My husband has told me how right before and also during each of my three c-sections, there was a part of him that was terrified of losi...

When Beekeepers Attack...Bees

Thursday, May 08, 2014 ,

My husband has told me how right before and also during each of my three c-sections, there was a part of him that was terrified of losing me. His mind would start to process what it would be like if something went wrong, if he had to make serious life or death decisions for me or the baby, and what it might be like to end up a widower with small, motherless children.

I now understand what it was like to be the observing, helpless spouse. It's a terrible feeling.

Justin was lying, unresponsive, in our friends' flowerbed. He was sweating bullets, he was pale as a ghost, and his eyes were bloodshot. He had slumped onto his back, not in a normal, exhausted sort of way, but in an unnatural and quite unsettling movement. He would later tell me that in those moments he could hear his heartbeat really loudly, and that it was slowing down to a disturbingly slow rate. He said his vision was blurred and our voices sounded far off, so it felt very much like he was underwater. He said also that he actually felt a strange sense of peace in that moment. That made one of us.

I was beyond terrified.

"Justin! Are you okay?"

He didn't answer.

"Justin! You're scaring me! Do I need to call 911?"

After a few long moments he muttered, "Maybe."

If you know my husband, you know that maybe is a big deal. For as much as I am an over-reactor, my husband is an under-reactor. We balance each other out, you see.

He had just captured a swarm of bees, the largest swarm we'd ever seen {my husband has captured two other swarms before this, and they were each about 1/3 the size of this one}. Unlike with the previous swarms, I knew he would get stung capturing this one; this swarm had been different. There was no branch to cut it down with, like the other two. This swarm was so large it was hugging the tree, and two or three feet tall. He'd have to manually scrape those bees off into his box. The past two swarms have been caught by merely cutting down a branch and shaking them into a hive, no one got stung. Swarms are when bees are at their most docile, having no honey to protect.

Our friends from church had posted on Facebook about finding a swarm in their yard, and understandably they wanted them gone. There was talk of Terminix coming to "remove" {probably kill} them the next day. Justin and I talked it over and offered to come get the bees ourselves. Justin had, after all, caught two swarms before with no stings. Seeing photos of this HUGE swarm, we'd known this one might be more complicated. It did indeed prove to be just that.

The reason Justin got stung this time is most likely because of the aggressive way he had to {quickly!} scrape those bees into a box. In doing so, he crushed some of the bees {and we're talking 30,000 or 50,000 bees here, so a few crushed ones is a small sacrifice} and thus released pheromone signals for the other bees to respond. Usually,  a swarm is so docile you could slowly stick your hand into one and possibly not get stung--as long as you didn't crush any of them. {Don't believe me? Watch a beekeeper do it here.}

As he set the box down and walked toward us, he was beginning to look awful, having taken two attempts at getting as many bees into the box as he could. We knew he'd been stung, he told us a few had gotten under his gloves. On the second attempt to get the rest of the bees, I'd taped up his pant legs so they couldn't get into his pants--and we both cursed ourselves for not remembering boots--so the bees were able to sting him through his socks.

He ended up with 22 bee stings.

Considering that he'd just disturbed and boxed a swarm of tens of thousands of stinging insects, 22 stings is actually a testimony to how well he was protected. He was wearing his bee veil, thank goodness. He hadn't worn one with the other swarms. If a bee stings you in your eye, it can blind you. They've also been known to get into noses and airways, which can be deadly if you swell up in those areas. The gloves he was wearing, on loan from our friends, were covered in stingers.

Twenty-two stings total, not bad.

Except we know now, once an adult gets more than a dozen stings, sometimes they will suffer what's known as a toxic reaction. This is different than a bee venom allergy, which can kill after just one sting. Once an adult is stung enough times, the toxicity makes them ill.

Side effects include all of Justin's symptoms: severe headache, sweating, high or low blood pressure, vomiting {happened in the ambulance}, convulsions {happened at the hospital}, and a few other not so fun things. Death can occur after more than 1,000 stings.

When you hear about people dying from "killer bees" {aka Africanized honeybees} that is usually due to this toxic reaction. True bee sting allergies are actually very  rare. Most beekeepers {"beeks", as I sometimes abbreviate} end up with progressively increasing immunity to bee venom over time. You'd have to encounter a seriously aggressive colony {Africanized} in order to be stung enough times to kill you. Still, standing by helplessly watching while my husband experienced a wave of scary symptoms hit him like a truck, it was a truly terrifying moment for me.

When Justin said maybe, I wasted no time dialing 911. Then, right after I hit send call, he heroically sat up and announced he was okay. He totally wasn't. He was trying to act okay so we didn't make a fuss by calling 911. He didn't look okay, but in a moment of doubt, I hung up a second after sending the call. Dumb of me, I knew they'd call back; so I asked Justin if he could breath okay and he said yes. I just wasn't sure what to do! One thing is for sure, I'm no risk taker. I wanted my husband to get medical attention, like, NOW. That moment when he hadn't even responded to me, while he lay in the flower bed looking like he was at death's door, that feeling of dread still haunts me.

911 called back and I ended up on a three-way call with 911 and Poison Control, meanwhile Poison Control was consulting an on-call ER physician. They were asking a ton of questions, they sent first responders just as a precaution. The ambulance and fire truck showed up at the same time, and here I was on the phone with two people asking me questions. Including, "The first responders would like to know if the bees are still a threat?" I had to assure them that they could approach us, the bees were not attacking. Most were in the box at that point, which was lying on the sidewalk, a handful of dead bees scattered around it.

Eisley came out from the backyard where the kids had been playing, noticed Justin on the ground and said, nonplussed, "Daddy, are you dead?"

They escorted my sick husband into the ambulance and gave him oxygen and Benedryl, and continued to assess whether or not he needed to go to the hospital. According to the on-call doctor with Poison Control, he'd probably be okay. The first responders decided to be safe over sorry. Apparently, they see bee sting reactions a lot during swarm season. Lots of overzealous beekeepers trying to help save the bees! They asked if Justin had ever caught a swarm before. {This was his third.} We have to wonder if people think we're crazy keeping bees. Again, one of the frustrations of being a beekeeper, most people don't get it. They think  you're crazy for it, but it's actually a fantastic cause and you just can't understand the rewards until you've done it. I digress.

So there I apologized to our church friends for upsetting their evening, packed the kids in the car, and headed for Good Samaritan Hospital. I prayed with the kids as we drove.

One of the benefits that come with pricey ambulance rides is getting to be seen right away, so the kids and I bypassed the hospital lobby and went straight back to see him. Other than the severe headache, he was feeling and looking much better. The Benadryl was obviously helping. I was so relieved that he was okay. A young doctor--who looked like he should be working at an Apple store instead of an ER--came to check him out, said the obvious {the stings made him feel sick}, and gave us a prescription for steroids to prevent a secondary reaction for the next few days--I guess that can happen when you get a large dose of bee venom,  a few days later some people experience a jump start in their immune system that can make them ill again. He also wanted us to get a couple Epipens in case Justin was allergic and had another sting, especially since we're beekeepers.

I'm not sure about that, Justin's symptoms didn't match anaphylactic shock at all. His reaction fit the toxic, multiple bee stings reaction to a T. We read a lot of Mayo Clinic's website later that night. I get the impression that a lot of doctors and nurses don't quite understand the differences between different types of bee sting reactions, but Mayo Clinic does a good job at laying it out there.

On a side note, Epipens were $350 EACH at the hospital, yeah...we haven't gotten those yet.

They observed Justin for a few hours, we didn't leave the hospital until 11:30 p.m. His convulsions had finally stopped and the painkillers they gave him had helped a lot.

For as upsetting as seeing him unresponsive in a flowerbed had been, sitting in the hospital waiting room with three kids for a couple hours while we let Justin rest was a sobering experience. I was counting my blessings, to be sure. I wasn't trying to be nosy, and was telling my kids not to stare at people, but you can't help but overhear things. There was a woman sitting nearby, sobbing, swearing up a storm, being comforted by her mother. She was on the phone talking about things like her divorce and being fired from her job--after a while, I finally put the pieces together: she was at the hospital that night because she was feeling suicidal. A large, friendly yet somber Latino family was gathered and waiting for a family member to get out of a serious-sounding surgery. Something about grandma's pancreas. On the other side of the room was a young woman who appeared to possibly be mentally ill and anorexic, tucked up into a ball in a wheelchair and yelling loudly whenever someone was taken back before she was. This world is full of hurting people, isn't that the truth?

Among a few other visitors who were obviously having much worse nights than we were, I was to relieved be there for just a few bee stings. We'd be walking out of Good Samaritan that night with nothing more than an interesting story to tell...and maybe a few medical bills.

Walking out of the hospital, Justin sighed and spoke of his lost bees. "Unfortunately, it was all for nothing."

"Yeah," said Eisley. "Unfortunately, I love you."

I had told Justin earlier that night, waiting in the hospital, that someday we'd look back and laugh about this. We didn't have to wait for someday, our friend who's yard the swarm had been in sent us this link. This describes our evening exactly. We couldn't help but laugh.

Justin stayed home the next day, mostly due to the drugs he was on and the late night we'd had, but he was surprisingly well. For the incredibly dramatic response the body can have to 22 stings, it sure can recoup quickly. Like getting hit by a truck and being fine the next day. I'd thought his ankles would be swollen and sore, that he'd have a hard time walking, but he reported no such misery.

He took the steroids for the first couple days, but they made him moody and grumpy so he decided to stop taking them. He apologized repeatedly for being so irritable with us. {I silently wondered if that was what living with a PMS-ing spouse was like.}

As for the hobby, heck no this isn't stopping us from being beekeepers. I'm proud of my husband. He is very brave and calm with bees and knows an awful lot, though with bees there is always more to learn. He said he feels no differently, that getting stung so many times was his own fault, and he still intends to keep his bees. Getting stung that many times is really not likely to happen again. Though Justin reports that he is no longer afraid of stings, he's gotten pretty used to them over the last couple of years. I'll say! Again, and fortunately, beekeepers build up their tolerance to stings a little more with every time they are stung. So, that's a good thing.

That night I got almost no sleep. I stayed awake listening to Justin snore lightly. Most nights, I'd poke him until he stopped, but that night, I was just glad he was alive and snoring. I've never been scared of losing him before. After Violet was born, I'd insisted we get life insurance in case something happened to either of us, to ensure financial security if either of us found ourselves as suddenly single parents. Thrivent had sent a nurse to our home to take our blood and run a few tests to assess our health. While I had been offered the normal-person, healthy average adult rate, Justin had been found to qualify for the "superhuman", likely to live to 100 category. I've paid that too much attention. Here I'd been convinced, Thrivent told me I am supposed to die first. But really, I've always thought of Justin as so healthy and have forbidden him from sky diving or other such risks--I was shocked by how scared I was that night. He wasn't supposed to get sick. Not him.

In that moment, I didn't know that he'd probably be alright, and the toxic shock would pass. I only knew that he looked like death and wasn't really responding to me. 

After the terrifying experience of seeing my husband collapse like he did, I no longer wanted our box of bees--despite how hard Justin had worked for them. Fortunately, another beekeeper was located to come pick them up, she brought her suit and collected as many remaining bees off the tree and brought them home to hive them. She even kindly offered to give them back to us. Justin might have accepted, but I said no before he had a chance. I had bad feelings toward that specific colony now. A second hive is always a good thing, but I'm enjoying our new, extremely docile colony of Italians that we already have. The girls sit near our hive and watch them come and go. I know it's a matter of time before one of them is stung for the first time...a part of me almost wants them to be stung so they develop a healthy fear of the bees. {I caught Violet sword fighting with the hive just a few days before this incident, a huge stick in her hand, waving it around the bee hive entrance.}

In hindsight, we probably could have prevented this hospital visit altogether. Just earlier that day, Justin remembered telling a fellow beekeeper, "Unfortunately, most of what we learn about beekeeping is from our mistakes and not our successes." Too true. Had we brought some sugar spray to tame the bees a bit {you never smoke a swarm, smoking a hive to inspect a hive can help, but smoking a swarm has the opposite effect and can enrage them} and if only he'd worn boots! Most of the stings were on his ankles, through his socks. His boots would have prevented the toxic reaction altogether.

When Justin inspects our own hive, he often doesn't get stung at all. Sometimes in the spring and early summer, he inspects with little or no protection, and he doesn't always smoke them. Later in the summer, they are more defensive of the honey they've been working all year on, so he'll don his veil and use the smoker to tame the bees. It is highly unlikely to get over a dozen stings while inspecting your own hive.

This is our third year keeping bees, and the children and I have yet to be stung. 

The truth is, they are fascinating, marvelous creatures. Once you start to learn about how complex their social system is, and how much they do for this world, you start to feel a great respect toward honeybees. God put an awful lot of thought into these creatures especially. It's unfortunate that they are so misunderstood, so undervalued, and so feared.

I almost didn't want to post our story, because as beekeepers, we're quite aware now that most people hugely misunderstand bees and their behavior. And also wasps. And everything to do with these amazing insects. I really don't want to further the fear and misunderstandings.

Bees are NOT PESTS! 

Here are a few facts about bee stings:

500 bee stings equate to 1 rattlesnake bite. The average male has to be stung approximately 1,400 times to be considered at great risk of death, while the average female has to be stung about 1,100 times do be at risk of death. Again, over a dozen bee stings at once can induce all sorts of symptoms, this is a toxic reaction. Someone who is known to be allergic to bee stings can die after just one sting, due to anaphylactic shock, and should carry an Epipen with them at all times. It is said that many people are actually wrongly diagnosed as allergic to bee stings, when instead they merely had a toxic reaction to being stung. A fatal allergic reaction usually does not occur with the first time being stung.

Justin was not being "attacked" by bees that day. It would have looked different, with bees clouding him and all over his body. Instead, they were mostly frantically trying to defend themselves.

Regarding swarms:

  • DON'T kill a swarm. The beekeepers of the world BEG you! Bees are precious to all humans, crucial players when it comes to farming and food production. They are becoming more endangered every year. Beekeepers love to capture swarms not just because they are free bees {our recent package of bees set us back $110} but because they are from healthy colonies. We NEED those bees, so don't kill them! Swarms are temporary anyway. 
  • DON'T be afraid of a swarm! Despite what happened to my husband, swarming is when bees are at their most docile state. You could probably walk right up to a swarm--as we have done ourselves--and observe it without being bothered. They have no honey to protect, so they are not likely to attack.
  • DON'T--on the other hand--approach a swarm if you live in one of the few states where Africanized honeybees live. If you live in one of those areas, you probably already know to call wildlife officials to report swarms. The venom of regular honeybees and their science-experiment-gone-wrong cousins, the Africanized bees, are exactly the same. 
  • DO know that swarms are temporary. When you see one in your yard, it's not that they've taken up residency at your address for good, so there is no reason to react like an exterminator. A swarm occurs in the spring months when an over-populated, healthy colony splits into two. This is how honeybees populate the world! It's a good thing! The swarm is hanging out, anywhere from 10 minutes to 10 days, while scout bees search the area for a new home. Unless a beekeeper catches them first {which is a good thing!} they will soon relocate to a permanent location where most people won't even notice they exist--such as high up in a old tree where you won't even be able to see them. 
  • DO watch a swarm if you ever are lucky enough to see one land and/or take off. I saw this when we captured our first colony. It was an amazing sight, one of those things that few people ever are lucky enough to witness. 
  • DO know when to back away. Bees are docile, believe it or not. Honeybees, and wasps, are classified under the "non-aggressive" category, while hornets, yellow jackets, and obviously Africanized honeybees are the aggressive ones. Bees don't want to sting you, they die when they do. They sting when they feel they have no other choice. Often, guard bees will give you warnings to back away from their colony before they take drastic measures and die for the good of their colony by stinging you. If you notice a bee flying back and forth next to your ear, start to back away. They do this to disorient predators such as bears. If a bee head-butts you against your forehead, flying into you and bouncing off, they're trying to tell you to leave. If you get stung more than once, know those pheromones are probably now telling other nearby bees to join the cause in protecting their hive. Again, honeybees are reluctant to sting. Most often stings occur when bees are stepped on, or when they get caught in your hair or clothing. Or when you try and scrape 50,000 of them off a tree. 
  • DO call a local beekeeper if you want a swarm gone. In fact, post about one on Craigslist, and you'll have beekeepers calling you within the hour to come and get them. Some of them even have handy bee vacuums and are experienced with collecting swarms, so hopefully you won't have to call 911. 


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  1. I am so glad Justin is okay, and don't worry, you didn't scare away us amateurs who one day dream of keeping bees : ) Tell Justin we are glad he is on the mend!

    1. That would be awesome if you and Ryan kept bees! I'm glad I didn't scare you away. This whole situation was 100% preventable.


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