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David Sovka: The joys and perils of backyard beekeeping

A sudden discovery complicates the matter of living with and caring for upwards of 80,000 bees

Part 1, in which the author takes delight in the majesty and beauty of the humble bee, and begins planning how to monetize yet another personal health calamity.

I’m thinking a lot about that famous Shakespeare soliloquy that Prince Hamlet gives in Act 3, Scene 1. You know, the one with all the bees. The other day I was innocently thinking about a girl I used to know in Kamloops, when – suddenly! — I received a nasty surprise-sting on the ear. Now I can’t stop thinking about suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous whatnot, and whether ’tis nobler in the mind to call for an ambulance or just die out here in the backyard.

Bees! Don’t talk to me about bees.

Until this summer I never met a bee I didn’t like.

For years, I have been one of British Columbia’s 4,300 beekeepers looking after more than 62,000 colonies throughout the province. To the horror of my long-suffering next door neighbours, my backyard sported two healthy hives, providing upwards of 80,000 bees with access to Victoria’s bountiful flowers AND up-market houses and pickle ball courts upon which to do their business (more on bee poo later, I promise).

Bees are incredibly important to agriculture as crop pollinators, contributing an estimated $538 million to the B.C. economy, and over $3.2 billion across Canada. In addition to constant sexual relations with flowering plants, bees are also known to make delicious honey (nearly two million kilograms in B.C. last year). On the other hand, sometimes they sting people and those people go into anaphylaxis and die. So, po-TAY-to, po-TAH-to.

BTW, anaphylaxis is Latin for “ant laxatives,” but what it really means is a severe, potentially life-threatening allergic reaction. It can occur within seconds of exposure to something you’re really allergic to, such as, not to put too fine a point on it, bee stings.

The business end of the bee

There are around 500 different species of bees in British Columbia, but only one that makes honey for winter food stores, the western honey bee. Apis mellifera is actually from Europe, and requires human help (beekeepers) to survive in Canada where it is cold and there are bears and French people.

Like all animals such as dogs, cats and, most commonly, highway construction workers, bees need to poop. Doctors call this process of eliminating undigested food and other wastes from the body “defecation,” which is more professional but less funny.

In the hive, poo-filled honey bees living cheek-to-jowl with tens of thousands of poo-filled coworkers have to be quite hygienic for all the reasons you are thinking about right now. What I’m saying is they have to poop outside the hive. In wintertime when they can’t leave the hive to forage, worker bees hold in their poo until weather conditions allow them to take a quick “cleansing flight” over my car.

Honey, I should probably point out, is not bee poo. That would be gross. Honey is bee barf. Bee poo is also a yellowy-brown colour, but looks more like a splat or a sausage, depending on bee health, age and how much vindaloo they had the night before. What I mean is sometimes bees get diarrhea.

While we’re talking about that particular end of the bee, but before you reach for a pen to write a complaint letter to the editor, let me say not all bees sting. Male bees, for example, are not capable of stinging because they don’t have the right apparatus in their wee bee bums. Some of the more solitary bees like bumblebees (there are 32 species in British Columbia), can-but-rarely-do sting, because they prefer sarcasm.

Some bee stings hurt more than others. Justin O. Schmidt, the Nobel prize-winning entomologist you were probably just talking about, developed the “Schmidt Sting Pain Index,” comparing the impacts of stinging insects (bees, wasps, ants and hornets) on humans to find out which stings hurt most. Dr. Schmidt, working tirelessly in his laboratory (the famed “Schmidt House”) developed the gauge by allowing insects to sting him.

The Schmidt Sting Pain Index rates insect stings from one to four, with four being the most painful. Schmidt’s original index in 1983 ranked only the sting of the bullet ant as a four. He described the sting as, “Pure, intense, brilliant pain… like walking over flaming charcoal with a three-inch nail embedded in your heel.” Later he expanded his test menagerie to also rate the sting of the warrior wasp as a four, describing it as, “Torture. You are chained in the flow of an active volcano. Why did I start this list?” I promise I’m not making any of this up.

The sting from most small bees is categorized as pain level one or less, with the pain lasting less than five minutes. The sting of the western honey bee, which is the kind that pipped me on the ear, is rated as pain level two, and lasts 5-10 minutes.

Hmmm… I’m reviewing my notes and I see that, in actual fact, Dr. Schmidt was awarded the 2015 Ig Nobel Prize in Physiology and Entomology, not the Nobel Prize. The Ig Nobels are awarded for science published in peer-reviewed journals that, “first makes you laugh, then makes you think.” So I guess we can safely bump up my pain level two sting rating to something more frightening, because that’s certainly how it was for me: scary. More on that later.

In general, bees don’t bother people unless… provoked. Unfortunately, “provoked” includes a very wide range of behaviours, from kicking over a bee hive and pantsing the queen, to sitting down to a nice cup of tea and quietly thinking about honey. You never know with bees.

When is your turn?

According to a risk analysis conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health – I swear I am not making this up – the odds of being stung by a bee is about six million to one. Unfortunately, in my experience, six-million-to-one happens nine times out of ten.

I have been stung the usual amount of times in life, which, according to Fantastic Pest Control in the United Kingdom, is no more than five times on average. With a name like that they ought to know, but it seems on the low side. I get that many mosquito bites while out checking the mailbox. Still, D-Tek Live Bee Removal Services in San Diego claims that an average adult could be stung over 1,000 times and survive. I admit this might just be another example of nonsense American exceptionalism.

Here at home, less than one per cent of Canadians are allergic to bees. By comparison, 25% suffer from allergic rhinitis (“hay fever”) and a whopping 90% are moderately-to-severely irritated by hearing the “Newfie” accent in everyday conversation. In Canada, the average number of deaths caused by allergic reaction to bee stings is less than four per year (in the United States, with their way better health care system and more progressive views on social welfare, it is 62 deaths per year). In fact, you’re more likely to be struck by lightning, which is totally going to happen if the bees don’t kill you first.

On that subject, since discovering my severe allergic reaction to bees I’ve felt like the backyard contains 80,000 live bullets pointed my way. So you may like to know that the two bee hives have been removed from my backyard to a big property in the Independent Republic of Kember, deep in North Saanich. I’m grateful to my friend Ben for moving them to the IRK, and also for naming each one of those bees “Dave.” It makes things easier for me, and for Ben.

Not being stung by bees is probably the only subject on which I agree with knuckleheaded anti-vaxxers: we’re firmly against being injected with bee venom. Nevertheless, next week I begin a FIVE-YEAR-LONG series of bee venom injections in the hope of desensitizing me to the more harmful effects (death) of another bee sting.

NEXT TIME: All the bees you can eat, PLUS everything you need to know about anaphylaxis to win at Jeopardy and, possibly, avoid dying.