I AM allergic to bee stings

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Posted by Andy Sivell | Posted in Bee stings and bee venom, Beekeeping advice | Posted on 12-11-2012

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Bee sting on right hand

My swollen right hand, twelve hours after being stung by a honey bee, and without the benefit of medication. The sting is faintly visible near the wrist, between thumb and forefinger. It’s circled in pen.

In July 2010 I took up beekeeping. Exactly two years later I was stung for the first time. A week later I was stung for only the second time, and a week after that the third. Then things got a little weird. Not until a whole eight hours had passed following the third sting did I experience a reaction. Of course, the first two stings hadn’t gone unnoticed: both hurt and there was some localised swelling. But the third sting was different. A half day after being stung in the foot, and not inconvenienced to the extent even of having to give up mowing the lawn or pushing around a wheelbarrow (dammit), my head suddenly registered that something was wrong. I had difficulty breathing. I wheezed my way through a sleepless night and by morning discovered that my right pedal extremity had been replaced by a hairy pink inflatable. I’d had what appeared to be an allergic reaction. Perhaps more alarmingly, barely 24 hours later I’d also received a clear instruction from my doctor to give up beekeeping.

My subsequent plea for advice on whether or not I should continue generated a record number of comments from fellow beekeepers. All were positive. The overwhelming majority advised me not to give up. Many included accounts of readers’ own, similar reactions to bee stings. Some included detailed information about medication, and a few suggested novel remedies, such as placing a copper coin on the sting, or heating the affected area with a hair dryer.

For a while I did nothing. Nor did I go anywhere near the bees. Then I did what most people in receipt of an unwelcome medical opinion do: I went and got a second medical opinion. It echoed much of the advice I’d already received via this blog: carry on but be sensible, upgrade my bee suit, always have someone check overalls for stray bees before disrobing, and have medication on stand-by. The one area in which my two doctors were in complete agreement, however, was that I should attend an allergy clinic for further tests.

Now as it happens, one of the leading allergy clinics in the country is just up the road from me in Cambridge. So early last month I presented myself at the reception desk of the catchily titled ‘Clinic 2a’ at Addenbrooke’s Hospital.

I was welcomed by a succession of nurses, all of whom had apparently been schooled by call centre staff. Each one introduced themselves by their first name, which I immediately forgot, and regularly punctuated their sentences with mine, presumably lest I forget that too. None could resist cheerily informing me that every customer that morning had been a beekeeper.

Eventually I was introduced to a slightly more senior-looking nurse, whose name I again forgot, but whose step-by-step description of what I was about to experience left an indelible impression. Taking my right forearm she wrote the numbers one to ten down it in biro, before pricking the skin surface next to each number with increasing dosages of, first bee, then wasp venom. I was then invited to wait in the office next door for 20 minutes, to see whether there was any reaction.

‘Seeing whether there was any reaction’ involved one of the first nurses coming back and measuring the inflammation around each pin prick with what looked like one of those plastic widgets hardware stores sell to gauge the size of wood screws. I could tell that she was disappointed. Clearly I wasn’t inflaming well. She disappeared and came back with more bee venom, before adding an eleventh dot. Twenty minutes later I was ready to gnaw my arm off. The sensation took fully 24 hours to subside.

Clearly we’d established that I’m not very quick on the uptake. More to the point, we’d apparently also put beyond doubt that I am allergic to bee venom. The nurses were all delighted. As a reward, I was going to finally meet a doctor.

The specialist who saw me was a dead ringer for a former girlfriend, which was a little unsettling as she looked like the girl I dated 20 years ago, whereas I now look like a balding guy in his late forties. It didn’t help that when it came to taking the inevitable blood sample my needle phobia meant that she insisted on holding my hand. That just felt plain wrong.

The existence of my allergy seemed to interest her far less than the time it took my head to register an assault upon my extremities. I had, since being referred, incurred a fourth bee sting on my big toe. That time I had removed the stinger using a credit card, and taken the prescribed Fexofenadine Hydrochloride (antihistamine) and Prednisolone (steroid) – all within five minutes. The subsequent absence of any reaction at all had been as much of a surprise as a relief. Twenty-four hours later I couldn’t even locate the puncture wound.

When I relayed this to my doctor she seemed almost put out, and promptly instructed me to delay taking any form of medication next time, “just to see” whether in my case delayed reactions were the norm. (They are. A fifth sting saw my hand inflate like a pink washing-up glove after 12 hours).

Notwithstanding the unlikelihood of my keeling over on the spot when next assaulted by Apis irata, I was judged a suitable candidate for ‘desensitisation’ therapy. Next summer I’m to report to Addenbrooke’s Clinic 2a every week for an 11-week course of treatment. Still, with all those other beekeepers around I shall be in good company. I wonder if Cambridgeshire BeeKeepers’ Association has an Addenbooke’s division yet?

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Beekeeping for Beginners classes – Essex Beekeepers’ Association

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Posted by Andy Sivell | Posted in Beekeeping advice, Beekeeping books, Beekeeping courses for beginners, Essex Beekeepers' Association | Posted on 23-02-2011

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Almost exactly twelve months ago I signed up to attend a novice beekeeping class run by my local division of the Essex Beekeepers’ Association (EBKA). The course cost just £40 and included three classroom sessions and three or four practical sessions in an apiary. I had no experience of beekeeping and didn’t own a hive or colony. Here were my thoughts at the time.

Thaxted Guildhall

Thaxted Guildhall in Thaxted, Essex (photograph by Bev Aston)

Attend ‘Beekeeping for Beginners’ class run by Essex Beekeepers’ Association at the 600 year-old Guildhall in Thaxted. Beautiful building, if surprisingly small inside. All low ceilings and uneven floors.

My fellow beginners cover all ages (including teens, surprisingly) and both sexes, but with an encouraging preponderance of yummy mummies. Excellent. Something to tell the wife. For six months now she’s been gently indulging my talk of taking up beekeeping, including arranging for me to be given a copy of Ted Hooper’s Guide to Bees and Honey at Christmas. At the start of the New Year however, she quietly pulls me to one side and asks me whether I’m serious. Only I’ve been telling rather a lot of people, it seems. I might want to tone it down if I’m not.

I react with indignation. Of course I’m serious. I signed up for a course.

And now here I am, three months later, with still only a copy of Guide to Bees and Honey as proof of my intent; £12.99 worth of commitment, and I didn’t even pay for it.

I look around. Lots of other copies of Guide to Bees and Honey in evidence. I’m clearly in good company. I can’t recall whether it comes out as a result of a show of hands or just in the course of conversation, but it turns out I’m not in the minority. Plenty of people talking about buying beehives, and quite a few brandishing pages printed from the Internet featuring hives for sale, but not many fellow pupils actually own a beehive, it seems.

You see my problem is the start-up costs. This was meant to be a cheap hobby. I’d been hooked in by the promise of being able to do my bit to save the bee population, of hives and equipment costing a couple of hundred pounds – literally – and of my being able to recoup even that (should I be so inclined) by selling a few jars of honey. And I’m sure there was a time, not so very long ago, when that was the case. It just isn’t any more. The same magazine articles, radio and TV programmes that drew my attention to the plight of the honey bee also caught the attention of thousands of others. Equipment prices shot up. Rustic old beekeepers couldn’t believe their luck when stuff they’d had laying around in a field or shed for years was suddenly worth more second-hand than they’d paid for it new. Ebay is now awash with chancers selling ‘beginner hives’ they’ve knocked up in their spare time.

If I’d wanted an expensive hobby I’d have bought a motorcycle. If I’d wanted to splash out more cash on house and garden the catalogue of things on our ‘to do’ list remains endless. This was meant to be a low-cost diversion, a bit of fun – relaxing.

‘Beekeeping for Beginners’ course – week 1

The problem is immediately acknowledged by Richard and Jane, who are delivering the course. I sense tacit resignation among all present that this is going to cost. Now it’s just a matter of establishing how much.

Richard and Jane put on a good show, neatly avoiding the perils of death by PowerPoint and deftly handling an uninhibited barrage of questions. Turns out Jane used to teach at secondary school. So we cover the bee colony, the bee’s anatomy, the inside of the beehive, and beekeeping equipment and tools – all at a rattling pace, for an hour and a half – before ending the evening with tea and biscuits.

It’s fascinating. What amazing little creatures they are. How industrious and devoted to the common good. About the only criticism you can level at them is that they produce more food than they need. What a preposterous notion…

As I leave I’m at once elated, exhausted and in more of a quandary than ever. This looks like fun. This looks like a worthwhile challenge. There has to be another way.

Essex Beekeepers’ Association’s ‘Beekeeping for Beginners’ classes start Tuesday 8 March 2011 18:45-20:00hrs at Thaxted Guildhall, CM6 2LA. More details from Jane Ridler at EBKA. Open to members of the EBKA, membership of which costs £30.

Photograph of Thaxted Guildhall reproduced by kind permission of Bev Aston. See more of Bev’s images, including some delightful shots of bees, on her Photostream page on Flikr.

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Asian Hornet Vespa velutina

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Posted by Andy Sivell | Posted in Asian hornet, Beekeeping advice | Posted on 21-11-2010

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I never had a problem with wasps before I took up beekeeping. That is to say, they never bothered me. At the risk of incurring the wrath of the RSPCA (do they care about insects?) I actually rather enjoyed flicking rulers and elastic bands at them, in which respect I’m no different from 99% of all males, I’m sure.

That changed when I got my first colony however. The little so-and-so’s steal honey and generally give bees a hard time, which meant that elastic bands and rulers were no longer going to cut it as far as I was concerned. Once I’d got a beehive of my own I bulk-bought wasp spray from the local Homebase and, when that wasn’t enough, brought in council reinforcements. The garden became a bit of a wasp no-fly zone.

But wasps are big girls blouses compared to hornets. Last summer I was in the shed when a hornet flew in. It was a bit like being joined by a Lancaster bomber. Hornets are big and make an unmissably loud droning noise when they fly. I’m also told that they’re bad-tempered and that their sting hurts more than anything, both facts I’m ready to believe without any supporting evidence.

Vespa velutina aka Asian Hornet

Vespa velutina (photo courtesy of Wikipedia). I'm indebted to David Lewis for putting me right.

Last week I received an email from the National Bee Unit about the Asian Hornet. It’s making its way from …er, Asia, across Europe and to the UK. And it’s big. Really big. I tip my hat to Douglas Adams when I say that you just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think that you’re common or garden British hornet is big, but that’s just peanuts compared to its Asian cousin. Up to 45mm in length, it’s half insect, half golf ball – with hypodermic needle attachment. Its sting is apparently 6mm long.

Vespa velutina (so named because it’s the size of a small scooter, and just as irritating) raiding parties can apparently decimate a colony in hours. They sting or cut their way through guards and workers before setting to work on the larvae, which they then take back to feed their own young. Until I received the email I’d been under the impression that there had only been a few sightings in France. It turns out there had only been a few sightings in northern France. They’ve been at home in southern and central France for quite some time now, according to a really good article in the Bulletin Technique Apicole (reproduced in the September 2007 edition of Bee Craft). Makes you wonder why they can’t just stay there and enjoy the food and sunshine.

Vespa mandarinia

Not Vespa velutina as previously captioned, but in fact Vespa mandarinia (photo courtesy of ArboristSite.com)

Anyway, a species of Chinese honey bee Apis carana has developed a really efficient way of defending itself against attack. A crowd of bees pounces on the hornet and completely envelopes it before flapping its wings to raise the temperature of the ball to around 45 degrees Celsius. The honey bees can just about cope with the heat, but the hornet can’t and is roasted alive.

Naturalised European honey bees Apis mellifera, have begun to adopt the same defence strategy – in the Far East, at least – but slightly less effectively. Fewer workers attach themselves to the ball. Which brings me to my question: how do you teach honey bees to do this stuff before they get decimated by the yellow peril? Answers on a postcard please.

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