I was born the son of a beekeeper, who was a son of beekeeper, who was a son of beekeeper, who was….. Anyway, the bee venom runs deep. So deep that as a kid I developed the classic curse of a beekeeper’s offspring – severe allergies to bee proteins. Probably because I received chronic-low dose exposure to bee antigens on my Dad’s skin, clothes and vehicle upholstery, but never had many (any?) direct stings until I was about a year old, I was sensitized to bee proteins and my immune system was primed to mount a full court press against bee venom. The result was a bad experience when I was first stung. I suffered full-blown anaphylactic shock at about a year of age. I survived, but the risk is real, though probably much more pronounced for the offspring of a commercial beekeeper or the child of someone who is around bees a lot. My recommendation – bee stings hurt, but if you’re worried about allergies, get that immunologic tolerance going early, even in children. If you’re serious about keeping bees, or just spending time around a feral honey bee colony in a hollow of a tree, you’re probably going to get stung sooner or later. So why not go ahead and get it over with when you’ve got your family or a friend and some Benadryl handy, and before you become sensitized to bee venom.
On the other hand, don’t be foolish and unnecessarily provoke a colony, always make sure you have a lit smoker around when you work your hives, wear appropriate protective clothing (hat, veil, long pants tucked into boots, long sleeved shirt, with optional gloves and coveralls if they make you feel more secure or your bees have a bad attitude) and have a place to retreat to if you find yourself being pursued by more than a few angry bees. The precautions are especially important if you live in areas where New World African honey bees may be present.
Most honey bee colonies will warn you if they perceive your actions or your presence as a threat to the colony, and they’ll begin by bouncing off your body, and buzzing around you with obvious purpose, especially your head. If that doesn’t work they may resort to additional, less diplomatic tactics, to get your attention.
However, most colonies will not mount an unprovoked attack on humans unless you’ve been antagonizing the colony, either intentionally or unintentionally. The exception is the occasional rogue hive with a bad temper. Today, such temperamental hives often have some New World African influence. New World African introgression may result in colonies that seem to have a permanent kamikaze air force on patrol ready to eviscerate themselves to keep any and all intruders (especially mammals and two-cycle internal combustion engines) far away. The short term solution in those circumstances is retreat, but replacement of the queen will usually rectify the problem and return the hive to peace and tranquility.
Knowing how to cope with bee stings or the threat of bee stings is essential, and conquering your fear can be a great source of pride and inner strength. It takes a certain amount of grace and self-control to avoid the natural tendency to rip off your veil or jam your hand up under your veil in a wild attempt to crush the hapless worker stuck inside. If you do succumb to the natural urge to crush the bee inside your veil (they usually only want out – if they’d been out to sting you they would already have done so) then you’ll usually only paint the area around your veil, neck and face with the alarm pheromone from your gloves, while attracting other mean bees with your quick, panicked movements, all while you open up an much larger portal for easy access to the most vulnerable parts of your face, head and neck.
Relax, enjoy beekeeping, and don’t sweat a few stings. As my grandfather used to say, “People can sting too, and those stings hurt a lot worse”.