I would say. I praised their progress. I noted with amazement the different colors of pollen they carried in the little built-in baskets on their hind legs. Dandelion pollen, for example, is a deep orange. Fireweed pollen is blue.
I grew quite attached to my little hives. I even acquired the ability to stand relatively still away from the hive as a random bee flew by, smugly eyeing the poor bee-dancing ninnies around me. I wanted to tell them, get bees. Just get bees. It will change your life.
Eventually, I became something of a “beek,” a sort of bee-geek. “Did you know,” I would relate to the family at the dinner table, and everyone’s eyes would instantly glaze over.
“Can’t we just talk politics or religion?”
“No,” I would say. “This is really interesting …”
For example, there’s the fact that all of the work done in the entire hive is done by females. The drones, or males, don’t even have stingers. They are there for only one purpose: when the queen is a few weeks old (and in the mood), she flies out of the hive and mates with as many drones as possible. The rest of her life is pretty much spent in the nursery laying eggs, while the drones, um, die rather painfully. Until that time, however, the males hang out in the hive, get waited on hand and foot by the female bees, “… and watch TV and drink beer. You told us already.”
While the queen is pretty much the queen all of her life, other female bees wear a lot of hats during their brief lives. Industrious girls, almost from the moment they hatch from their pupal cocoon they get busy cleaning up their cell so another egg can be deposited in it. Once they’re old enough, common bee duties include nursery detail (feeding larvae), janitorial work, manipulating wax and building honeycomb, processing honey, maintaining temperature control (bees fan their wings to both cool and heat the hive), guard duty, and food gathering. A single worker bee can make 10 trips a day searching for pollen and nectar, flying as far as four miles from the hive to get it. It’s estimated that a single pint of honey utilizes the nectar from roughly 5 million flowers.
No wonder the girls only live a few weeks once they reach food gatherer status.
Once, in late summer, I watched a bee walk to the edge of the hive and fall off, crawling around in a sort of daze in the nearby grass. I wondered if she was sick, or injured, or just understandably exhausted. “Poor thing,” I said. By holding a twig under her legs until she climbed on, I was able to move her back onto the hive. She immediately walked off the edge again, tumbling onto the grass and walking away from the hive. Again, I helped her back up. Again, she walked off the edge.
I began to wonder if she wasn’t getting bit annoyed. It looked like she was on a mission of sorts. So finally, with sadness, I let her go. I watched her for a while, but she never went back to the hive.
I brought it up over the phone to Jack later. The thing about bees, he explained, is that it’s all about the well-being of the hive. When a bee gets too old to be of any use, they simply go off to die. Noble little things.
So, my first year of raising bees was a success. There wasn’t any honey to be harvested, because the colony was young. It takes the same amount of energy for bees to produce eight pounds of honey as it does to make a single pound of wax for building honeycomb and egg cells. I was rather impressed.
When the next summer rolled around, I was excited to order my bees again. I joined the local beekeepers association. I reveled in the fact that I was doing my part in the fight against bee extinction. I contemplated making room in the yard for even more hives.
When the bees arrived, however, no one volunteered to install them in the hives for me. I wasn’t the newbie anymore, and was expected to carry my own weight. Nervously, I brought the boxed packages of bees home in my car, praying the bees wouldn’t escape, at least not until after I got home. But soon, hives were again buzzing happily away in my backyard. Once again, my whispered, slow conversations with “the girls” were the most peaceful hour of my week.
Until the end of summer.
As far as bees are concerned, it’s one thing to tolerate a nice lady in an astronaut suit who visits once a week bringing sugar water, and another thing entirely to let someone get their grubby hands on a season’s worth of hard work. Which was exactly what I was after, truth be told, although I never intended to take more than they could spare. I never expected the 180-degree change in my bees’ attitude. Suddenly, I was the enemy.
Even covered head to toe in bee-proof gear, it is a little unsettling when thousands of bees fly toward you at warp speed fully intent on killing you if they can. I felt a little like Gulliver against the Lilliputians — even tiny things can hurt you, if there are enough of them. Remember, those girls are smart; as I worked to get to the honey-filled frames, they did their best to wiggle their way under my cuffs and up the pants of my legs, repeatedly stinging my thick work gloves. As their little stingers tried to reach me through my face screen, the old fear came rushing right back.
With 10,000 bees flying at me with death in their eyes, I did what any self-respecting apiphobe would do. I ran like hell, waving my arms in the air and screaming not-so-nice things at the vicious women who had betrayed me.
From the safety of the bedroom window, I later watched as my husband closed up the hives and put away the bee equipment for the year. In the end, we decided to let the bees keep all of their honey, because (A) the colony was still young and it would give future hives a nice head start (B) I was plain old done with the whole thing.
The following year, we took a breather from beekeeping, for several reasons — medical issues, vacations, life in general. At first I was glad, muttering curses under my breath whenever I passed the spot where the hives would have been. Soon however, as I worked in the garden or relaxed outside with the kids, I realized that I missed their familiar buzzing. And, I realized something: I would have reacted exactly the same way if an intruder had threatened my little “hive.” I couldn’t fault them.
So, this spring, we brought home two more packages of bees. My husband and oldest son helped me install them, whispering calm words whenever I got twitchy. To be honest, they were the ones who did most of the work this time around – even capturing both hives when they swarmed in late July (we now have four hives!). When it came time to gather the honey, we asked a longtime beekeeping friend to help us. The results were awesome: almost 70 pounds of beautiful raw, organic honey!I wanted to high-five every one of those hardworking girls.
From a distance.
I don’t know if I will ever be able to remain calm in the midst of a hoard of angry bees. Perhaps over the years I will acquire that talent, or maybe it’s something you’re born with. Maybe I will always need a hand (or three) when it comes time to take the honey. But like Clint Eastwood said, you’ve got to know your limitations. Am I the Bee Whisperer? Not even close. I do still consider myself a bona fide bee lover and “beek,” though. At least I am not the terrified bee dancer of days past.
Well, not usually.