On Monday, my friend Maggie came over to help me open my hives and see what was going on in there. Maggie is into her fourth year as a beekeeper and I’m in my first, so having an experienced set of eyes along for the ride is always helpful. Now, I love Maggie, but she’s more of a doer than a teacher. Rather than walk me through the process, she kind of just did it for me. Too quickly. So that I couldn’t really tell what was happening.
I basically just stood there with my smoker trying to avoid being stung. I failed. Four times.
She was taking down boxes and pulling out frames and looking for the queen and inspecting the brood. I did my best to keep up. As I tried to remain calm in the wake of four bee stings, removing my wedding ring as fast as possible so it didn’t become trapped as my hand swelled before my eyes. Maggie unsympathetically pressed on.
We did find three varroa mites, so now I know I have to treat for that as soon as possible. Treating for mites is essential and is best done by September 1st. Since that date has come and gone, I’m going to have to treat anyway and hope for the best. Finding mites in one hive means I can safely assume I have them in the other one as well. The treatment is an aggressive one, but can mean the difference between a hive surviving and a hive dying. It has to be done when the temperature is between 65 and 85 degrees, so this Friday is the day.
On Tuesday, I woke up with my left hand still swollen, but now the swelling had moved up almost to my elbow. My hand looked like it belonged to one of those creepy baby dolls whose eyes close when it lays down and opens when it sits up. The other stings were on my face, giving the illusion of one fabulous cheekbone, and on each boob. Of course, the boob stings didn’t swell at all. It was like some great cosmic joke.
I drove out that morning to meet Maggie because she had the mite treatment for me. In addition to being a beekeeper, Maggie is a fantastic nurse. When she saw my hand and arm, she gave a sort of “Oh. That looks pretty fucked up.” and then proceeded to tell me how to install the mite strips.
Heading back home, armed with mite strips and a solid medical diagnosis, I noticed that my breathing was coming in shorter and shallower breaths. Trying not to panic, it occurred to me that the trajectory of this reaction didn’t seem particularly good and I should probably not ignore it. I ended up driving the 45 minutes to Columbia Memorial in Hudson to have the fine folks at the ER tell me what was what. I figured I might also be able to score a prescription for an Epi Pen if I played my cards right.
As luck would have it, not being able to breathe very well lets you bypass the waiting room part of the ER and gets you right into the comfy bed. And, as even more luck would have it, my ER nurse happened to be a friend of mine. She hooked me up to an IV filled with Benedryl, Pepcid, and Prednisone and then woke me up two hours later to see how I was faring. Although the swelling was still quite impressive, I felt alert enough to head out. They gave me many prescriptions (including one for an Epi Pen) and I went along my merry way.
A couple hours later, I received a text from my friend Chris Landy. Chris’ wife, Ellen, keeps bees. Chris does not keep bees. Chris avoids bees. The text said this, “Just checked Ellen’s bees–we got hit by a bear.” After a few back and forth texts and some photographic evidence of the damage, it was clear that the hives needed some attention. Maybe it was the cocktail of antihistamines talking, but I told him I would come by in the morning to help right the hives.
I went over today to see what I could do to help. I had my beekeeping supplies, including an Epi Pen, as I fully expected to be stung repeatedly again. The one saving grace is that Ellen (being a survivor of a far more insidious bee attack than I) is the owner of a full-body bee suit, complete with gloves. My one condition in helping today was that I got to wear THE SUIT.
I’d always been squeamish about wearing THE SUIT. Every bad thing I’d ever heard happening to a beekeeper involved bees getting into THE SUIT and then stinging. Or bees stinging through THE SUIT. I figured if they were going to get me anyway, we should just get it over with and not be all sweaty to boot.
I changed my mind today.
With temperatures hovering around 95 degrees, the sweat factor was high. It is autumn, however, which means that the bee hives are full of honey, bees, and brood. The bees have a lot to lose this time of year and they are fiercely protective. They do not want humans mucking about in their business and they are way more likely to sting an invading person who may be threatening their stuff.
But the bear had already done so very much damage to their stuff, I couldn’t just leave it all that way. Packing my smoker full of burning twine, I sallied forth and hoped I didn’t get stung too very many times. Chris had ratchet strapped one of the hives, effectively saving it from certain destruction. The boxes were askew and the bees agitated, but no damage was done other than the entire thing being tipped onto its side.
Another of her hives had seemingly been left alone, and a third one was practically destroyed. There was so little left of it, I just stacked boxes filled with nothing but empty frames atop one another. No bees were left in the third hive at all. Chris showed me the path the bear had taken to and from the hives. It was clearly cleaved through the woods and, upon closer inspection, littered with frames previously full of honey.
I collected the battered frames from the path and placed them semi-ceremoniously in a pile which I assume will later be burned. Moment of silence.
When Ellen returns on Friday, I imagine she will don THE SUIT and try to make sense of what the bear and I have done to her beautiful hives. She will persevere, because that’s the kind of person she is and I, undoubtedly, will learn something valuable from how she handles the next steps in this process because Ellen, as luck would have it, is a wonderful beekeeper and teacher.
To bee continued…