A breaking heart

It is with great trepidation that I write this post and confide in you, my loyal readers.   This blog is primarily a place to talk about my family’s project and our efforts to reduce our carbon footprint.  But, inevitably the subject crosses over into our family dynamics and the who’s who of our lives and the daily goings on.  And, as the title of the blog suggests, a bit of discussion follows my hobby of beekeeping.

Beekeeping has been a passion of mine for the past seven years and I consider myself to be pretty well educated.  I read endless material on the subject.  I have taken an intensive six-week course.  And, I practice what I preach – I actually keep bees.  After struggling with the loss of my two hives in late 2007, I took two years off and jumped back in this past spring.

But, the ladies have thrown me for a loop in the biggest, hugest, most-gigantic sort of way.  And, I am in terrible quagmire of mixed emotions.  I suppose I am using this blog as a sounding board and much needed support network.

Two weeks ago, I prepared for my regular bi-weekly check on the hives.  It was a sunny, warm afternoon – Wednesday, August 11th – a date forever engrained in my mind.  For the first time this season, I brought along my trusty beekeeping apprentice (a.k.a. manual labor and husband), Jacob.  Thank the good lord above that I did.  My hive on the left was raring to go and everything looked fine and dandy.  We worked together to pull off the beyond-heavy honey supers and buttoned it up after ensuring that the queen was present and things looked good.  And, then we moved to the second hive.

The top honey super came off.

And, as we reached for the second honey super everything went terribly, horribly wrong.

The bees began erupting from the open hive and pelting me at full speed in the face and chest.  Their little bodies plunked off the mask, skittered back and started at me for another round.  As soon as the mêlée started, I ordered Jacob to leave the hive, grab Beckett (who was playing twenty or so yards away) and get inside the house.

And, then the stinging started.  In a panic and an act of self-preservation I turned on my heel and calmly walked away from the hive.  The bees wouldn’t let up.  The stinging and dive-bombing continued.  The back of my legs and lower back were quickly becoming pin cushions and I was now back to the house and still under attack.  In a last ditch attempt to rid myself of the bees, I literally turned the smoker towards me and began dousing myself from head to toe in the white cloud.

Well, now I was faced with a rapidly accelerated heart rate, an open hive of menacing, very clearly unhappy bees and an ugly fear that had settled into the pit of my stomach.

But, I took a deep breath and trudged back up to the hive on the hill.  It was a race against time.  I haphazardly threw the boxes back on top, shut the lid and skooted away.  Stings again.  Bees that wouldn’t quit again.  And, a smoker to my face to get them away again.

Twenty two stings later and I was left with sore legs, a near death heart rate, but most destructive of all – a complete loss of faith and confidence in a hobby I had held so dear for so long.

The next two weeks were spent with my face plastered to the computer screen scouring the internet for information and corresponding via email with countless beekeepers.  Evenings were spent with local keepers picking their brains and asking for help.  As I told my story to fellow keepers, I was met with shocked faces and looks of dismay.  It was reassuring to me that the overwhelming consensus was that the entire experience was beyond abnormal and totally out of character.  The suggestions came flooding in…

Forget smoke – try sugar water in a light mist from a spray bottle

Don’t inspect the hive in the late afternoon because the foragers are coming back and will be in a tizzy when they return to find their home in pieces and upended – go for early afternoon when the hive is emptiest

Check for the queen

Give the hive time to settle and come back in a few days

So, I spent sleepness night after restless night twiddling my thumbs and thinking…  WAY TOO much thinking.  My stomach was in knots.  I was bubbling over with apprehension.  And, I didn’t have the answer.  But, for the first time ever I was scared.  And, I have never, ever, EVER been scared of bees.

When I first began beekeeping, I armed myself with a wealth of knowledge and an assurance that I wasn’t allergic to bees.  My first inspection of a hive seven years ago was mixed with a combination of eagerness and respect.  I have always, always, always understood the nature of the honeybee.  They are a social insect that is not prone to attack or violence, particularly suicidal destruction, and every single one of my inspections, numbering in the hundreds, have supported this view.  Until three weeks ago, I could only count two bee stings to my record – and, they were my fault, the direct result of accidental carelessness.

So, where did it all go wrong?

What did I miss?

How could I fix it?

Was something inherently wrong with my hive?

I wish I had the answers.  I want the answers.  I need the answers.

But, this last weekend, I met with the hives again.  I loaded myself with every suggestion I had been given and it still spiraled downwards.  Agitated hives.  Turbulent bees.  Swollen ankles.  And, a complete lack of answers.  I began to peek into the hive and it started.  I immediately sensed unrest and then the uproar began to unfold.  Without hesitation – I closed it up and walked away.  Tears streaming down my face.  Labored breathing.  And, an absolute overwhelming sense of defeat.

I am a hostage.  I am a prisoner to my shattered confidence and pride.  My faith and conviction are wobbling.  My hand has been forced and the bees are refusing to relinquish their hold on the honey.  And, I am broken.

As I write this, my heart is heavy, but I am concerned.  I am deeply concerned for the reaction this post will elicit from my readers.   It is not meant to be an invitation for “I told you so”s or belittling remarks and questions like “Duh, what’d you expect from bees?!”.

I am in a bad place.  And, to gain strength, I must hold on to the unanimity that this abnormal.  I know it.  My fellow beekeepers know it.  This is not normal honeybee behavior.

What set them off?  I don’t know.

What do I do now?  I don’t know.

Where do I go from here?  I don’t know.

Will I still keep bees?  I don’t know.

But, I do know this – I still love my honeybees.  And, I still love bees.  I have come to the conclusion that the fear I have is not of bees, it is of my hive.

Oh, the bumps and bruises of life.  This surely is a mighty hurdle to jump – but, here’s to a toast for tomorrow…

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15 Responses to A breaking heart

  1. Jenny says:

    I’m so sorry Kate! How are you now? Have the stings healed? Did you see a doctor?

    I wish I had advice for you, but the only thing I can offer is hope. Today is a new day and you may find just the little nugget of wisdom that you need to solve the problem. You can be thankful that your family is safe and there are still bee’s making honey, who are obviously going strong. 🙂 Hang in there and know that your efforts and perserverance are appreciated and applauded. This too shall pass.

    • sacredbee says:

      Yes, the stings are fine – they actually didn’t hurt too much. Just my pride that is hurt. And, I guess I now know 100% that I am NOT allergic to bees. And, yes, this too shall pass. 🙂

  2. Martha Doane says:

    How sad! Don’t lose heart…Perhaps your hives have been threatened by a predator and they now react to all perceived threats the same….we don’t have bears in Anacortes, but we do have raccoons. Our hives have been touchy at odd time sand we blame the local wildlife. We generally work them late in the evening or very early while it is cooler, using both sugar and smoke. Some bee keepers like the aggressive hives, as they deter theft!

    • sacredbee says:

      Wildlife nuisances have crossed my mind, too – there is no evidence of it, but it would help explain why they would be testy… It’s funny that you mention “liking” aggressive hives – I know a few keepers at my last beekeeper’s association meeting said that their “hot” hives were always their most productive. Maybe I am a chicken, but I’d rather have less honey and nice bees! 🙂

  3. Stephanie says:

    I know nothing about bees so please excuse my stupidity but I have read a few of your posts. You had mentioned before that they swarm when they’re running out of space. Would it be possible to give them more room in hopes that they would be less aggressive? Out of random curiosity how long do they live? How long is honey good for before it’s no longer collectible? I would be scared, too. That’s just uncalled for. Those bees need a spankin. 🙂 Just kidding. I’m the same way. I would NEED to find out what set them off. It’s animalistic behavior and they did it for a reason. Hopefully you can figure out why.

    • sacredbee says:

      Hi Stephanie –

      No worries about knowing nothing about bees – and your questions are good. My goal when I went into the hive the second time was to give them more room – I wanted to pull everything apart and move the queen excluder up so that she had more room to lay eggs and the bees had more room to hang out with her. But, I couldn’t even get that far… Worker bees live for about 6 weeks, but the queen is constantly laying eggs and only starts to slow down a bit in late fall and then completely stops in winter. I am trying to find the answer to your third question about how long honey is viable when stored in the hive – my assumption is a quite a long time since it is capped, but I can’t find a concrete answer anywhere… My game plan right now is to leave the hive along until mid-September or late September and then get back in. Hopefully there will be less bees and I can work with them again…

  4. Ginger says:

    Oh, I’m sorry! I wonder what caused their reaction, just like you, but I hope you’re able to get your mojo back with them!

  5. Chrissy says:

    Oh, I’m so sorry! I can “hear” the pain in your words. I can understand the feeling of loss that you must be going through. I wish I could help you, but I know absolutely nothing of keeping bees. I am sorry, though, & hope things will clear up. Did the “calm” hive get stirred up when the “angry” one erupted? I hope you can find answers & solve this problem.

  6. wendy fanello says:

    I’m sorry, Kate. I don’t know anything about beekeeping, but I do understand the love you have for your animals. As with any wild thing, they’re unpredictable, and I hope you can find a resolution that works for everyone involved. But don’t blame yourself! Good luck.

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  8. Cheryl Newbold says:

    We had a hive that was very agressive like yours, we ended up replacing the queen. The hive is now very docile. We asked many beekeepers what to do and like always every one has a different opinion. But the concensus was to replace the queen.

    • sacredbee says:

      Hi Cheryl –

      Thank you for the advice. New queen seems to now be the consensus – just not sure how to get the three supers of honey right now…


    • sacredbee says:

      Hi Cheryl – I was thinking about your comment some more and I was just wondering how you were able to even get into the hive and replace the queen. I haven’t been able to get within two hive boxes of the brood box and I can’t imagine being able to get close enough or have enough time to kill the old queen and add a new one… Just wondering. Thanks -Kate

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