Working Bees IN the Gulf of Mexico

By Charlotte Hubbard

My children, who are all grown-up and have flown the hive, are encouraging me to travel more.

“Are you just going to hang out around home and let old age catch you?” they ask. (As opposed to meeting it in an airport?)

The kids insist I travel more to see them; their schedules and careers don’t allow them to take off much time. I guess I could travel more; it is certainly easier to nag them face-to-face about eating their vegetables.

Other than the challenge of sitting in an airline seat the size of a nuc box, I have no real issue with travelling. What keeps me from doing more of it is that, quite frankly, I need to work my bees.

Two of my three children don’t understand this need to work bees. (The third is busy working bees with the Peace Corps—she gets it.) Having bees, whether it is two hives or 200, means you can’t just dash off for weeks on end. Bees need to occasionally be worked, and when you have “bee disease,” you not only want to work them, you need to do so. Not for their sake, but for yours.

The kids’ pleas for me to visit fell on deaf ears in February and March because, as a Michigan beekeeper, I couldn’t really get away. Those months are when, weather permitting, bees might emerge and need some supplemental feeding or at least a hug and a kiss for surviving. I have such lousy overwintering rates that any living hives in February and March are invited in for hot chocolate and to browse the Kelley’s catalog with me.

When you’re a beekeeper, you really can’t get away in April either. That’s when (because of lousy overwintering rates) I have new packages to install and feed, and existing bees to pamper.

But getting away did have its appeal. While mild, this winter did seem rather long. As the only person in Michigan who hadn’t yet gone south for the season, I checked the calendar and the balance in my checking account, and at the end of April went on a long weekend to Sanibel-Captiva Island, in Florida.

Before throwing clothes in my suitcase, I threw extra feeders on my new hives and extra honey supers on the winter survivors. I reminded everyone not to swarm until I was home and able to easily capture them, and directed them to low-hanging branches to which they should swarm. It’s pointless, but maybe some year they’ll listen.

For a few seconds, I thought about throwing my veil in my suitcase. It’s swarm season. What if we were on the tarmac and the plane couldn’t take off because a swarm had landed on the jetway door? What if someone’s suitcase was stuck on the conveyor belt because a swarm landed on it? Or worse yet, landed on one of those pet carriers with a cute little Fido inside? You never know when you’re going to need a beekeeper hero.

Then reality set in. What if I did heroically collect a swarm off the jetway door? Were they then going to let me carry it on? It’s not like they’d give me an extra bag of peanuts. I left the veil at home.

In April, going from Michigan to south Florida is a visual buffet. There was green everywhere, a balmy warm breeze, and lush, large, tropical flowers. Something was busy pollinating them, but I never saw any of my winged, stinging friends until the day before heading home. I was splashing about in the Gulf of Mexico when I saw a honeybee frantically doing the same. I’ve rescued many honeybees from the drink before, so I didn’t think twice about scooping up this one in my hand so she could dry off and fly to safety.

I should’ve thought twice. This potentially Africanized honeybee had been bashed about and probably couldn’t readily distinguish between me and the relentless waves, or perhaps she was enjoying her swim and didn’t want it to end. Whatever the reason, she stung my finger with every bit of venom she could provide.

So on one hand, I did sort of get to “work bees” while on vacation. And on the other hand, well, there were a couple fingers quickly becoming the size of those plump Florida oranges.

I knew how this was going to go. There’d be increased swelling until my fingers were about to explode, and then the hand and soon my wrist would be swollen and then itchy. Typing would be impossible for the next few days. I would not be able to play the harp, tie a fishing fly, or perform open heart surgery—but I couldn’t do those things before the sting. Hoping to minimize the swelling, I zipped to the beachside bar and ordered a margarita so I could wrap my burning fingers around the icy glass.

I know how my body reacts to stings from Midwest bees, and wondered if a (likely) Africanized bee’s venom was different. Thus, in addition to my usual anecdotes (an anti-inflammatory down the hatch and topical Benadryl on the sting), I ordered a second margarita. Mind you, strictly for medicinal purposes.

Maybe it was because I was on vacation. Maybe it was the margaritas. Maybe it was the type of bee that stung me. Whatever, the swollen hand was substantially better by the next day, allowing me to return home—to a pile of laundry, critters that needing petting, and my job.

And blessedly, to bees that needed working!

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