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Adventures with Bees: Our First Swarm and Why I Now Have Baking Soda on My Nose ...

The (Cyber) Bag of Weasels

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"About as much fun as a bag of weasels"...when I first saw this Irish adage, it made me think of the life of a writer: sometimes perilous, sometimes painful, certainly interesting. My paper journal has always been called "The Bag of Weasels." This is the Bag of Weasels' online home.

Adventures with Bees: Our First Swarm and Why I Now Have Baking Soda on My Nose ...

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alex eek
This morning, Bobby was leaving for the gym--I hurt my knee earlier in the week, so it's been a week off from the gym for me--and I was hanging out laundry, when he came bounding into the backyard and told me that our bees were swarming.

Honeybees swarm around this time of the year in order to make new colonies. If the colony is large and healthy enough, the workers will make a new queen, and the colony will essentially half itself, with one of the queens and about half of the workers leaving to establish a new colony. We did a hive inspection a couple of weeks ago, and I thought I saw swarm cells--used to grow the new queens--on the base of some of the frames, but I wasn't 100% sure since it's been a while since we had the beekeeping course and we've never, to the best of my knowledge, had a swarm. I made a mental note to look it up but then got busy and forgot.

Bobby discovered them right as they were beginning to swarm. There was a cloud of bees around the Halloween tree (of course it would be the Halloween tree!), coalescing into a mass of bees on one of the branches. You could hear them buzzing from the front of the house. It was wild.

Swarms are loved and hated by beekeepers. You love when other people have them because you can collect them and basically get a bee colony for free. You hate when they happen to your colony because you lose half of your bees. Ideally, if one of your colonies swarms, you can find where it went and collect it, which essentially divides your colony in half. (Which a lot of beekeepers will do with healthy colonies anyway.)

We are leaving on vacation tomorrow and will be dropping off the Goldens tonight at my inlaws and staying overnight with my parents. So that left us with precious little time to deal with a swarm and no extra hive to put it in anyway. Bobby was calling around to some local beekeepers to see if anyone wanted to come collect it but didn't do any better than getting a few voicemail systems. I was showering when he came in and decided that we had enough equipment to collect it ourselves. Of course I was cool with that, since we've wanted to start a second colony for a while anyway.

Collecting swarms is supposed to be very easy. Because the bees are essentially homeless, they are not at all territorial or defensive and therefore are not aggressive. In theory. Many beekeepers wear no protective equipment when collecting a swarm. This was our first swarm collection, however, and my philosophy is that when doing something with the bees for the first time, it is best to wear full protective gear so that you do not get midway through the procedure and discover that the bees are pissed, start getting stung, panic, and really screw things up. So we both donned our full protective gear. Am I glad we did.

This year's colony is very saucy. In the past, our colonies have been so docile that I usually work with them with no protective equipment or just a veil. I've been wearing the full outfit, including gloves, which I never wear, each time we've gone into the colony this year. They will frequently "ping" me and I often end up with them stinging my suit and getting stuck in the fabric, so it is safe to assume that I would be getting stung at least once every time I went into the hive, without protective gear. And beestings aren't that bad, but they swell and ache and itch, so I'd rather avoid them if I can.

The swarm extended along the trunk of the Halloween tree, which meant we couldn't simply shake them off of the branch, which is how swarm collection is usually done. They were also rather high up, so Bobby got the stepladder, and I climbed up into the branches. The Halloween tree is really scraggly, so there were branches and twigs everywhere. Bobby trimmed some of them for me, but I told him to go easy, since the tree was heavily damaged already from the ice this past winter and I didn't want to traumatize it even more. I started brushing the swarm into the box we were collecting them in. At first that was fine, as they were at eye-level. But a big mass of them were further up the trunk, so I had to look up to see them, and when I did, my veil slid back on my head, and the tip of my nose was pressed against the mesh. So a whole whopping 1 square centimeter of skin was exposed ... so of course, a bee stung me directly on the tip of my nose.

Across my life, I have been stung many, many times, more times than I can remember. I've been stung on the bottom of the foot, the lip, and under the eye. I've been stung on the heel of the hand (which actually really hurt) and even got stung in the ass when I was two years old. I've never been stung on the nose and, let me tell you, that hurt like a bitch. There isn't a lot of flesh there to take the sting. And, of course, I was on a ladder when all this happened, in a tree, holding a cardboard box full of bees. Bobby tried to get the box from me, but I said, "No, I'm finishing this!" My eyes were streaming from the pain. My whole face was soaked by the time I managed to climb down the ladder with my box of bees. My nose was running, and I was having a respiratory allergy. Bobby checked me for bees stuck on my suit, and I couldn't get that damned suit off soon enough. By the time I got in the house, I was having shortness of breath. I don't know if it was an allergic reaction or the effects of being able to panic a little at last. I plucked the stinger out--it was directly center on the tip of my nose and left a nice red hole--and grabbed the Benadryl, and my hands were trembling so it was hard to open the blister because I was thinking, "Shit, I'm having an allergic reaction!" But as soon as I swallowed the Benadryl, everything was fine within thirty seconds. It still hurt like a mother, but my face was no longer pouring liquid, and I was breathing okay. I mixed up a baking soda paste and put it on the end of my nose. I'm still wearing it and look stupid, but the pain is gone. The swelling, because of the location, is minimal, thankfully. I am capable of swelling badly from a beesting. I have a little swelling on the bridge of my nose and a little under my right eye, and I can feel a little swelling where my upper lip and gum connect, which is a new and very weird sensation.

The time I got stung under the eye was not only the day before my birthday but the day before traveling with my family. I should know not to mess with my bees right before leaving on a trip! At first, I was mortified, thinking that I'd be spending most of my time in Ocean City looking like a freak, but it seems the swelling will be minor, and I should be able to cover up any scabs and redness with makeup. For all the confidence I've gotten over the past ten years, I remain very self-conscious about some things, and I guess having severe facial swelling is one of them.

I have pictures of the swarm but have things I need to get done before leaving in two hours, so they'll have to wait for later. The good news is that bees are going into their new digs, so hopefully the colony will take, and we'll have two colonies this year. The worst that can happen is that they'll decide they'd rather live somewhere else and leave. There's still a lot of them in the tree, but that's supposed to be normal. The old hive has a normal amount of activity. We'll see what happens when we return home.

This post was originally posted on Dreamwidth and, using my Felagundish Elf magic, crossposted to LiveJournal. You can comment here or there!

  • Enjoy your vacation!

    Bee stings: *faints* ;)
    • Thank you! :)

      I'm quite used to them right now. A childhood spent wanting to be an entomologist made me brave towards most bugs. ;)
  • So sorry you got stung. I was thinking of you the other week as a swarm of bees turned up in my garden. I found a number online to ring and a beekeeper turned up in half an hour to collect it. A wonderful service!Have a good trip.
    • Thank you! :)

      That beekeeper was probably thinking the same thing: "What a good service! A phone call and a few hours of work, and I get to save over a hundred pounds on a new colony." (Assuming your prices for bees are similar to ours.)
      • Here are photos of my little adventure with bees. I admit I was rather scared, I like bees, but thousands a few feet from the window alarmed me somewhat.


        Edited at 2014-06-28 09:52 pm (UTC)
        • Swarms are intimidating! There is no question about that. There are thousands of bees and that noise. Even knowing that they weren't going to hurt me, I was careful approaching them to take pictures. I did touch mine with a bare hand. It was soft, like touching an animal.

          I wonder what the beekeeper meant by quarantining the bees? Since they fly afield and can swarm at any time (or the drones can mate with wild queens) and will rob other bees and so come into contact with other colonies, then I'm not sure how that's possible. I'd be interested to know. There are some bee diseases that are ridiculously dangerous (to bees) and so have to be kept in check. Our colonies here in Maryland are inspected every two years by the Maryland Department of Agriculture to check for diseases. We just had our inspection a month ago. If it had been a few weeks later, he probably would have noted the swarm cells on the inspection sheet! :)
          • i stood way back on my doorstep with the camera. A neighbour was there taking photos too. The other neighbour was nervous (they have young children).

            There is a bee parasite, varroa, causing havoc here. The EU is banning certain pesticides to try and help bees recover.


            I didn't think to ask how you could quarantine bees!

            I am hoping "my" swarm can have a long happy life.

            That is fascinating they feel like an animal to touch.
            • We have varroa mites here as well. The ironic thing is that, with all the hoopla over colony collapse disorder, most people don't realize that varroa tends to kill far more colonies! (However, I never turn down good publicity for bees. :)

              They're unlikely to spread varroa through incidental contact. I was thinking more the "foulbrood" diseases where, if the bees are discovered to have it, they and all equipment have to be destroyed because it is highly contagious. So that makes sense of what he meant by "quarantine": I expect the beekeeper will just keep them for a season and, if they're healthy, will pass them on. (Lucky novice that gets a free colony! :)

              I was very envious of the nice ball shape of your swarm. If mine had looked like that instead of being spread all over the dang tree, I wouldn't look like a character from Avatar right now because of the lingering swelling ... ;)
  • Bee stings really freak me out. You are so lucky not to have a worse reaction to them--lots of people do! I could never raise bees! I hope your swarm "took."

    Have a good time on your trip.
    • Thank you! :)

      I may yet develop a worse reaction. The likelihood unfortunately increases each time I get stung. My uncle was in his 50s and had been stung hundreds of times when, while cleaning some brush out of a pasture, he got stung and had a full-blown anaphylactic response.

      Normally, when I get stung, it's my fault because I've done something dumb, but this time was so totally not my fault.

      It does look like they're taking. Bobby said the mass of bees in the tree has gotten smaller, and there are lots of bees going into the new box.
      • Clever bees!

        My dad used to tell a story of a guy he knew who developed a sudden terrible allergy to raw oysters after eating them all his life and almost died at the Oyster Bar in Grand Central.
        • I've heard the same can happen with strawberries, although it is very rare. The bees are probably a bigger threat! The good news is that my parents had gotten a prescription for an Epipen, and the packet came with two, so they gave one to me. Just don't tell the FDA ... :D
          • Epipens have a magical quality. If you have one on-hand you'll never need it! I swear by them. Alex has not needed one since we have been sure to keep one at home and at school. I even take it when I am out on all-day excursions with him. Never need it!!
            • I think that's wise. I have wrung my hands on multiple occasions at my school, knowing we have two students (one just graduated) with allergies severe enough to warrant Epipens, and we never received any training on how to use them. In fact, I didn't even know the one student kept one on hand until he told me, literally one week before graduation, that he had one at all times in his backpack. Which would have been so helpful to not know if he'd been noncommunicative in some way.

              I hope we never need it, but I feel better having it, just in case.
              • Alex always has one at school also, in the office in a file, with a doctor's note giving them authorization to use it. I guess with older kids it's different?

                I've never used it either. You just remove it from the package, point the orange end toward you (or the person you are using it on) and jab--in the thigh, right through clothing. You don't have to take the time to find bare skin or anything. Then gently massage the site where you injected for a few seconds. Or so I was told by the pediatrician. It's nothing like giving an injection with a hypodermic needle. And take the used epipen to the ER with you, so they can see what you used and how much was actually injected.
  • Oh lord. No offense, but that's one of the reasons I will never have a hive in my backyard...reading that...*shudder*. I have an intense fear of bees and any other stinging or biting insect (due to allergies and resulting scars). I'm glad you all might have two colonies now though!

    Have fun on your vacation! :D
  • The swarm sounds fascinating, and very-ill timed (bees: "They're leaving town, guys. Swarm, stat!"). Sorry you got stung. Hope it's all better soon and that you enjoy your vacation!
  • Oh my! What an adventure! I'll admit my mind went immediately to Pooh (the DH was watching that today) and to Beorn! LOL!

    I dread getting stung. I've not been stung by a bee since childhood, but had a couple of wasp stings about 25 years ago, and the last one caused me to react enough that the DH took me to the ER for a shot.

    If you are getting stung frequently, you might want to invest in an epi-pen to keep with you while working with the bees.

    (BTW, did you know that wet tobacco is a good thing to put on a sting, and makes the swelling go down?)
  • Oh no! I'm so sorry you got stung (and also that your bees swarmed in the first place, of course). Good thing they stayed in your own garden! (Over here, bee swarm are apparently very fond of car air conditioning, because you regularly read about swarms coalescing around the hoods of a particular car brand!)

    I know this is terribly late, but... is this the Denmark vacation? If so, how long are you going to be there/ where there are you going? I'll be in Denmark (near Hejlsminde) in Mid-July, so that might be a chance of meeting up offline (if you're interested and don't have too much planned already, of course. If you even manage to read and reply before returning home! >_> Smart of me to ask at this point, I know...) Either way, have a safe and enjoyable journey!

    Edited at 2014-06-29 07:02 pm (UTC)
    • Once the initial (intense!) pain subsided, it wasn't bad, although it has caused diffuse facial swelling that makes me look like a character from Avatar, only not blue. I'm annoyed, though, because usually when I get stung, it is totally my fault. I've usually done something stupid and am not wearing appropriate protective equipment. This time, I was doing nothing wrong, and it really was just an odd coincidence that that bee would fly directly into the 1cm2 of exposed skin ...

      I'm just in Ocean City this time! :) Denmark will be next summer; saving for the airfare is always a prolonged endeavor. However, we have talked about rolling a trip to Germany in as well, so if we do, you will be on the list of people that I will be notifying pretty much immediately once we make that decision! :D I hope you have a good trip too!
      • Again, ouch! I guess if it helps to think that you "deserved" a sting because it was somehow your fault, you could blame yourself for wearing a veil that slips. >_> And yeah, that was a really odd (and nasty!) coincidence. (I once got stung because a bee got caught in my hairdo and panicked...)

        Was this the colony that you had to re-queen, BTW?

        Ah, OK! I just had "Dawn is going to Denmark" somewhere in the back of my mind and it popped up when I read "Dawn is going on vacation". I'm hopeless at keeping up with people these days, so if I ever knew that you were planning Denmark for next year, I'd obviously forgotten it. Oh well, next year then! Enjoy Ocean City!
  • Wow, that sounds crazy! You are much, much, braver than me, to work on such an up close and personal basis with stinging insects. I hope your nose feels better soon!

    (Also, on a far more silly note, I read "swarm" and immediately thought of this Seinfeld clip. Upon re-watching, I noticed that Jerry is standing in front of a shelf of Tolkien books, so perhaps it's subtly appropriate for our general milieu?)
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