Musings on beekeeping in light of possible allergy to bee stings
Yes, I could be allergic to bees! I’ve never dealt particularly well with being stung. Who could forget the Shrek-effect following a sting to the forehead or that time I had to fly to Italy having been stung twice on my cheeks (not those cheeks). That’ll teach me to do an inspection with ominous, thundery clouds overhead. I spent the entire flight and ensuing conference trying not to scratch my arse!
So this summer, when I was stung twice through my marigold gloves, I was annoyed because I knew I’d have to contend with fat, itchy fingers. Not ideal considering my job in front of a keyboard. But once home from the apiary I started to feel a tight sensation in my chest, a sort of lumpiness in my throat and my heart was having a good ol’ hammer in my chest. I called my doctors and the receptionist told me to come in straight away.
Although mild this time the doctor said that in her experience bee sting allergies only get worse and would I consider another hobby. Uh, no! I was pretty adamant about this, which I think she thought odd. Why would I put my life at risk for insects that could send me into anaphylactic shock?
The outcome is that I’ve continued beekeeping albeit with big, thick gloves and I have an appointment at the Adult Allergy Clinic in Birmingham next Monday. The hope is that they’ll put me on a desensitisation course where basically you get venom injected into you over a course of time until your body is used to it and you’re no longer allergic. Sounds simple, right? Right?
So faced with the prospect of not being able to continue with beekeeping it made me think why I liked doing it so much. It’s certainly not all about the honey although that is, of course, lovely considering how much of the stuff I eat.
I like it because bees are just so endlessly fascinating. And I know I do go on about how amazing they are, but they really are. They also constantly surprise me because one thing I’ve learned is that they often don’t do what the books say they should. But as a beekeeper once told me, they don’t read the books.
Actually, I did read a book in the summer. A glorious book about beekeeping and gardening written by famed horticulturist Alys Fowler and Steve Benbow of the London Honey Company called Letters to a Beekeeper (although you don’t have to like beekeeping or even gardening to enjoy it). In the book, Alys - who is a new beekeeper - says, “All I can say is keeping bees is like finding yourself flying a plane. You know that crashing is the worst possible outcome, but how you stay up remains a mystery.”
It’s so true.
Beekeeping is a mystery. Hundreds of books have been written predicting their behaviour and how you should manage them, but I’ve discovered that you can’t force your authority onto them and bend them to your will. I tried in the early years to do what suited me in terms of hive manipulations and swarm control rather than what suited the bees and I paid the price as half of them still swarmed, which was infuriating but natural because that is how they reproduce.
I now try and work with their natural inclinations and if they do show signs of swarming (which they inevitably do) I use a method that enables them to think they’ve swarmed without leaving the hive on mass. It’s easier said than done, I have been known to stay awake at night fretting about whether what I did was the right thing to do. In fact, in the height of swarm season (April to May) I think I worried more about the bees than the well being of my toddler!
I do love visiting the apiary and often will just sit at the hive entrances watching the bees get on with their business. It’s escapism from life and from my desk. And, as incongruous as it may sound, beekeeping makes me slow down. You can't race your way through inspections, banging the frames and knocking the bees. Slow and steady, and I like that.
So fingers crossed that I can continue to call myself a beekeeper.