Denver Bar Association
October 2009
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A Fool and His Honey

by Craig Eley

Last November, my wife and my 20-something daughter, Laura, went to see "The Secret Life of Bees." I know some call it a chick flick, but I like chick flicks. Besides, it was at the dollar movies, where for only a buck one can see a movie in a theater just before it goes to DVD. Since that time, the theater has been renamed "Elvis," and ticket prices have risen to the point where we are now gouged $2.50 per, probably so royalties can be paid to the Presley estate, or perhaps to the Costello conglomerate.

Even so, I thought the movie was supposed to be a big deal. However, it just turned out to be the most expensive flick I ever saw.

The movie isn’t about bees at all, much less some secret life they supposedly have. But I guess it works better than the more accurate but grim "Toddler Shoots Her Mother, Runs from her Father." At one point, it does show some beekeepers wearing their white suits and veils, opening up beehives to see how the honey production is going. My daughter turned to me and said "Dad, we should totally do that. It would help the environment."

As children get older, they seem to want less and less to do with their parents, so I felt that I could not pass up an opportunity to share an activity with my daughter. Oh, yeah, and for the good of the environment, too.

I had read that Denver passed an ordinance that would allow up to two hives in a backyard, so at least from a legal standpoint, backyard beekeeping was possible. We went to the Denver Public Library and checked out "Beekeeping for Dummies," an excellent exposition on the topic, and after reading about beekeeping, we were convinced we could do it. I spent $100 and took a beekeeping class. I bought about $700 worth of wooden hive boxes, tools and implements, and a couple of cool white beekeeping suits and veils.

I investigated beekeeping on the Internet, and learned that to start in the spring, one has to order bees during late winter. I connected with the Northern Colorado Beekeepers Association and ordered a box of bees with a queen. That set me back $72, but I was going to get about 15,000 bees, so on a per-bee basis it seemed pretty cheap.

On April 19, we drove to the Windsor exit on I-25 and went to a parking lot where a truck full of California-raised bees in boxes had arrived. Well, most of the bees were in boxes. A couple must have broken in transit, because there were thousands of bees in the air. They weren’t aggressive, though, so we picked up our box of bees and brought them to Denver. With a copy of "Dummies" in front of us, we followed the instructions and installed our bees in their new home. Everything was going great.

Every couple of weeks we would inspect the bees, using smoke to calm them down. In the beginning of the season, and with a new batch of bees, they need to be checked to make sure that the queen is laying eggs. If the queen is doing her job (and laying eggs is her only job), by the end of the season, the hive should be built up to about 60,000 bees. Like many beekeepers, I never wore gloves during this procedure, because it made some of the fine manipulation difficult. The bees would land on my hands, but just crawled around. Laura would sometimes get a bee in her bonnet — one inside the veil. She never got stung, but took to slapping a piece of duct tape where the zipper of the bee suit and the zippered veil came together. She thought the tiny opening there, even though covered with Velcro, was the entry way for the bees.

Finally, in June, I got stung on the right wrist. It swelled up quite a bit and felt very itchy for four days or so. But no big deal. Then, in July, I got stung on the left thumb. A day later it was twice its normal size, so swollen I couldn’t bend it. It didn’t hurt much, but was itchy.

One beautiful Saturday morning in August, Laura and I went out to check the bees. A friend of mine, Sam, came over to watch. Laura and I both suited up. She offered me the duct tape, but I demurred, telling her that the odds of a bee getting through the Velcro at the junction of the suit zipper and the veil zipper were non-existent. I had, after all, gotten a solid "D" in probability and statistics, while my daughter had never even taken the class. However, due to the earlier thumb sting, I did deign to put on my gloves.

It was slow work, with wax and sticky gunk where it shouldn’t oughta have been. The bees, we judged from the level of the buzzing, were getting angrier as we dug further into their residence. Sam, who was not wearing a suit, got too close and was stung over his left eyebrow. Sam has pitch black hair, and bees tend to think folks with that coloring are bears come to steal their honey. The fact that these bees have never seen a bear in their lives makes no difference — they just know these things. Sam reported that he could feel the burn oozing under the skin, down his face.

At one point I looked and saw two bees crawling around the outside of my veil. But I wasn’t sure. It was hard, but by focusing on the bees, which were so close that I had to go cross-eyed to clearly see them, I could discern their wings. This meant that they were crawling inside my veil. Not good.

I admit I panicked a little. I ran about 15 feet away from the hive and frantically tried to find the zipper to unzip the veil, while still keeping a wary eye on the little insects who had invaded my space. As I unzipped the veil, it stuck at the end of the zipper track and wouldn’t come all the way off. But I was able to get the veil and hat away from my face and let it hang in front of me as I shook the two bees out.

I was safe from the bees in the hat, but in my haste I had forgotten about the hundreds crawling all over the back of my suit. I guess they weren’t any happier than the others, because in an instant some came around from the back in a sneak attack and flew at my face. One got into my mouth (a very strange sensation I hope never to repeat), but I was able to spit it out without being stung. Another nailed me over the left eyebrow. It was an instant, searing pain and, like Sam had described, I could feel the venom flowing down the inside of my face, like molasses under the skin but with a burning, tingling sensation.

Somehow, I got out of the suit and into the house without being stung again. Within a few minutes, my face got a little puffy, but other than feeling tired I felt okay.

I got through the rest of the day by taking it easy and watching my face transform into someone I didn’t recognize. I still felt okay, though. Because of the Benadryl I had been popping all day to try to reduce the swelling, I slept well that night.

On Sunday morning, I awoke hardly able to see through the slits that were now my eyelids. I woke my wife (who recognized my voice and so did not call 911 to report an apparent invasion of extra-terrestrials), and suggested we go to the emergency room to get something to take down the swelling. While she got ready to go, I pulled out my camera and took the attached self-portrait. Not a bad photo, considering I could hardly see.

At the ER, they gave me a single steroid pill, told me to continue taking Benadryl, and accepted $100 for their trouble. The pill was worth it, though. Within two hours the swelling had significantly gone down. I still looked like a space invader, but was less grumpy.

After dropping me off at home, my wife proceeded to church, where she saw Sam and told him how I was doing. She reported to me that Sam looked fine, no puffiness. Because we had the identical sting location, I had to surmise that I might perhaps be a little more allergic to bee venom than the average person.

Family and friends who have seen the picture of me in my altered state have suggested I take up another hobby. I’ve told them lots of hobbies have their perils, but people persist anyway. For example, the first time a skydiver’s chute doesn’t open, does he just give up? They remain unconvinced.

Four days after that April morning when we got our bees, my daughter had applied for a teaching job in Honduras and was hired. She boarded a plane in late August, leaving me with sole custody of 60,000 bees. The only thing I could think to do was buy more duct tape.

I hope the environment is worth it.

Craig Eley can be reached at craig@eley.net


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