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You’ve been looking forward to this moment for a very long time and it has finally come: you now possess your very own colony of honey bees. There is it, right in your own backyard. But in truth, you’re still afraid of bees.
Your mentor helped you set up your new hive and install the bees. Wearing only a veil, she made it seem effortless. The bees remained calm and orderly, the job went quickly, and no one got stung. You even felt sheepish dressed to the nines in your sparkling white suit of armor.
But now that you’re on your own and preparing for your first hive inspection, you feel a tad uneasy. Maybe more than a tad, so you put it off for a few hours. You tidy the kitchen, pay a few bills, do a load of laundry. With that list of mundane chores out of the way, perhaps you can focus on the hive.
Hours turn into days, but you still haven’t inspected your bees. Your mentor texts asking how it went, but you don’t answer. You’ll inspect first, then reply. After all, you don’t want to look like a total wimp.
Self-doubt is common and fear is normal
We’ve all been there. Watching people work bees or reading about inspections is one thing, but actually doing it yourself is entirely different. What seemed so calming and obvious is suddenly intimidating and just plain scary. Suddenly, “what-ifs” stream into your head.
What if you get stung? What if the bees decide you’re toast and gang up on you? And what if you drop a box? Squish your queen? Can’t figure out how the whole thing goes back together? What if you can simply go no further? Then what? What will happen to the bees? To you? Whatever made you think you could do this?
I’ve seen plenty of prison inmates, beefy hulks incarcerated for all kinds of brazen crimes, quiver in their stripes when it was their turn to lift a frame of honey bees. Okay, I admit it made me giggle, something a mentor should never do, but I’m pretty sure they were too terrified to notice.
Everyone has fears of some type
One time I ask a fully suited friend to help me lift a box and carry it to a different hive stand. This person was an accomplished mountaineer whose name you might even recognize. He broke records for doing things no one had ever done over there in Nepal. But he was nervous as a cat about helping me. I adjusted his suit, veil, and gloves and assured him he would be fine. All he had to do was help me carry a bee-crammed deep brood box about 20 feet. I needed help because the box was way too heavy for me alone.
About halfway to our destination, fear overtook him. He was simply terrified of the bees, some of whom had come out of the hive and were gently circling. Without warning, my friend dropped his end and ran.
Instinctively, I bent my knees and tried to lower the box to the ground, but I weighed little more than the box so I lost control. I crumpled to the ground and the box landed with a thud. Then, by golly, my friend got to see what angry bees look like.
Accept rather than fight the fear
I mention these stories to show that even brave or violent people have issues with fear. Just because you’re fearless in some aspects of life doesn’t mean you can face a honey bee with steady nerves.
As children, we fear things that hurt right from the get-go. Then we hear stories that confirm our fears and make them worse. To overcome that built-in trepidation, we must make a conscientious effort. You must work through it.
The good news is that you can do it, just as thousands of others have done before you. Nearly everyone starts out with some fear of bees.
Take baby steps until you’re no longer afraid of bees
I once had a college roommate who was deathly afraid of snakes. She would jump uncontrollably if she saw a picture of one. Much to my surprise, she volunteered to take part in a desensitization study conducted by the psych department.
On the first day, she had to enter a large room where a harmless snake in a covered glass container sat on a table at the far end of the room. To start, they instructed her to go only as far as was comfortable for her, which meant she didn’t even get through the door. After a week of daily sessions, she finally got into the room.
Weeks later, she could actually approach the table, and by the end of the semester, she could lightly touch the glass. She never got to where she allowed the lid to be lifted, but I admired her determination to improve her life.
Forcing yourself too soon can lead to mistakes
My roommate was an extreme case, and she didn’t have any desire to become super friendly with her nemesis. Nevertheless, I urge bee-frightened beekeepers to use a similar approach. That is, start slowly, take baby steps, then try to discover what trips your fear and why.
I don’t believe it’s good for you or the bees to force yourself. When you are fearful, you are more apt to make mistakes, rush the job, injure your bees, or do an incomplete assessment of your colony. Your focus will be on getting done rather than being thorough.
Simple steps to overcome fear of bees
Here are some things you can do in your first days and weeks of beekeeping that might help calm the jitters. Where you start will depend on how nervous you are, but if you are extremely uncomfortable, start at the beginning.
- On your first few days, walk close to your hive without opening it. Listen to the bee activity, watch them come and go, and study any bees you see on flowers.
- Once you are comfortable walking close to the hive, try cracking the lid. Open the hive from the back and just peek inside. Watch the bees for a while before closing it again.
- When you’re ready, take off the lid and watch the bees. Lay the lid aside and see how the bees behave without the cover. Most often, they will just carry on as usual. If one head-butts you, it may be scary, but you will see how your suit or veil protects you.
- When you’re good with opening the hive and accustomed to a few bees checking out your suit, gently take out an end frame and set it aside for a few minutes. Watch the bees awhile. Put your gloved hand on a top bar and let a few bees crawl across your glove. Allow yourself a few minutes with the bees (but not too long) and then return the frame and close the hive.
- Once you are okay with taking out a frame or two, you’re nearly ready for a real inspection. But if you get nervous, start to shake, or feel your heart race, just close up for the day. Breathe (but not on the bees). You can always try again tomorrow.
- When you are ready for that first inspection, start by stating your goal. Once your goal is clear (something like looking for comb building or checking for eggs) review the steps you will take during the actual inspection. In my mind, knowing your specific goal and how you will get there is critical to a good inspection.
- If you begin to feel afraid, reverse course and lock up the hive. It is better to stop and get yourself sorted than to plow through and perhaps injure your bees or get stung.
- Be sure to make notes of questions you want to ask your mentor or any concerns you have about your hive.
A warning about helpful beekeepers
Don’t let anyone else decide how much protective gear you should wear. That’s your decision. After decades of beekeeping, I still find people trying to intimidate me into going without gloves or without a bee suit. Why do they even care?
We are all different and have personal reasons for our choices. I know beekeepers who wear no protective gear and others who wear full suits to do the tiniest job. That’s not my business and I would never try to persuade someone to do it differently.
Likewise, don’t let someone—even a mentor—push you faster than you want to go. Beekeeping is not a race. And sometimes we take a few steps forward, only to take a few steps back. That’s okay, and it’s part of the learning process.
It’s fine to begin at a snail’s pace. You will know when it’s time for you to take the next step. Before you know it, you will be on autopilot and feel entirely comfortable (at least on most days) with your bees. Congratulations! You are now on your way to being a competent and caring beekeeper.
Honey Bee Suite
As a child, I once stepped in a “bee” nest in the ground. (This was one hundred years ago, before I could clearly distinguish honey bees from Not honey bees or VAGUELY distinguish wasps from bees. But looking back I would now guess yellowjackets.) I was in shorts, at Girl Scout day camp. I was stung all up and down my leg, by one ZILLION “bees”. This was not pleasant but left me with less fear of stings, rather than more.
If I could give some advice to anyone thinking about becoming a beekeeper I would tell them to go get stung first. Get it over with and learn that it’s nothing to be afraid of. Or learn that you just don’t want any more of that, ever.
For the record, I’ll walk through a bee yard with whatever I happen to be wearing, and stick my nose at entrances while I’m at it—leading to stings on two occasions, and really I deserve it if I’m gonna stand in everyone’s flight path. But if I’m opening a hive, I suit up head to ankle and check my ankles to make sure my socks are tucked in and my overlarge beesuit is bagging down over the socked gap between suit and shoes, AND check my three veil zippers to make sure they’re all overlapped properly, AND put on some blue nitrile gloves. I might not dress like that if I’m watching you mess with YOUR bees. But if I’m messing with my own bees I don’t care how brave I look. I care that I’m ready to take a deep breath and close the hive back up if something goes wrong, instead of fleeing the vicinity of someone else’s bees.
This describes how I do it, too. I don’t worry about stings except for the fact they swell up so much. Whatever part gets stung gets big and red and hot and takes a couple of days to return to normal, which is annoying. The only part that doesn’t swell up is my hands, which seem to be immune. The pain of stings doesn’t last long, but the swelling lasts and I don’t like to drive home when my eyes are swollen shut.
Like you, I don’t suit up unless I’m actually opening a hive. I’ll stand close to hives or bees in the field, but opening calls for more care. I don’t care what anyone else thinks about that; they can do what they like.
I have been assisting bees for a half dozen years now. A couple of years ago I was opening a hive that had a nasty disposition (under attack by a skunk perhaps?) when one very proficient guard bee somehow crawled under my suit and stung my wrist.
The surprise and pain caused a significant ‘flinch” and I dropped the box I was just lifting off the hive. Well, needless to say, the troops amassed and chased me down the road a few hundred meters before they retreated. My ankles were particularly targeted and I had to go back and put the hive to rights!
Bottom line? Now that I am comfortable in my (extra) protective gear, I am able to be a lot calmer, not worrying about the stings that may come.
Nice read from above comments.
Am in Kenya.
We handle the beehives by night to reduce the bees’ aggressiveness.
You switch off the torch. Brush the bees off the bee suit and move away from the apiary.
After a while, you find the bees calmer.
Thank you for all of this! I had bees years ago and would like to have them again someday. They are so important to our food supply, and the balance of nature.
I am still unsure on how to attract bees into a bee hive after building one to start bee keeping and honey making. Please let me know.