- Author: Kathy Keatley Garvey
When folks hear about the 70-year beekeeping/bee wrangling career of 85-year-old apiculturist Norman Gary, emeritus professor of entomology at the University of Davis, they ask:
"How many times have you been stung?"
Let's see, can you guess?
Gary, internationally known as "The Bee Man," began keeping bees at age 15 in Florida. His career includes hobby beekeeper, commercial beekeeper, deputy apiary inspector in New York, honey bee research scientist, entomology professor, author, bee wrangler and Guinness World record holder.
He once trained bees to fly into his mouth to collect food from a small sponge saturated with artificial nectar. His holds the Guinness World record (109 bees inside his closed mouth for 10 seconds) for the stunt. He's also the person behind the "bee suit" record in the Guinness World Records; Gary clustered more than 87 pounds of bees on a friend.
So, how many times has he been stung?
"I didn't keep records, of course," the Sacramento-area resident understandably points out. "Many thousands for sure! I was probably stung over a thousand times during one summer as an apiary inspector in New York state. We didn't wear gloves."
"People don't understand that a sting is not very significant if you remove the stinger within several seconds before much venom is injected," he says. "So we worked fast and took chances that resulted in more stings but we didn't mind that much because we developed a strong tolerance, without significant reactions, and removed the stings instantly."
"During my long career, I manipulated much greater numbers of colonies more frequently than most bee researchers because my research was field-oriented. So several hundred stings per year for 70 years is a lot of stings. My guess is that the total number of stings would be around 20,000. Unfortunately the sting number estimates were greatly exaggerated during some of my TV shows. But that is show biz!"
Gary, author of the newly published Honey Bee Hobbyist: The Care and Keeping of Bees, second edition, writes in his book that "most people have an exaggerated sense of dread concerning bee stings due to a wealth of misleading negative information in the media."
Bees are defensive, not aggressive, he says. "Defensive behavior happens only when you are very close to the hive. Bees foraging on flowers or collecting water certainly have the ability to sting, yet they behave as if hey are totally defensiveless. They will fly away in response to the slightest disturbance. Remember, a bee that has stung dies within a few seconds and the colony benefits only if this sacrifice is made in defense of the colony."
Gary, who holds a doctorate in entomology from Cornell University, joined the UC Davis entomology faculty in 1962, retiring in 1994 after a 32-year academic career. He has authored more than 100 publications, including scientific papers, book chapters and popular articles in beekeeping trade journals. During his professional bee wrangling career spanning four decades, “The Bee Man” served as a consultant and bee stunt coordinator for 17 movies, 70 TV shows and six TV commercials. Among his credits: the movie, “Fried Green Tomatoes” and TV appearances with Johnny Carson and Jay Leno.
In his book, Gary covers activities inside and outside the hive, reproduction, management of colonies, honey and other products, urban beekeeping, beekeeper education (he mentions the UC Davis-based California Master Beekeeper Program), and entertaining with bees, among other topics.
That's in addition to colony defense and sting prevention. "The Bee Man" zeroes in on stinging behavior, getting stung, minimizing the effects of stings, reactions to stings, and why bees sting.
Why do they sting? "Defensive behavior is necessary for their survival, to protect the colony and the stored honey and pollen."
- Author: Kathy Keatley Garvey
Bystanders panic. Bees can and do react to all the commotion by stinging the first responders and the bystanders. It's especially difficult at night.
So when Extension apiculturist (emeritus) Eric Mussen of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, who retired in June 2014 after 38 years of service, was asked about this, and what first responders can do, we thought we'd share the informatoin.
"It is hard to know where to start with protecting people from bee spills," he says. "Depending upon in what part of the country it happens, the concern about loose bees varies. In a large metropolitan area, it is likely that someone will try to put down (kill) the bees as quickly as possible. In rural agricultural areas, the people value the bees and probably would try to salvage as many hives and bees as possible."
"Every potentially responsible agency should have a list of beekeepers to contact when such an incident happens. The beekeepers can go to the scene, access the problem, and help clean it up."
"Water misted into the flying bees will tend to 'ground' them, temporarily, and many will drown," he warns. "To be sure the bees are down for good, some use fire-fighting foam instead of water. This will cause an enormous financial loss for the beekeeper, but it calms things down rather quickly. If the bees form a gigantic cluster under an overpass, the bees can be salvaged or, in at least one case, burned up using a flame thrower."
"People should understand that it takes quite a while to upright the hives and get the frames back into them," Mussen says. "They should also know that the bees are not likely to go back into the hives, on their own, until nighttime." Bees do not fly at night.
"If the bees are being 'rescued,' someone has to help haul away the up-righted hives and put them in a safe place," Mussen points out. "Not infrequently the assisting, anonymous beekeepers leave with the hives and never return them to the owner. Some empty hives have to be left at the scene to collect the remaining bees that are flying around. They can be picked up early the next morning."
Those are just some considerations, Mussen says. "Every event is different. If the emergency folks have met with a few beekeepers to talk about what to do, it will go a lot easier if it ever happens."