Tuesday, August 21, 2012

It is quiet in the back corner

I fell in love with bees and beekeeping in the spring of 2006, just after I started my job as an Extension Agent with the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service. I was assigned the job of helping a dedicated local beekeeper, Tia, to start a bee club, and to teach a beekeeping class. I studied and studied, collected all the information I could, and put together an extensive course notebook for the students in that first class. I was sure I would just teach lectures, and would not keep bees myself, but I was so wrong.

As soon as I began to learn about the bee colony and its social nature I was enthralled. Once I went into a bee hive I was hooked. My first hive came from relatively a small swarm I caught with the help of beekeeper Gus. That is a tale in itself, as hundreds wiggled through a crack between the lid and the box and found their way from the trunk to join me in the car for the hour long drive home. The swarm was unexpected, so an emergency trip to Tia's was in order for some assistance in putting wax into my new frames for the first time. I had to get those loose bees out of the car before I could go over to her house, leading to a voicemail to my husband: " if you get home before me, DON'T OPEN the shopvac that is in the driveway."

That first weekend,and many, many weekend days over the next 6 years, I sat by the hives for hours and watched the bees come and go. I got lost in the entrance to those hives. I fell in love with bees and with the gallons of honey we extracted each year. I had good years of healthy, strong hives, and bad years with weak hives that became overrun with wax moths before I intervened. I studied and taught many beekeeping courses, and became a certified beekeeper, a journeyman beekeeper,and finally a master beekeeper. I was given the honor just this year of being named the State Beekeeping Association's Extension Agent of the Year. Bees became a wonderful, if sometimes hot and exhausting, part of my job and my life at home.

Two weeks ago my husband and I went out to take some boxes off my hive. It was a big, tall hive, as I had combined two earlier in the season when one queen went awol. I needed to reduce it's size as we entered the dearth, that time in the summer when there is not much for bees to collect. I knew that numbers would begin to drop, and there was just too much real estate for late summer and fall bees to patrol for moths and beetles. We were in the hive for a long time, and he wore black gloves (never a good idea). He was stung twice on the back of the hand, through his gloves, just before we finished our work. No big deal, he had been stung before.

When we got back inside after a successful and otherwise uneventful hour of hive chores, he went to take a shower, indicating that, due to the heat, his back was burning and itching. When he got out I saw the hives. Fingernail sized raised hives, covering his back. "Heat response" he said, and we thought nothing of it. Within 5 minutes the hives and spread under his arms, across his torso, and down to his stomach. I gave him benedryl. I told him to keep me updated on how he felt. 5 minutes later his arms had hives. I gave him another benedryl. When he calmly mentioned that his lips were getting numb, I called 911. When the EMTs arrived 5 minutes later, the hives had meshed into one huge hive (skin of the orange I now know it is called), which was deep red and spread from his face to his knees. Eyes swollen almost shut. Lips and tongue swolllen. They gave him a pepcid (I now know these are histimine blockers and can be used for an allergic response). They watched his vitals. They injected an epipen into his thigh and injected steroids. They took him down to the ambulance and headed to the hospital.

I was in a separate car, but he tells me that they kept monitoring vitals and listening to his lungs, and then told him they needed to prepare him for a possible airway, and put some spray into his oxygen mask. However, right after that, within 30 minutes of entering the ambulance, his body responded to all the medications and his symptoms began to subside. He was kept at the hospital and watched for about 4 hours, then released, with instructions that we should no longer keep bee hives at our house.

The purpose of this tale is not to frighten, and certainly not to suggest that anyone not keep bees. They brought great joy, and were no more dangerous than the yellowjackets and paper wasps that inhabit our yard. Other honeybees still will visit our hard as well,and we are glad for that.

What I want you to glean from this story is that, even if you have had only standard reactions to bee stings in the past (swelling and itching), it is good to be alert to the possibility of a stronger reaction in the future. Have up to date benedry on hand, in a spot easy to find. Before the rescue squad got here, my husband had two benedryl onboard. I am sure that played a big role in slowing things down so that our experience was not even worse. Have pepcid or another antacid histimine blocker as well. See you doctor about getting a prescription for a pair of epipens. Most of all, understand that a severe, systemic reaction to a sting on the hand can manifest itself as hives on your back! We were all right in the long run, but wasted a good 10 or 15 minutes brushing off key symptoms because they weren't anywhere near the sting site!

I had to choose whether to keep or get rid of the bees. After all, as I said, there are many other stinging wasps and bees in our yard, and the hive itself was very, very gentle. In the big picture, I just decided that even the tiny chance that he might be accidentally stung when mowing the grass and getting into the bee line was an unnecessary risk in our situation. This was not the right choice or the wrong choice, it was just my choice.

So, where are the bees? I am thrilled to say that they are living with Kenny, an extremely enthusiastic teenage beekeeper in our county club. The rest of my equipment, and there was a lot, has gone to start new, first hives for a young schoolteacher. I could not be happier to have it there. I held on to my extractor and honey bucket. Why? I don't know. I just am not ready to let them go. After it all was gone, I went to the back corner of our lot. I sat on the cinderblocks that used to be besidie that entrancing hive entrance. It was quiet, and I cried, just a little.