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A Bee Sting Education

Let’s talk about stings ‘secretly”, just so you can maintain your superior masculinity and nobody will ever know that you hate to get stung! Come on, getting stung makes you more appreciative of your expertise after you learn to work your bees using little or no protective clothing and getting FEW or NO stings! Don’t lose faith now – let me teach you how to enjoy your bees, and make you feel 9’ tall! Get rid of all those anthropomorphic ideas about bees, and depend on your knowledge of bee behavior gained from your understanding of the genetic stimuli of apis mellifera provided by their Maker.

Let me put all that in “plain talk”. Since our honeybee is a social insect in contrast to being individualistic, it’s whole emphasis in life is based upon colony survival rather than self survival; but I believe that she accepts her own death if need be to accomplish this genetic goal.

Hence, she is not aggressive, daring you, the beekeeper, or even a mother mouse building a nest in the brood chamber. However, she accepts her own death if need be to defend the colony. Hence, the genetic behavior of a bee is non-aggressive but very defensive of the colony. I do not have to explain to you the importance of the senses of sight, smell, and touch to we humans. Are not they at least the same for bees with some variation?

The chief sense of a bee is ODOR (smell) rather than sight. It finds the clover bloom or tulip poplar big yellow flower NOT by sight, but by the odor of the nectar. A worker bee feels secure way up in a super by the smell of queen pheromone coming from the brood chamber below, not by sight and in the dark too. Perhaps you have smoke alarms in your house (check the batteries). In the dark, you would know if your partner peeled a banana, wouldn’t you?

One of the many chemicals of bee venom is isopentyl acetate, like oil of banana, and when a bee leaves a sting in you, your gloves, your pants, etc, the other bees think to themselves: “One of my sisters is in trouble and had to sting something – I better dash off to there and standby to give help if needed to protect our society, the colony!” In the dark as well as light – no difference.

How do you imagine a bee feels if you slap at it because it is buzzing your nose, or squeezed as you move a frame around in the hive, or get its wing or legs caught up in the long fibers of your beautiful wool sweater. In spite of the fact that our bee has five eyes they don’t see SLOW movement very well, you (particularly your hands) should always be in first gear and surely don’t wear red clothes in the apiary, because being red blind, they will bump right into you.

Take 5 and get a coke to give yourself strength for the next part. You gotta know these things and use the knowledge to enjoy your bees as you work them in your bathing suit! It is our job to convince the public of the importance of bees and their safety!

In July and August bees are “home” and “cranky”, so rather you working them at the wrong time and getting stung, it is better for you to go to the county fair to learn more yourself and for you to explain the wonders of beekeeping to the public. How much do you know about botany, that is the science of plants?

A good beekeeper is aided by having a working knowledge of botany. For example, what time of day, or under what circumstances, does a plant yield nectar? Morning? Afternoon? All day? Bright sun, cloudy drought, after rain?

You might ask “SO WHAT?” When foragers are home, the colony is crowded, and you are going to accidentally crush bees and set off a sting alarm, not to mention having difficulty seeing things easily because the frames are crowded with bees. Didn’t you get mad with the crowds when Christmas shopping? Speaking of shopping, I’ll bet you and yours have wonderful expensive “smelly-stuff” like perfume hair spray, deodorant, after shave, fancy soap, powder and even chewing gum. Wonderful for you, but are any of these smells naturally found in nature? Perhaps, although delightful to you, they might be offensive to a bee and looked upon as a colony threat. Hence, the defensive attitude rears its head and you get stung because you wore Red Charlie perfume or Old Spice Aftershave lotion.

Here is more education for you: your exhaled breath contains carbon dioxide, which can be used as an anesthesia for bees, and since they don’t like it, they become aggressive. This is why a bee constantly “flits’ around your face, because it is aggressively aroused. Remember that the next time you think about moving bees by blowing your breath on them.

If you want to look for eggs or small larvae in brood cells covered by bees, forget breath blowing, just put your bare fingers on the bees over the cells you want to inspect, and they will nicely move away from your fingers particularly if they smell natural (soiled with propolis). I am still on the subject of STINGS, so even if it’s a little boring to you, keep reading.

What I am about to say is not “old wives tales or the reasoning’s of some old non-science trained-by-his-daddy beekeeper, but the thoughts of maybe the world’s greatest medical allergists, Drs. Golden (retired) and Valentine of Johns Hopkins Research Hospital. The number of truly allergic humans to bee stings is less than 0.1% (almost zero). When you are stung on your finger and your arm swells up to your elbow or even your shoulder, that is NOT an allergic reaction but rather it indicates that your immune system is working well, and beekeepers should get stung in order to build a natural tolerance to the sting. (And just maybe it will confirm your manliness to those who are deathly scared of bees!)

The principal reason for poor beekeeping and getting stung is the FAILURE to accept and understand anthropomorphism and genetic bee behavior. The two secondary reasons attributing to poor management and being stung are cloaking yourself with protective gear and then trying to handle the bees with total disregard for nature’s way and hence forcing them into defensive posture of stinging for colony protection. The purpose of an alarm pheromone is to summon help from other bees to protect the colony. When you wear gloves it is more difficult to do hive work, and when accidently crushing a bee, or moving too abruptly, the bees go into “protective mode”. Suddenly your glove is covered by the odor of isopentyl acetate which encourages other bees to help by stinging.

The other secondary reason for being stung is ignoring natural bee behavior by moving TOO FAST (they can detect fast movement), wearing offensive (to a bee) smells, colors and fabrics; and don’t forget they are worked at convenience of man’s time (like after work or a cloudy Saturday) rather than on bee time (like when foragers are out in the field nectar collecting). I will end this by perhaps offering you this simple truth; when I say: just as “dirty hands are a part of farming” and “greasy hands are part of auto repair”, “bee stings of the hands are part of beekeeping”: If you try to avoid stings by wearing protective clothing that is fine, but with time you will gain knowledge of the genetics of bee behavior and hopefully the time will come when you can work comfortably (with no fear), without wearing protective gear.

Hopefully this epistle will have educated you so you can better understand your bees and how to relate to them, ensuring a joyful beekeeping venture! For more information on how to take up beekeeping!

Here’s to a great “honey-filled” Thanksgiving holiday to you and yours!

PS. Next month I hope to give you some great-tasting recipes that use honey as one of the ingredients. It is time to sit back and enjoy the “fruit of your labor” as we roll into the cold months of winter!


  1. Barbara Brasher says

    This is incredible. I was curious on how one would work bees without harming themselves or the bee. This newsletter is so cool.

  2. Thank you

  3. Very interesting and educational for everyone. Thank you!

  4. John McCutcheon says

    Thanks so much for the information, I am just in the learning pause of beekeeping. I hope to start next spring with my first colony, and can use all the help I can get. Please provide info on starting up for hobby beekeeping. Thanks again!

  5. Charles,

    I am interested in starting the hobby of beekeeping…and I live in Arden Hills, MN.

    I contacted the city asking for info on needed permits/licenses etc. and received back a note saying that bees are considered ‘farm animals’…and therefore, there is a distance requirement of at least 400ft. from the hive to the nearest property line.

    Given that I don’t live on a lot with that kind of space, it sounds like I will not be able to pursue my hobby at my home…other thoughts for how to get started/participate in beekeeping if I can’t do it at home?

    Is this a common requirement in the St. Paul/Mpls and surrounding suburbs?


  6. Hi Dave

    Check out this website : MN Beekeepers Look’s like your local beekeeping association is trying to fight that ordinance. That association may also be able to put you in contact with someone with acreage looking for a beekeeper to keep hives on their property for them.

    Hope that helps… C

  7. Aneything I receive about honey bees is helpful. Bill Swingle

  8. Nelson F. Paras says

    Thank you very much for your newsletter. I am associated with organic farming group and we were shown bees will greatly help organic farmers. We(my group and I) are just in the process of learning more about bees through seminars that are being scheduled by our Municipal Agricultural Officer in our town. Your newsletter gives me more added information on how to handle honeybees. Many thanks to your group.

  9. Thank you Nelson, glad to hear you found the article helpful.

  10. when i look into the hive how do I knowthat I have enough honey available to the bees for their start up in march?

  11. Hi Lewis, odd article to ask that question in but if your talking from the start of the season in oct I’d say 8-10 full frames. If your talking from now (jan) to march, check to see you have 4-5 in contact with the cluster. Always move frames to the cluster not the other way around…

  12. Great information, however, how do you get over the fear of the sting? I understand all the reasons why one gets stung and try my best to do the correct thing but, frankly, the sting hurts and quiet often has taken me by surpise. My real fear is holding a frame of bees, getting stung and dropping the frame. Suggestions…Thank you!

  13. Hi Karla, glad you enjoyed the article! As you work with your bees more and more you’ll start to learn the things that can agitate them. You’ll even be able to recognize if they’re already agitated from a bad night with a rodent or just the weather. Honestly there’s no way to know when you might get stung and it will always hurt. You mention you’re afraid of dropping the frame during a sting event. That of course is a valid concern and accidents do happen, but you can minimize the chances by moving slow and deliberately. Never rush…
    One thing to keep in mind is to never grab and pull the stinger out, rub it out with a credit card or even your hive tool, you’ll get less venom and hopefully have less of a reaction to the sting.

  14. I’ve noticed that my bees will give a little squeeze with their legs right before laying the barb to me. Of course, by the time I feel the squeeze it’s too late, but I can more intuitively tell the difference, in a bee that’s alighted on me, between a defensive response and just plain curiosity.

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