Ed Colby: A stinging defeat
November 26, 2002
Last May when my beekeeper boss Paul told me the most painful place to get stung is on the tip of your nose, I thought, “The tip of your nose? What a small target. What’s the chance of that ever happening?”
Cheerfully bear with me for a moment, while I explain how some bees got so annoyed with me that one actually flew up my nose.
Imagine a beehive ? not a wild hive in a tree but a domestic hive. The hive superstructure looks like a stack of wooden boxes, right? In the trade we call these boxes “supers.” Bees fill them with honey from the bottom up. When the top super is full, the beekeeper adds another. Think of stacking bottomless milk crates on top of each other. As the bees fill the stack with honey, you add more crates.
This is a little bit of an oversimplification. I hope that’s OK. Are you with me so far?
When you take off honey in the fall, you remove the hive’s honey-laden top supers. You leave only the bottom two supers, called the “brood” supers. The brood supers house the “brood nest” ? that portion of the hive where the queen lays eggs, and where nurse bees tend the young. There should be enough honey in these two supers for the hive to survive the winter. You only harvest the surplus.
But before you can remove the honey supers, you need to persuade thousands of bees to move out of the honey supers and down into the brood supers.
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It’s like developing a downvalley trailer park. Before you haul the trailers away you have to evict the worker bees.
There are lots of ways to do this, but in general only two work effectively for large-scale operations like Paul’s. One is to use a powerful air blower to blow the bees off the honeycomb and deeper down into the hive.
Another is to drive the bees down from the honey supers with a foul-smelling concoction called “Bee-Go.” You dribble Bee-Go on the underside of a special hive cover. Then you put the cover on top of the hive. Think tear gas. Bee-Go works great, but for some reason only in hot weather.
In September we took off honey on a day when it turned windy, partly cloudy and cool. The Bee-go wouldn’t drive the bees down, but we had an empty truck to fill. We had no blower, so we had to “bang” the bees out of the supers. We’d take the supers off the hive and knock them on the ground or the side of the truck to get the bees out.
I don’t recommend this technique. Those poor little darlings positively threw a fit. Bees stung through our clothes. They got inside our veils. Gabe got bees in his pants. We pushed on. By the time we finished, even Paul had a wild look.
Bees also “robbed,” meaning that they tried to take back honey that we loaded on the truck. We banged the bees out of the supers, but robbers flew right back in. They do this when there’s a dearth of nectar in the area.
When we pulled away, Paul said, “That’s as many bees as I’ve ever seen on a load of honey.” We drove a mile or two, then stopped for lunch and to let some bees fly home. A few joined us in the truck cab. They didn’t seem that feisty to me, but one must have been bothering Paul. I’d just finished my sandwich when he said, “These bees are nasty. We’d better get out of here.”
As he started the truck, a bee flew up my nose. I exhaled with great vigor, but apparently not enough. On a scale of one to 10, the pain scored a brilliant, unforgettable 10. Pain pulsated right through my eyes. I thought the bee stung me inside my nostril, so that’s where I frantically tried to dig out the stinger.
After what seemed like a long time, I stopped screaming. Paul looked at me from behind the wheel. Was that a twinkle in his eye? In a matter-of-fact way, he said, “That stinger’s on the tip of your nose.”
[Beekeeper and ski patroller Ed Colby’s column runs on Tuesdays. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org]
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