I know, but I just had to take the opportunity. I’ll blame it on my dad, a British mathematician-cum-money manager with a penchant for reprehensible, but charming word play (aside: by reprehensible, I mean that if you say you had a “smashing time,” he simply can’t stop himself from saying “smashing pumpkins”; by charming, I mean that he has a 60’s rock lyric to correspond to any sentence fragment you utter, period). Mine is less word play, and more literal. This story began with some birds, ended with some bees, and has absolutely nothing to do with sex.
My friend Jenny had her delightful niece and nephew, who I’ll call Sophia and Aiden (after 2011’s most popular baby names), visiting for the weekend. She thought it might be nice to bring them by to show them the chicken coop, and I needed an excuse to clean the damn thing. We’d recently hatched more chickens, and more grown chickens means a lot more shit, as well as a lot more eggs; suddenly, we’re getting around five a day! So over they came, and I was knee deep in it. We looked at the chickens, Aiden and Sophia came into the coop with me — I neglected to tell them I’d just vanquished a family of mice to their deaths at the chickens’ beaks — and checked them out up close. Then Aiden said he’d heard I had bees, and would love to see them up close too.
I’m easily excitable. And moved by curios children. Especially when their curiosities overlap with mine. Amidst all the excitement, I did take a moment to ask Aiden if he knew whether he was allergic to bees, and if he’d ever been stung. Not only had he been, but Aiden is particularly with-it for 10 year old. I mean, his wit and humor are more like a hip college-aged kid, and I want to say that I was lulled into thinking I wasn’t risking a child’s safety, but that of a self-determined young man. His sister, who is more convincingly 6 years old or so, remained quiet, and she and Jenny were quietly standing nearby while I opened up the top of the bee hive to check it out.
When I first started learning about bees close to a year ago, I took a hands-on class with my childhood friend Kalle Cook, an engineer by training who has been making a living teaching bees. Kalle has a pretty spiritual take on bee-keeping. Normally, this kind of thing would be lost on me, but I find it one of the most compelling aspects of the practice (behind the prospect of harvesting 20-40 lbs of honey later this fall after relatively little work on my part…). In my first encounter with bees, Kalle led a small group of us around a hive in Kent, California. We started by meditating a little, grounding ourselves, preparing our energy to be less disruptive to the bees’. And as skeptical as I felt, there was something so obvious about it as we finished and moved into the bees’ sphere. But it was pretty warm, and we were being guided, and within a few minutes I had my unprotected hands covered by what had to be 50-100 bees, calmly inspecting my palms. It wasn’t scary, and every time I’d ventured into my own hive, since, I felt much the same level of calm and reliability from my little bustling hive of workers.
Given all of this, you might be wondering what could have gone wrong that crisp January day?
It was relatively cold and a bit overcast, probably around 50 degrees, and the bees were buzzing in a very particular way. The guy I got them from often refers to them as “pissy” when they don’t want to be bothered, or make noises indicating as much. But this anthropomorphizes them too much for me — there is something more abstract, almost alien about their pissy-ness and everything else. And, I was completely unattuned to it this time.
So Aiden and I are there, hive open, bees buzzing, and I realize that in my haste I’d forgotten to grab a couple of tools, including my bee brush (for gently brushing them off of yourself or other surfaces), and the “hive tool,” a metal crowbar-like implement with many uses. So I asked Jenny if she and Sophia could go grab them from the house, about 50 feet away, which they thankfully did. Just when they got over to the house, it started. One bee aggressively (now I’m anthropomorphizing them) zoomed into my hand, stinging it and paying with his life. In that second or two, between realizing I’d been stung, trying desperately to remain calm while it dawned on me just how fuct this situation could be, and when my fear and inner panic overcame me, things were pretty serene. There was buzzing all around, Aiden looking at me bemused at my misfortune, and a moment of quiet before an all out, apian shit storm.
Suddenly, our heads where covered with bees. I really don’t remember what I was thinking at that point, though I was annoyed at the partially built fence that was getting in the way of our getting away. Aiden and I were shrieking and shaking bees and trying to move away, all the while dancing around doing what I think my friend Berkeley — who got me started with this bee thing — fondly calls something like “the bee sting funny jig.” When the dust and bugs settled, and Aiden and I were safely near the house, it started to occur to me just how bad this might be. Of course there were a couple of stragglers, bees that had either given their lives to make mine temporarily miserable, or ones that were still trying. Horrified with myself, I looked at Aiden, who was in pretty good spirits: only one sting, on the cheek! I started to count mine, not even realizing that some of them were hidden in the back of my head under my hair.
Within minutes, my lip was the size of a cumquat. My eye lid was a little swollen, but it wasn’t too bad. Aiden’s looked and, according to him felt, like a mosquito bite. I went to sleep that night thinking I’d gotten off pretty easily considering the mess… until I awoke in the middle of the night. It was dark, but I was pretty sure I couldn’t see. Feeling around my face, it was pretty clear that things were effed up. Then it dawned on me that I had to be back at work some time soon — and I’d just started a new job a few weeks earlier, at Facebook (Dad, not your cue for a pun!). Luckily, it was a three day weekend, so I had a little time to recover.
I ended up wearing sunglasses that Tuesday, both for comfort and to save the stares, since it was mostly the swelling around my eye that was gruesome.
And as for the bees? The following February was unusually warm, generating what they call “strong nectar flow.” It looks like they’re fine, and I’ll soon follow this up with some updates on the hives — there are now two, which I’ll explain later…