A Painful Beekeeping Lesson


Just a few of the stingers imbedded in my bee suit.

I spent the weekend in a Benydryl haze. When you make a mistake in beekeeping you get immediate feedback.

A freak summer storm descended on Los Angeles this past Saturday. Lighting strikes knocked the power out in many places and lit palm trees on fire. Unfortunately for me, the deluge softened the soil underneath one of the legs of one of my beehives causing it to fall over and knock over another hive. I didn’t discover this situation until 7 p.m. as it was getting dark. Kelly was out of town and I was alone in the backyard staring at a jumble of bee boxes.

Here’s what I should have done:

  1. Take a deep breath. Pause, and assess the situation.
  2. Come up with a plan.
  3. Gather all the equipment I needed.
  4. Smoke the hive boxes.
  5. Slowly and confidently put them back together.

Here’s what I did instead:

  1. Panic and run around like an idiot.
  2. Throw on my bee suit wearing just a t-shirt (thankfully I had pants on!).
  3. Skip the smoke and just start hefting the boxes around.
  4. Not only did I not assemble the needed equipment (smoker, lighter), I did not have the garage door opener to access that equipment. At one point I had to run through the house covered in angry bees to get the clicker.

Then I started moving the boxes without first smoking them (which I know is wrong, but I did anyways). A lot of bees came out to let me know they were unhappy. I felt the full and fierce anger of nature. I got the crap stung out of me through my suit. One of the things you learn working with bees is that a hive acts as one mind, one consciousness. When bees and humans are working together the relationship feels like telepathy. When we’re at odds it’s like something out of your worst nightmare. You’re struggling with a unseen, intelligent and very powerful adversary, one that feels very alien and “other”.

By acting hastily, I caused a potentially dangerous situation not only for myself but for other people and animals. Thankfully it was raining and dark and I was the only victim. It was one of those situations when I knew what I was doing was stupid but I did it anyways, propelled by a needless hysteria.

What did I learn? When it comes to beekeeping, never panic, always think ahead and stay calm and deliberate. Use smoke if you think there is any chance that bees might get angry. Wear a thick shirt and pants under your bee suit. Call for help. Bee boxes are heavy and sometimes two brains are better than one. Maintain your equipment (I knew that one of the boxes was leaning but I delayed fixing it). Have your tools at the ready so you can just grab them when you need them.

Of course all of this is common sense. I guess the final lesson is that we humans have a special way of screwing things up. Bees? They plan ahead, store up food for a rainy day and keep focused.

Leave a comment


  1. We greatly sympathize. Although we do not keep honey bees, we do have a bee-friendly garden and enjoy watching the industrious little bumble bees and mason bees hard at work pollinating our flowers.

    The other day Pauline, my wife, was wearing a long, flowery dress and a bumble bee, after deciding to investigate this closely from the inside, got trapped and, quite reasonably, panicked and began stinging her. Her immediate instinct was to remove the dress and prevent further stinging. However, we were in the front yard at the time and, not wishing to scandalize the neighbors, we rushed into the house, removed the dress, rescued the bee and released it outside. Only then did we attend to the four or five stings!

    We did not realize that bumble bees, unlike honey bees, can sting multiple times without apparently suffering harm. I’ve always felt bad when a honey bee stung me, generally with good cause, then left her stinger and half of her intestines with me, before crawling away to die. We guess it makes sense. The fate of the individual honey bee does not matter when the objective of the hive is to kill the intruder. With the solitary bumble bee, the fate of the individual bee does matter.

    • ok thank you so much Peter for sharing your story – i KNOW it is terrible but i laughed so hard!!! (and i really needed a good laugh today)….very glad she and bee came through it ok!!!!!

    • I’d love to hear how those stings compare to honey bee stings. And, yeah, I think most of the Hymenoptera can sting multiple times but rarely do, of course. Unless they get trapped in a dress!

    • From sad experience, I’d say the pain of a honey bee sting is about the same as that of a bumble bee. A single sting is not too bad, but dozens would certainly be cause for the use of some bad language.

      As Trish mentions below, the pain of a wasp sting – in my case, Eastern Yellow Jackets – is certainly worse. I believe that hornet stings are still more painful but, so far, I have not had one.

    • I had that happen once with a flowery dress at a downtown musical event/street dance. I think I handled it fairly well, given that I wanted to rip the darn thing right off! Instead, clutching at my dress, I scurried off to a more secluded sidestreet and flapped my skirt as I stood between two cars. I saw it fly out and away! It got me four times. I felt like I was in a cartoon….

  2. So glad you’re O.K.! That looks like a nasty attack.

    It really alarms non-beekeepers to find out that bees can, and do, sting right through a bee suit. I learned that lesson the day I brought my first package home.

    We’ve had to do a late evening rescue on a couple of occasions, but they were prompted by bear visits. The problem we’ve found is that any light source we use to be able to see what we’re doing at dusk ends up attracting bees, making it more difficult to convince them to go back inside after we’ve reassembled the hive.

  3. wow, that sounds awful!! I have been stung a few times by different species – most recently a honey bee got trapped in my shoe as I was walking across our lawn (it has lots of white clover in it). As painful as that was, ci cannot imagine being stung multiple times, and I admire your fortitude, being able to carry on while being stung. The most painful sting (again it was one sting, not multiple!) was from what we locally call red wasps. They tend to be aggressive, and their sting is painfully overwhelming! Thanks for being willing to share your story. I would have reacted the same way to the breached hives, run around in a panic, desperate to rescue bees.

    • It’s hard to say since they were mostly half-stings (a few full stings to the hole in my glove–I just bought some new gloves today!). At least ten to the right arm and five to the left. I feel better today.

  4. Has the itching commenced? My girls tagged me a couple weeks back. It takes about a week to stop scratching. Any sting home remedies work for you?

    • Hey Tesky, I’ve found that Benydryl works best, especially if you start it early and keep taking it for at least 24 hours. If it’s just a sting or two I’d go with the topical stuff as I hate the drowsiness the pills cause.

  5. I don’t understand. What is the purpose of the bee suit if it doesn’t keep you from being stung?
    The way the honeybee’s stinger works is very clever– it basically ratchets its way into your skin: “The sting consists of three parts: a stylus and two barbed slides (or lancets), one on either side of the stylus. The bee does not push the sting in but it is drawn in by the barbed slides. The slides move alternately up and down the stylus so when the barb of one slide has caught and retracts, it pulls the stylus and the other barbed slide into the wound. When the other barb has caught, it also retracts up the stylus pulling the sting further in. This process is repeated until the sting is fully in and even continues after the sting and its mechanism is detached from the bee’s abdomen.” (from wikipedia)

    • Martin, I have an inexpensive and somewhat thin bee suit. It works great as long as you are wearing a long sleeve shirt underneath it. I, stupidly, used it that night with just a t-shirt. Without that second layer bees can sting you through the suit. In addition, and I don’t know how, a few managed to get in the suit (maybe by crawling up my leg or through the hole in my right glove). One thing about beekeeping is that you have to learn how to use the suit–make sure it’s zipped up and that it is well maintained (elastic around the gloves are not worn out). Part of this is taking the time to put it on correctly. You can’t be in a hurry. I’ve since bought new gloves and, when I took a look at the hive the other day, I wore a long sleeve shirt underneath the suit. No stings!

  6. Pingback: Strapping Bee Hives | Root Simple

  7. Oh Hot Holy Hell,
    in the degenerative name of his nasty stink-hood, we cry out in the night with impunity, ” F. Dick Moore!”

    please let there be video of you running around the yard and house during this fantastic lesson in Silver Lake homesteading

    a truer youtubey moment there be none, aye matey!

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