We have had a good historic partnership with the bees. They have been very docile and industrious and we have mostly left them to their business. We have never had an issue with anyone getting stung and I have never had the slightest fear of working around the hive. I regularly demonstrate their non-aggressive nature to visitors to our farm by passing my hands through the little cloud they form in front of the hive as they hurry back and forth to the nearby fields of flowers. I also will open the hive now and again to peek inside without any protective equipment at all.
Back at the house, Sean and I suited up in our make-shift bee-suits and headed out to the hive. I cracked it open and began to break it into sections to assess the health of the bees and to see how much honey they had accumulated. From what I could see they looked strong and heathly. Sean assisted by handing me tools and by manning the smoker which is used to keep the bees calm during our invasion. Aidan also stopped by to observe the proceedings from a short distance away.
It didn't take long for us to notice that the bees were being unusually aggressive. As I worked further into the hive the air around us filled with more and more angry bees attempting to defend their home. Before long Sean became unnerved by the number of bees that were swarming around his head. I assured him that they would not hurt him in the bee suit and gently chastised him that he needed to stay calm and not overreact to the threat.
Despite my reassurances and my efforts to calm the bees, their furious defense continued unabated. Sean and Aidan decided that it was too much and headed back to the house as I did my best to finish up the task. Poking around in the beehive is normally a pleasant and interesting experience but the rising aggression of the bees soon had me looking forward to finishing my work, closing the hive back up and getting away from it.
As I began the process of stacking the hive back up I was suddenly surprised to feel something brush against my cheek. My middle-aged eyes are losing the ability to focus on things at close range but I was convinced that a bee had penetrated my suit. It was flying around inside my veil and preparing to sting me in the face! It was at this point that all of my years of beekeeping experience and my oh-so-grownup self control abandoned me utterly.
I admit it. I panicked! I can't imagine what I was thinking. I just went into autopilot. As if out of reflex, my gloved hands came up and pulled the veil off of my head to shake the bee out without a single thought to the cloud of angry bees that orbited me just outside the protective suit!
As if with one mind, the angry bees recognized the unexpected opportunity to wreak their revenge. Dozens of them dove at my unprotected head in search of the perfect spot to sting. By then I had recovered my faculties but there was little I could do but flee. I quickly walked away from the hive and made my way across the hayfield while I attempted to keep the vengeful mob at bay by waving my hands around my face.
Despite my efforts to get away from them, they continued attacking my head even after I had traveled more than 80 yards! In my attempts to defend myself I had dropped my glasses somewhere in the field. I was also leaving a trail of clothes and equipment behind as I shed layer after layer to rid myself of the bees that had become trapped inside with me.
The worst of the experience came from the fact that I have very long hair. It was tied back as always but in running my hands over my head, I was entangling more and more bees in the strands. By the time I had finally moved far enough away that the defenders had retreated, I had at least a half-dozen bees entangled and buzzing furiously just behind my ears! I kept trying to smash them with my fingers but the buzzing continued until I finally made my way into the house and picked them out one by one while standing beneath the hot shower.
I referred to the suits that we wear as "make-shift" because only the head-gear and gloves are made for this purpose. The suits themselves are actually painter's overalls made from thin plastic from the hardware store. The fatal flaw in this instance is that there are gaps in the defenses that can be exploited by the bees if they crawl down under the collar of the suit and then up under the headgear. That being said, I have used this arrangement and even less for years without encountering any issues.
As for why the bees were so aggressive, I can't say for sure. The best time to work in beehives is during warm clear days when most of the bees are out foraging. For that reason the cool weather may have been a factor. It may also be that these particular bees that I had purchased from Georgia during last spring are simply more aggressive than I am used to.
Once I had rid my hair of the last bee, I suited back up to complete the task at hand. I closed the hive up and collected two full supers of honeycomb loaded to the brim with fresh honey. The bees eventually calmed down and returned to their docile ways.
I counted my stings and was surprised to have only received three. Of course, had I remained calm, I would have kept that number to one at the most. In the end I am left with a renewed sense of respect for our tiny winged livestock and a clear sense that I need to upgrade our equipment before the time comes to begin working the hive again next spring.