Ed Colby: Zen and the art of bee keeping

We bounced down some dusty road on our way to one of Paul’s honeybee yards, and out of the blue, Paul said, “The most painful place to get stung is on the tip of your nose.”

I said, “I can think of a more painful place. Have you ever gotten stung there?”

“Yup,” he said. “I’ve been stung about everywhere on the human body you can get stung. I’ve gotten stung inside my mouth. I’ve swallowed bees. The tip of your nose is the worst.”

This proves that things are not always as they might seem.

Gabe used to swell up when bees stung him, but no more. He pauses only long enough to dig out the barbs. The other day a bee crawled way up inside his pants, and Gabe did a little quickstep. Afterward he stuffed his pant legs inside his socks, but he never swore, like I do.

I admire that. He summarized his centered, good-vibes bee strategy: “Go ahead, bees. Sting me. I don’t care.” This is pretty Zen, when you think about it, and probably the way to go.

Me, I’m not that cool under fire.

I usually wear coveralls and a veil but no gloves. There are a couple of reasons for the no gloves.

One, it’s more efficient. Gloves are clumsy for this work. Two, it’s just not done. OK, I suppose all beekeepers put on gloves once in awhile, say, when they tip over a hive or deal with a difficult colony, but mostly gloves are for beginners.

Think bicycle training wheels. Imagine riding around town with your pals, on your tricked-out, full-suspension K2 Proflex, with your 7-Eleven jersey and your Pearl Izumi bike shorts – and training wheels. That’s how I feel when Paul and Gabe calmly work in shirtsleeves while I run to the truck for gloves.

Once a couple of bees double-teamed me, and as I jumped back, my hive tool flew out of my hand and nearly hit Gabe on the head. He gave me a look that said, “Easy, old-timer!”

I get stung, oh, four or five times a day. It’s not so bad. But multiple stings in the same place make me ache. One day last week three bees stung me on a dime-sized spot on my hand, and it felt like my hand got backed over by the truck.

Last night after work I went up to Aspen to bring some of my own bees home to Peach Valley, west of New Castle. This morning at first light I unloaded them onto the terraced hillside in our upper vineyard. It got interesting when I dropped a hive off the dolly, and yes, I did put on my gloves.

Their first day here, the bees act pretty busy as they explore their new home. They’re in the sumac. They suckle the sweet clover. They gather to drink where the irrigation pipe leaks. They fly in all directions as they map their new territory. The air is thick with the little darlings.

Spot will stay inside today, because he’s not a Zen dog. He’s a bee snapper. Tomorrow we’ll let him out again. When things return to normal, you won’t even know bees live here.

Gabe, who is 19, has read Carlos Castaneda’s books about the Yaqui Indian “Don Juan.” This was required counterculture reading in the Seventies. Don Juan is the master sorcerer and drug-inspired netherworld traveler, Castaneda the anthropologist and eager apprentice.

Once again we’re bouncing down a dusty road, and out of the blue, Gabe says, “Paul is kind of like the Don Juan of bees, and Ed, you ask a lot of questions, so you’re like his student.”

I explain that there is a fundamental difference, that being that maybe Don Juan doesn’t exist and never did. After all, the only person who claims to have ever seen him is the author Castaneda.

Gabe holds his ground. “Maybe,” he says, “but the stories are still true.”

This is a fairly sophisticated point of view for a 19-year-old, but I don’t buy it. Besides, Castaneda portrayed himself as a pretty hapless pupil. I at least know a little. I know not to get stung on the end of the nose.

[ Beekeeper and ski patroller Ed Colby’s column runs on Tuesdays. His e-mail address is]