The Day the Bees Fell on My Head

Hi folks, It’s swarm season and there is a lot of activity in the bee yard. I couldn’t help but think about an adventure that happened there several years ago:

swarm tree coverI was fifty feet up a tree. It was in the spring of my fiftieth year, when fifty thousand bees fell on my head. Fifty thousand bees weigh more than you might think — maybe four or five pounds. The mass landed heavily, with a buzzing thud, and pushed my hat down to my ears. Within a few seconds I was virtually covered with bees. They oozed down over my shoulders, arms, and trunk like a mass of living, breathing, buzzing pudding.

I was so glad I had worn my bee veil. I had my long-sleeved beekeeper’s gloves, too –but the gloves dangled uselessly from my back pocket. I wanted to have a good grip on the branches while climbing the tree so I hadn’t worn them. And I did have a good grip! But how those bees tickled as they crawled all over my unprotected wrists, exploring my open sleeves and the white knuckles of my bare hands as I grasped those treetop branches for dear life.

For some reason I got to thinking about a honeybee’s stinger. It is such an amazing organ. A bee’s stinger is much more than a simple hypodermic needle. It has three moving parts that work together. The top of the stinger is a needle-sharp stylus. Underneath the stylus are two barbed lancets. Together these three parts form the three-sided venom canal. At the base of the stinger is the muscular venom gland.

When a bee stings you, she jabs that needle-sharp stylus into you and those two barbed lancets start working back and forth. The barbs catch in your flesh and they pull the stinger deeper and deeper. Meanwhile the venom gland pumps the venom down the canal and that’s when you start to feel “…a pain so characteristic that one knows not wherewith to compare it; a kind of destroying dryness, a flame of the desert rushing over the wounded limb as though these daughters of the sun had distilled a dazzling poison from their father’s angry rays…” (1)

Because the stinger is anchored so securely, when the bee tries to fly away after stinging, she can’t escape until her rear end tears off. Even though she is gone, the stinger remains, and the venom gland pumps away, injecting more and more venom. (So if you do get stung, you should, as quickly as possible, try to scrape, rather than pinch, the stinger to remove it.)

The unfortunate bee flies off, mortally wounded, and she dies. If you are allergic to bee stings, you might die too. Even if you are not allergic to bee stings, getting a few hundred can still be quite serious–especially if you are 50 feet up in a tree when you get these stings. So, I decided right then and there that this was not a good time or place for panic. I took a deep breath.

I couldn’t help but notice–these bees were not stinging me. Bees don’t really “want” to sting. It is such an investment to sting; if they sting, they die. However, in order to protect their hive, their home, their babies and their queen, they will sting and give their lives without hesitation..

This was a classic bee swarm, not a virulent hoard of stinging marauders. These bees were homeless and vulnerable. They had outgrown their living quarters and left their home for the next generation. Before they left their hive, they gorged themselves on honey. Their bellies were full and now they were hanging out, feeling mellow (at least they were before they fell on my head). Without a home or babies to protect, they had little reason to sting.

HOMELESS, you say? Why were these bees homeless? From up in that tree I could see all my neatly painted bee hives lined up down below — more than a dozen. I had assembled and painted them. I hauled in cinder blocks and wheel rims for hive stands to keep them up off the moist ground. I supplied them with comb foundation for them to make their honeycomb and raise their babies. I fed them when they were hungry and gave them medicine when they were sick. Why were these bees hanging out up here in this tree being homeless?

This is the way of honeybees. This swarm was made up of the field bees and the queen from one of those hives down below. They had been working hard since late February when the first maples began to bloom, and they had built up their colony rapidly. There were many thousands of workers. They had filled their hive with comb and brood and a great store of honey. It was getting crowded; so now it was time to hand over the hive to the next generation and start again somewhere else. The queen and all the active field bees were flying off together to start over in a new location.

A typical swarm, leaves the hive and lands nearby, as a large, buzzing gob. From here scout bees fly off to explore the countryside looking for a new hive site. If you are an alert beekeeper, you can often catch the swarm by taking an empty hive, removing the cover and laying it under the swarm. Then lean that branch with the swarm right over the hive and give it a good shake. Most of the bees will fall into the hive. If the conditions are right they all just march in and make this hive their home. You ease the cover on and put the hive where you want it. Now you have a new hive of bees. Catching swarms is a simple (Well, sometimes it’s simple.) way to increase your number of hives and reclaim your runaway bees as well.

That’s what I was doing up in the tree. This swarm was as big as a bushel basket, right near the top of the tree. These were all the working field bees and the queen from my strongest hive. With the work force gone, I probably would not get any honey that year from the bees that remained. I wanted that swarm!   I put up a 25- foot extension ladder that reached the first branches, and from there, I climbed the tree.

I had a pruning saw and a long rope . The bees were massed on a branch about a foot out from the trunk. My plan was to tie a rope onto that branch, carefully saw it off and slowly lower the branch with the swarm 50 feet down to the hive that I had open and ready underneath.

It might have worked–except for that one dead branch right under the swarm. In order to test its strength I held on to other branches and put one foot on it to see if it would hold me. As soon as I had most of my weight on it, the branch snapped. I was holding on securely to those other branches but when that dead branch snapped, the whole tree shook and that’s when the bees fell on my head.

Now I had all these bees on my head, crawling all over my body and flying all around me. Their buzzing grew more intense until it was a whining roar. It sounded like I was inside a chainsaw! Soon the swirling mass of came together in the air right in front of me, and took off out of the tree. That sure took a weight off my shoulders!

I watched them sail across the garden, over the shop and the woodshed and over the pond. They headed up over the trees and the last I saw of that swarm, they looked like a floating, ever-diminishing smudge against the clear blue sky until they finally disappeared over the mountain.

That was the last I ever saw of those bees. They left me speechless and blinking, stunned but unstung, still clinging to the branches, high in the crown of this swaying tulip poplar tree. Hundreds of orange, yellow and green blossoms surrounded me. Large, tender, sun-dappled leaves shimmied in the gentle breezes.

From my perch, I could look down over the garden, the bee yard, the house, the sheds and the rest of our little homestead. What a great place this was for an overview, a place to get a different perspective on things. Here I was, 50 feet off the ground; I was a half century old, on a threshold of sorts – a boundary between heaven and earth, somewhat desperately clinging to the branches of this tree of life. This was a good place to contemplate my own mortality. No, it would not be good to fall from here. It was also a fine setting to contemplate the miracle of nature as well as the complexity and absurdity of human endeavor…( like risking my life for a swarm of stinging insects?!)

(1) Maurice Maeterlinck Pg. 25 The Life of the Bee NY. Dodd, Meade & Co. 1913   Maurice Maeterlinck, was a 20th century Belgian poet, playwright, and essayist.

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Hi Friends, Thanks for stopping by. The above story is excerpted from my last book Swarm Tree, Of Honeybees, Honeymoons, and the Tree of Life

That book is part of the BUZZOLOGY SPECIAL SALE!
(Sale ends June 21 Solstice)  Go to my Products Page here.

Swarm Tree, Of Honeybees, Honeymoons, and the Tree of Life (book) $15 ($3 off)
Sail On, Honeybee, Adventures in the Bee Yard (CD) $10 ($5 off)

FREEBEE LINKS :

Honeybee Fly Around Song Todd at age 13 singing about honeybees and dancing around (and on) the bee hives.

Poplar Appeal – UNC-TV Celebrating the tulip poplar tree as a source of honey, baskets, and many other things.

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