By Molly K. Lichtner, 2/26/17
Vince has been keeping bees for fifty years. I have been keeping bees for two and a half months. The temperature in the hot August sun is at least 95 degrees, and wearing the veil, it feels more than double that. The honey bees feel the heat too; most of them are clumped on the front of their hives in a desperate attempt to lower the temperature inside. It’s called bearding, but I always think they look more like water droplets forming and about to fall. Every once in a while, a breeze picks up and I stop what I’m doing to lift my head. The wind pierces through to my face and I have the briefest moment of relief. We are doing sugar shakes in order to count the number of varroa mites in each hive. All 15 of them. The process of a sugar shake is simple: cover a half cup of bees with powdered sugar in a mason jar, replace the mesh lid, shake, and count how many mites fall out. Repeat for each hive or until you feel like you’re going to die from heat exhaustion. It’s a more dangerous than delicious recipe. What fascinates me is how many honey bees are in half a cup. About 300 of them are in the jar, scrambling and climbing over each other, like tiny and confused white ghosts with a penchant for nectar. When I’m done with the jar I dump the sugared bees out into the top of their hive. They start cleaning the sugar off of each other. They are all happy to be home. Except for one.
Bee stings feel like bullets when you don’t expect them.
Vince turns and looks at me.
“You can use stronger language if you want to. I know how badly they hurt. Where did she get you?”
“S***! My arm. Ooh, that burns!”
The initial pain only lasts for about 30 seconds but it feels more like hours. I scrape the stinger out and douse myself with the smoker, as a futile attempt to protect myself from more stings. The smoke masks the pheromones that the now deceased bee released when she stung me. I feel like I smell like a wood barbeque.
Each sting elicits a fight or flight response; that’s exactly what the bees want. Sting the predator enough times and they’ll retreat, although I try not to retreat for long. Vince gets stung, scrapes it out, and keeps moving; I envy his tenacity and vigor. I guess that’s what 50 years of bee stings will do to you.
As my arm beings to swell, I look at it more closely. I’m thankful that it’s not on my dominant arm but I’m annoyed that it’s in the same spot I was stung yesterday. I’m beginning to look like a balloon. A big, red, itchy balloon. One sting would be enough to make anyone swear off honey bees forever and sometimes I consider it. Each sting brings up a fury of emotions but I can never stay angry for long. She was just doing her job. She died for the good of her hive.
“How many mites did that hive have?”
Vince starts talking to me and I snap back to reality.
“Oh. Uh, just seven. No treatment necessary.”
“Great! Excuse me ladies, move out of the way.”
Vince smokes the hive he’s working on so the bees move back into off the lip of the box. They grumble with each puff. The hive sounds like a miniature motorcycle revving. Vince treats all of the bees with the utmost respect. They are all “ladies” and the queens are all “momma.” I find myself calling them that even when he’s not around. Everything I have learned about them has come from him.
A bee lands on me and I feel the tickle of her wings and feet. One bee by herself is not a threat. Up close, she is fuzzy and small and complex. Up close, I love her. She found the powdered sugar residue from when I spilled it on my sweaty arm. For her this is a delightful treat. For me it is an inconvenience because I don’t have the heart to shake her off.
“Can you help me put this box back on? It’s full of honey.”
We each take a side and put it cattycorner on the other boxes of the hive. I slide it into place, put the inner cover on, and finally place the outer cover on top. Vince is already prying the lid off of another hive. I get the mason jar ready.