One last sting: a fitting end to 2020

Snow scene: Are your honey bees ready for winter?

December 31 began cold and wet as usual, but I decided to check on my bees. I would hate for them to go into a new year without sufficient food, so I lifted the back of each quilt box a half-inch and peeked into the feeders one by one. Each stop took about five seconds, so no big trauma was in store for them or for me. I thought.

The first few were fine. Lots of feed, lots of bees. No discernable problems. But the fifth was weird.

I was wearing a men’s three-season jacket, one I save for muddy or wet winter chores. The bottom hem falls just above my knees, and I can tighten the Velcro at the wrists and neck. Over that, I wore a veil because I didn’t want a red and swollen face on New Year’s Eve—not that I was going anywhere, but on general principles.

Hot bees

When I raised the fifth quilt box, the bees flamed out of the tiny opening, reminding me of the burning gases that pop from an oxygen-starved wood stove when you open the door. Where no bees had been a second ago, there were now hundreds.

No matter, I had the veil. The feeder was full, and although I had difficulty lowering the quilt without squishing bees, I finally succeeded.

I continued my trek up the hill to number six, but as I walked, I felt a tickle on my back which, without thinking, I gave a little scratch. The result was instant, white-hot, searing pain. I felt like someone had stabbed me with a hot poker right on my backbone. In an instant, all the prior discussions of winter stings vs summer stings came back to me. I wanted to vote again and again.

A second shot

Once I caught my breath, I touched the spot again. Big mistake. I inadvertently hit the stinger, squeezing out the last bit of juice. The agony resumed, pulsing along with my heartbeat. The pain radiated from a single point then fluttered like an aurora, painting effervescent colors on my brain.

I squatted in the brambles for a while until the searing heat lessened. Before long, I stood, ready to resume my rounds.

When I got back to the house, I lifted my shirt and my husband said, “It looks like someone gave you a spinal tap. There’s even a hole in the middle!”

No surprise. It felt like that, too.

A few hours later

I didn’t find the bee until that afternoon.

But here’s the thing. While on the internet, I try to behave like a civilized and respectable member of society. I try to remain mannered and polite, and I even restrain my vocabulary. So admitting I found the deceased in my underpants sounds less than ladylike. “Must I really say it?” I wondered. But in the interest of scientific accuracy, I must confess the exact location of her demise.

And in the words of the Mayor of Munchkinland, she was “really, most sincerely, dead.”

The only thing I can figure is she flew beneath my long coat, walked up under my shirt, strolled along my backbone minding her own business until I gave her the little scratch. Then, after piercing delicate parts of my anatomy, she lost her stinger and either walked or fell into the inside of my waistband and proceeded from there.

I know, I know. Real beekeepers don’t complain about stings. Real beekeepers don’t even admit getting stung, so I must be a fake. Whatever. To my way of thinking, those wee injections can really mess with one’s composure.

Happy to see the new year

With all that’s happened in the past year, a final sting seems fitting indeed.

Here’s wishing all of you a happy, healthy, and safe New Year. Now that the holidays are over, we can get down to serious bee business once again, and I can stop having fun and be civil once more.

Welcome 2021,

Honey Bee Suite

A final sting. Two hives lightly dusted with snow, a green Langstroth hive and a green top-bar hive.
What will the New Year bring? Photo by Rusty Burlew


  • What a great post, Rusty! I feel for you.

    I got my first sting of 2021 yesterday, here in southern California. We have had a horrendous year for varroa, and a very poor nectar flow, so we inspected a double brood box hive on a warm day (65F+) as quickly as possible. It turned out that they were low on food and high on wax moths, so we condensed them down and gave them some food. Well, I got the expected thanks with a sting through my glove. No big deal, except it hurt for about 8 hours!

    We have a dissecting microscope, so I looked at the sore point, and all I could see was broken skin and a bit of fluid leaking out. No stinger, no venom sac. But my goodness I was a wuss about it hurting. Hopefully, the rest of the year will be a cake walk!

    Meanwhile, thank you for all that you do, and I wish you a very happy, healthy, and safe New Year!

  • That’s crazy how the bees got all defensive in the winter. I would think the cold outside would slow them down. It seems like behavior for the mid-fall nectar dearth time. My bees in the wintertime are very docile if they fly out on warm enough days or cracking the hives open.

    Well, my story goes like this: Christmas Eve was a windy rainy stormy night here in PA, enough wind to make our apartment in the barn shake. Three days later I walk back to the apiary and there is one of our home-built horizontal hives (aka Longstroth) without its telescoping cover. Mind you, I made this cover 3.5 feet long and about 20 lbs. The wind lifted it right off exposing the 3.5 feet quilt box underneath but blowing out most of the cedar chips. The bees were exposed to the cold, wind, and rain for 3 days!!!

    I was horrified. Underneath the small patch of remaining cedar chips was a surprising amount of bees clustered together. I refilled the chips, whipped up some food for the girls on wax paper, and this time strapped the cover on to the hive body. I can only hope the queen survived the exposure.

    Cheers Rusty. Happy New Year.

  • Oh, Rusty! Once again, your gifted storytelling has put me in stitches.

    Sorry, I know it’s not polite to laugh about your mishap, but the way you craft a tale makes me feel like I’m right there watching the whole shebang.

    Thanks for starting the new year with a post that can bring us together.

  • Underpants, eh? I have a stinging insect story that caused me to strip down to my underpants in public, does that count? I was not behaving, or speaking, like a civilized member of polite society either. The blue haze hung in the air for hours.

    I am completely amused but glad you made it out no worse for the wear. I have never encountered a winter sting. The weather here has gotten winter like so I checked my hives to be safe. In spite of doing everything by the book, I think I lost a couple anyway. Seems a little quiet. I also opened the hives and slid in a couple of patties, but the bees are down in a cluster so I didn’t end up with dead bees in my undies, this time. Happy new year, Rusty. You have the best stories and serious information. Stay well, be safe.

  • The trials and tribulations of beekeeping ! At least the whole shabang didn’t come out in full force and get cha, one you can handle, no problem. ha. ha. It’s funny how different stings leave different imprints. You can dab a bit of peroxide on the sting and let it bubble, usually that will stop the pain right away. We also use spit, which is very scientific. How bees get into the suits and move around to the face area is beyond me. Glad you survived the holidays and are ready to take on the New Year. Unfortunately, weather wise, the worse is yet to come in Ohio.

  • Hi Rusty

    I love your posts. This one is most entertaining as I got 2020’s last sting about a week ago. So far, we have had a very mild early winter in North Georgia, so mild that I needed to mow in the apiary.

    It was in the mid-60s and the bees were active, so I wore my veil long sleeves. The bees paid little, if any, attention to the actual mowing, so I thought nothing about them when I had to add fuel to my push mower. While the noise and vibration action of mowing brought no protests, the flailing arms of a person pulling on a starter cord, however, must evoke some protest. I got stung on the wrist and had a couple of angry bumps on my veil.

    I was happy I had the veil on as I usually get stung near my eyes. No sting is really welcomed or fun, but this one from an over-wintering bee seemed more painful. Maybe because I did not expect it.

    Cheers –

  • Ha, I can picture the wee munchkin voice of the Mayor, I don’t think it was the Wizard? saying those words of truth. Cleaning the bottom boards out a few weeks ago, one crawled up my sleeve and stung my wrist and my thoughts mirrored yours: OW! That hurt! I was swollen for days. Have a better year this year, I am thankful I have my bee’s.

    • I think it was the wee voice of the Coroner. My grandson watches that movie all the time.

      Enjoy your site Rusty.

      • Steve,

        Oh no! Do I still have it wrong? I need to watch the movie again. Actually, the coroner makes more sense than anything else so far. After all, what does the wizard or the mayor know about such things?

  • You said, “Real beekeepers don’t even admit getting stung, so I must be a fake.”
    Nonsense. Plenty of beekeepers are all “My stings are SO much worse than yours!”

    Seriously, do I need to get myself a winter sting just so I can have an opinion on that? As it is, my allergist and I have decided that I no longer need bee venom immunotherapy from March through November, but only during the winter when I’m not getting naturally injected.

  • Agree – put me down as winter bee stings are just “hotter”.

    I went back and read the original winter sting post and comments and am interested in the variety of comments and anecdotal stories.

    For myself, I would rank it into two categories. Initial pain (measured in the number of 4 letter words uttered) and swelling reaction. Winter stings clearly hurt more. A lot more.

    I notice that as summer wears on and I have more stings under my belt the severity of the reactions seems to go down. I am also aligned with – location matters. But I would add -total dose also matters. If I get one – not so big a deal as if I got 4 or more at once. When I get several it is time to quit and head for the Benedryl bottle.

    I have heard that folks in beekeeping often get either more and more reactive or less and less over time. I started many years ago and was noticing that I was getting less and less. But then one summer evening when I was all hot and bothered and there was an approaching thunderstorm coming so I was in a hurry and the storm was putting the bees in a foul mood – that I took like 4 stings at the same time. That day my whole body went into reaction mode – face swelled up and I went off to the hospital for an epi shot.

    Since then I have had many many stings – so I am not a truly allergic person to stings. I get along with my normal seasonal response – getting less of a reaction over the course of the season. But my brother-in-law went the other way. He got more and more reactive. He had one day with a few stings that also sent him to the hospital. After that, all the bees were moved from their property over to my house. Not worth messing around with a truly allergic reaction. Folks can and do die from that.

    As much as I hate the hot things, I always wear my suit and veil.

    • Herb,

      To me, the sting location makes a difference. If I get stung on the hands and arms, it disappears almost instantly. If I get stung on the face, everything swells up and seems to last for days.

  • Yeah and now do the trifecta –
    A sensitive location
    A couple of stings
    And yourself all hot and bothered not cool calm collected and in a zen mindset.

    I have learned that if I get into that hot and bothered zone – to just stop and finish the rest of the hives another day. I think you should write us a blog post about the “Zen of Beekeeping – what helps it and what ruins it.” Surely the stuff that ruins it makes for better and funnier stories……….

    I remember once having a bee up the pant leg and climbing — toward sensitive regions. She was already too high to just squish her. I lay down on the ground – leg in the air. That bee eventually turned around and walked all the way up my leg and out the cuff. We both won that time!

  • Hello Rusty,

    I am in Ontario and we have snow = just went to hives and found a lot of wings lying in the snow wondering if something got into the hive they were not right at the entrance but maybe two feet away at the side.

    Any information appreciated,


    • Elizabeth,

      Hmm. I’m trying to sort thru long lists of predators. Some do leave the wings behind, but I can’t remember which. I’m thinking it could be something like a vole, mouse or the like.

  • We keep ten hives in rural Devon UK. It feels that the weather has been getting more extreme in recent times. We have had a cold period for the last few weeks and early this week we had a hard frost that froze all the water (unusual for Devon). So yesterday we treated all the hives with oxalic acid using a Gas Vap sublimator/vapouriser. It was a sunny day and with the previous poor weather, it felt like there was a good chance of no brood. Everything went well until the last hive for which we had to remove an entrance guard. As soon as we did so a company of brave defenders launched out without warning and attacked. On this occasion, we were both sufficiently protected that none got through to sting but they wanted to! Afterwards, I realised that this was the poly hive whose lid had been swept off in high winds and rain two weeks ago. I had only found them in the morning after and could see the rain and cold had done a lot of damage but it was not sensible to do anything except replace the lid and hope that the queen and enough workers survived. Their reaction yesterday confirmed that some of them did but it also reminds me that when bees are angry there is usually a good reason and sometimes it might just come down to a desperate bid to survive after all we could have been a marauding badger!

    • Colin,

      The defensiveness could also signal queenlessness. Since you had that wind incident a couple of weeks ago, you should probably make sure you still have a queen.

  • Hi Rusty, it did occur to me that they might have lost their queen but I cannot see how I could help them if they had? Surely not a good idea to try and combine them with another colony mid-winter? I had thought to wait until the spring and see how it turns out.

    • Colin,

      If I thought they were queenless, I would definitely combine them. I’ve done plenty of mid-winter combinations. Once you have all your equipment ready, it takes about a minute. If they are queenless and you wait till spring, you will have a laying worker hive, if any.

      See When is it too cold to open a hive?

  • Rusty, use a bungee cord on the outside of the jacket, around your waist. Our bee jackets have long since lost their elastic but the bungee cord has kept them outside for the past 2 years. One of these days I will get to replacing the elastic….

  • Hey,

    Funny story of yours.

    I treated my hives with oxalic acid vapour on December 27th (all 4 hives). Today (Jan 6th) one hive is dead. On inspection, I think it was a queen that failed probably back in October. Failing queen theory comes from a few queen cups filled in with milky jellylike thing as well as dead drones only brood present. I looked at my notes from November and surprised myself by reading my own note about loads of drones flying out of this same hive. How could I make a note of this without my brain registering it? I found it strange enough to take a note;)


  • Hi Rusty,

    I’m glad other people experience that winter bee explosion as well. My sweetest hive exploded just as you described when I lifted the lid on the rapid feeder in their feeder shim in mid-December, the other three did not even acknowledge my presence. Two weeks later everything was back to normal.

    Additionally, on December 3 a softball-sized swarm appeared in my apiary which is not a big surprise, and not a death sentence here in South Florida as it would be in other areas. I put them in a 3-frame nuc with sugar and a pollen patty and checked them in two weeks, and was surprised at how vigorously they defended their space. I barely got a glance inside, but they were already building new comb on the one frame that wasn’t completely built out comb so they should be fine. Understand that we are in a completely Africanized area. We don’t even call them Africanized anymore, we use the term African-derived now.

  • Hi Rusty,

    Yes, there will most likely never be a match for the feeling of a bee in your underwear. Year 5 was etched in history when I was helping one of the girls out of the pool. I tried to tell her she can’t swim. A little sting to the ring finger resulted in the ring-cutting removal off of the now pickle size digit. It was sting #4 of the year so the full suit became the calming effect I needed for a little while. However, if you don’t zip up the ankles, sting #5 was epic. She crawled up my shorts to the very top of my inner thigh right next to uh hum. PANIC, many bad words aloft, I was out of that suit and the shorts in the middle of the backyard doing the lightning dance to the house. After cracking open the little green vile of pain reliever, I realized she wasn’t done. I was trying to remove the stinger when suddenly she did that little dance, as her life passed before her eyes, in the very bottom of my garment, I almost passed out. Instead, she and the shorts were launched. Good thing the kitchen was vacant. Yesterday I checked and added food, a big jacket, and a hooded veil. My wife thinks I am crazy to keep bees to begin with. I am starting to think she is onto something. Planning year #8. Addiction or obsession, not sure. Thank you for your great site!

  • Can you combine a large queenless hive with a small nuc in January if temps are around 50 degrees? (see my email, please)

    Thank you!

  • I had two hives, two different strains. The first, from Truchas, NM was (was) very gentle bees. They were badly hit by yellowjackets in November and absconded. I made a yellowjacket screen but was too late. We were very saddened by this loss since we usually have brutal winters, down to -15F. But I think our low, in this hottest global year on record, was -4F. Hoping they survived but it’s probably a fantasy. The second hive, more aggressive, had no hornets. They are said to have originated in NW USA, a relatively new strain. Pretty productive, compared to the Truchas strain.

  • I’m 6’5″, most of it legs. Last spring had one make a whole climb up before planting her flag in my, er, boys. Not sure what hurt worse, the sting or me slapping myself repeatedly in the crotch.

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