5 Rules to Manage Your Beekeeping Fears
Bees. BEES. WTF was I thinking getting bees??
Strangely, that moment didn’t happen until I was standing in a drizzly parking lot and the beekeeping club member was loading two live boxes of angry bees into my Jeep. A forty-mile trek home on a windy highway in the rain with angry bees?
Then, suddenly a year of prep went completely out the window, and I really needed to pee. Urgently. There were bees in my car, now what?
Wait. Stop panicking. Breathe. You even put a spare change of underoos in your bag with a bottle of liquid Benadryl, and Benadryl tablets, and calamine lotion, and elbow length bee gloves, a suit, hat, and large swatting implement. Stop. Breathe. You’re wearing PPE. You have two layers of jeans on, and knee-high rubber boots. Breath. You can do this. You can do this without staining your underwear. The bees are in a completely enclosed box. You’re okay.
“Do you need anything?” My beekeeping mentor asked.
“I think I got this,” I muttered and chewed my lip. “I’ll call you if I get stuck.”
Managing Beekeeping Fear Rule #1:
Don’t stain your underpants. Wait. No. That’s not rule #1…
Think. Think. What was the rule? Right.
Wait. Maybe #1 was, do your prep…
Even if you do all the prep, and all the things. There will still come a moment– or a hundred moments when you’ll need to remember: Don’t Panic.
So, yeah. Rule #1.
Managing Beekeeping Fear Rule #2:
DO YOUR PREP.
My adventure into beekeeping started well over a year ago. First, I went to a beekeeping class to see if I thought I could even manage the idea of keeping bees without a minor coronary event.
“Why keep bees?” It was the first question the teacher asked (she later became my advisor). “Why do it if you’re afraid?”
For me it was a multi-tiered answer:
- Stewardship of my land by supporting pollinating colonies.
- The desire to help support bee populations overall (I have the land to do it safely)
- Plan A: I need a healthy garden and ecosystem to support Plan A
The class was hugely important in helping me dispel some myths I had about bees in general.
Myth: They’re not angry little bastards out to get you with their butt lance.
Truth: They have better things to focus on than you and your bare skin.
Myth: Beehives are not gateways to a hell dimension. (huh! Who knew?)
Truth: Beehives raise broods, make deliciously edible bee vomit, and waxy by-product.
Myth: Bees use a high-pitched buzzing whine to dislocate logical synaptic responses and thereby mind-control humans into blind panic.
Truth: Bees use sound, pheromones, and wild bee “dancing” to communicate with the hive members: humans interpreted these signals with mixed panic inducing responses: See Rule #1.
I took home literature from the class and posted in on my refrigerator for almost a year. Looking at it from time to time, and asking myself if I had the willingness to actually follow through on the level of work and fear, and financial investment. After ten months I began forming up better plans, and purchasing tools, equipment, and supplies as I found them for cheap online, craigslist, Amazon, or other outlets. I bought PPE first, obviously. Personal Protective Equipment to lower my heart rate at the thought of standing next to an un-roofed hive. There are a hundred amazing sites and pins already about Personal Protective equipment for beekeeping so I won’t re-invent the wheel.
I picked up some books, started pinning sites on Pinterest, and setting money aside for the hives. I reasoned, that I could return it all, up until that moment when the NUC arrived with live bees. (NUC = New Colony.)
That’s the moment shit got real. Holy crap. I can’t return them. I can’t change my mind. They’re here, and I hope I’ve thought this through enough. Why couldn’t I have overthought it for another year? Another year would have been prudent, right?
As I slowly pulled out of the parking lot, my pulse hammered in my head. I couldn’t hear the bees over the engine, but I imagined I could hear them plotting my demise on the highway…so I turned up the radio and tried not to keep staring at them in the rearview mirror. Those long, white NUC boxes full of BORG.
By the time I made it to the highway and headed south, the rain was really coming down. I focused on deep breaths. Getting them home would be a test of focus, getting them out of the boxes and into the hives would be the really hard part. Somewhere south of town my radio stopped picking up my easy channel and I scanned for an open frequency through the rain and clouds.
Only country music. If I had to listen to that, I’d willingly pull over and stick my own head in a live box of bees. Lesser of two tortures.
So I turned the radio off. Took a deep breath. Checked them in the rearview…and nervously began talking to them.
I’m a nervous talker. It’s a curse of the motor-mouth.
I don’t even remember what I said to them for the next half hour. Something like telling them what kind of home they were going to. How I really needed them not to freak me out. How I was trying my best to be helpful, but I wasn’t sure I’d planted enough flowering plants nearby, so they might have to wander a ways at first until the garden starts to take off. Who knows what else I blathered on about. I was filling air space with chatter…I may even have segued into bitching about men, worrying about my latest manuscript, puzzling over the latest drama at work… I can’t really remember.
By the time I pulled into the driveway I was actually quite calm. My mouth was dry from rambling on, but I’d been chatting up my new besties for half an hour and they were all quiet.
Turns out, bees are surprisingly good listeners!
The chat was so helpful, in fact, that I felt pretty good about suiting up and carrying the bee boxes out of the car and to the watershed right away.
Ordinarily, the NUC would have been put outside where the bee hive would be sitting, then you uncork or unplug the NUC and let them wander around for a day or two before moving them to the hive.
Unfortunately, it was raining pretty hard, and the cardboard boxes wouldn’t have held up outside. So, per instructions from my mentor, I was told the bees had enough food from the supplier to last a couple of days in the shed until the weather could clear.
Managing Beekeeping Fear Rule #3
Go at a pace that’s comfortable to you. It’s your speed, your tempo, your comfort zones.
This seems like a no-brainer, until you pick up a heavy box and hear the buzzing inside, and feel the vibration of thousands of live bees under your fingertips, yes even through the gloves.
Your first instinct may be to drop it. Your second may be to run. Or maybe run and drop it or drop and run or whatever combination of terror that overtakes the mind in that moment as a spastic sphincter response is taking over your muscular triggers.
Breathe. Move slow. You’re wearing protective equipment. You’re safe enough to take your time and be careful.
It was super tempting to rush the first box to the shed so I could get it out of my hands. But I know me. I know my level of clumsiness. I know my statistical probability of tripping over my own feet…so I had a vision of me rushing to complete the task, tripping over my big rubber boots and landing on a box of bees that had been confined for several hours during transport…
Not a pretty thought.
So I walked slow. Carefully. Gently.
Once they were in the shed, I stood back and sighed. The second hardest part was over. The real hard part would be later, uncorking the box, and unpacking the bees. But for the time being, they were safe, protected and fed.
So I could un-suite, and lower my blood pressure for a day or two before the next task.
Managing Beekeeping Fear Rule #4
Don’t Push Yourself Too Far, Too Fast.
When tackling a fear such as live bees, pacing was/is my key to being able to maintain without a meltdown. I was lucky to be able to take a break from the bees for a couple of days before unpacking them. This allowed me to calm down, think, stratigize, and get ready.
Right about the time I was getting ready to uncork them, an email from the club came through that there wasn’t near as much food in the supplier box as they’d originally thought. So I bumped my schedule forward to get them outside as soon as the weather had a window.
The key to Rule #4 is that during every step of the uncorking and unpacking process, I allowed myself to walk away as often as I needed to. I didn’t run, or bolt. I would just set my tools down and walk away for a minute or two, catch my breath, or sit by the river until I felt calm again. Knowing I could do that at any stage made it easier not to rush. It made it easier not to get overloaded. It made it a much calmer process than I thought it would be.
The first time I used the smoker, I wafted the burlap smoke around the NUC packages on the ground and around the plug whole on the box. What I hadn’t intended was that I may have over-smoked them do to my paranoia…
When I pulled the cork out of the first box, bees didn’t come flying out as expected; they tumbled out, spilling onto the ground like a wave of drunken sorority girls trying to get to the one open toilet stall. They drunkenly fumbled around as I wailed, “Oh no! I’m so sorry. Too much. Too much. My bad. So sorry.”
You’re cut off. Go home, Bees, you’re drunk.
I used less smoke on the second hive, and they burst forth like a bee cannon. A projectile multi-stinger rage machine. My pulse shot up and I put my tools down and walked away.
I do recall yelling as I was walking away, “I know you’re pissed! I’m sorry! This has not been ideal for you, I get that. I’m working on it. I’m working on it.”
Walk away. Walk away. Come back when you’re okay.
Once un-plugged, I could leave them a day to acclimate, and let my blood pressure normalize.
Managing Beekeeping Fear Rule #5
Bees, like humans, adhere to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
Fear of the unknown, is as dangerous as the fear of not having a basic need met. It’s animal response to worry, fuss, or fight over these basic needs. By thinking of the hierarchy of needs as the fixable part of the fear related to beekeeping, it becomes a logical pattern process, and a controllable equation. This takes the fear down by dozens of notches at a time.
Food, shelter, safety, hive, etc. Beyond that, bee needs are surprisingly simple to understand. I like food. They like food. I need shelter. They need shelter. I flourish on safety…turns out, so do bees.
Okay, then. So, if I understand the basic needs, then beekeeping just got surprisingly simplified.
There are hundreds of pages of glorious information on the life stages of bees, their ailments, their beautiful hive symmetry and so on. But not one book out there on how to be a better hive manager by managing my needs and fears as a beekeeper.
Hierarchy of Needs:
- I need to feel safe. (Yes, I know I will get stung eventually, and I’m not allergic, but it does frighten me.) How can I feel SAFE – SO I CAN PROVIDE FOR MY BEES’ SAFETY?
- Remember Rules #1-#4
- Wear PPE; as much as I need, as ridiculous as it needs to be to feel safe. If that means duct-taping every loose fold of fabric to your skin. Do it.
- Use the smoker as needed
- Have Benadryl on hand
- First Aid kit ready (Epipen, if possible for visitor emergencies)
- Food (Bees need adequate food sources, I need adequate food sources. How do I stay well-fed so my bees stay well fed?
- Don’t go out to the hives on an empty stomach or low blood sugar (no shaky hands or slow thinking)
- Don’t over-caffeinate then be shaky and rushed when handling frames with live bees.
- Don’t take ANY honey or comb from the first super, maybe even the first two supers—those are for the colonies alone, to help them winter and support their young. (Super = Surplus box of honey storage)
- Plant lots of vegetables and fruits we can both enjoy. Bee enjoy the flowers, and I enjoy the fruits. Build a bigger garden.
- Find recipes for honey to enjoy so you have a mutually shared arrangement when the honey begins to flow, and good vibes become symbiotic.
- Keep two pounds of sugar in the pantry for bee-feeding emergencies.
- I need shelter. Part of that goes into safety, but knowing I have a space clear from the rain and dangers of the forest is not only on my mind, it’s on theirs.
- Place beehives away from high foot traffic areas around my house. They have space, and I have space. If they’re not disturbed—I’m not disturbed.
- Place hives with a view and SE light.
- Keep the hives clean, and pest free
- Protect from the elements as much as possible, especially when wintering
- Set the hives where I can see them from windows inside my house, so I can peek out and check on them as needed.
While it might seem silly to breakdown the first five rules of beekeeping these ways, I couldn’t find one set of rules on overcoming fear. Fear being the primary obstacle preventing people from learning the apiary arts.
If fear is the first and biggest obstacle, where are all the step guides on overcoming fear?
There are hundreds, thousands of day-to-day practices and process guides for once you actually have the bees…it’s that first hurdle that needed a post. I’ll leave the how to guides on apiary craft and practices to the masters.
But if you’re wanting to get bees, thinking about it, and the fear is keeping you back:
- Don’t Panic.
- Do Your Prep
- Move Slow
- Don’t push yourself too far, too fast
- Bees, like humans, adhere to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. (managing your needs will enable you to manage theirs)
The rest you can learn from books, videos, and websites. Just take care of your primary needs first, and the rest will look a lot easier, and the fear will become manageable.
If you have any questions or comments, please write in! I’m still learning, still working through the fears and building my process as I go.
Here’s a little family photo of my Gamma Quadrant Borg Station. (Thank you for the name, Jason!) One month into the adventure and they are doing well, and producing pollen packs, brood, and honey already.