I am indoors. The garden is filled with late-summer light, and through the bathroom window I watch the flightpaths of the bees, rising up beyond the shed roof. But I am staying indoors. A week ago, I reacted badly to a bee-sting, and I do not yet know how I will respond to the next one. It will possibly be a more extreme reaction, so until I’ve been tested for an allergy, I won’t go near the bees. For the past week I’ve been avoiding the garden: taking out the compost in the middle of the night, and wondering if there’s a socially-acceptable time to mow the lawn, after the bees have finished their foraging but before the neighbours have gone to bed.
It is not fear. I am still confident around the bees, and I want to be out with them. But the rational part of me knows I should not take that risk. I have become aware that I spend a lot of time hive-watching. In empty moments I find myself drawn to the hive, to sit silently beside the entrance and watch the to-and-fro of foragers. Now I am training myself to avoid them. I have moved my shoes away from the back door, and a post-it note on the handle reads “JACK! DANGER! BEES!”. Bee-watching is a hard habit to break.
Before the Big Sting, I had admired the balance of the bee’s defence. There was something neat about it: if I hurt the bees, they would hurt me. And if the bees hurt me, they would hurt themselves. Something like the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction, or a philosophical axiom: “suffering inflicted is returned to the giver”. There had been a balance, or so it felt: “we reap what we sow”. Now, with my actual destruction a real possiblity, the game had been rebalanced and the rules felt distinctly unfair.
I have not often been stung in anger. Most stings have been accidental: a bee tangling in my hair while I’m weeding the patio, and stinging when unable to escape. Stings to my fingertips as I reach to unclasp the inspection board, and on the back of my hand as I brush aside the vine-leaves around the hive. All unintended, and not in anger.
It is these accidental stings that I am concerned about. I know the temperament of the colony, and trust that they will not actively attack. That is not what bees do. But I am worried about an accidental detonation – an unlucky hand-movement catching an airborne bee, or a clumsy flight into a shirt-sleeve. It is not a risk I want to take.
Through the kitchen window I watch the foragers. They are on the late-flowering calendula, and visiting the ipomoea around the pond. The garden-spiders have strung their webs between the washing-line and the reaching tendrils of the grapevine. Yesterday, I watched a bee blunder into a web. She struggled and tangled, and the spider darted forward to knit her into a grey-white shroud. I would have rescued her – breaking her from the web at the risk of a fingertip-sting. But now the odds are different and I am not protecting her. I have stopped being a keeper and become a watcher, distanced by glass: a face outside the fishtank.
I am not so protected in the outside world. On my walk home from the office I stop instinctively at an ivy-covered fence on Maidcroft Road. There are honeybees gathering the nectar, and I move closer, trying to count how many other species I can see among the leaves – some smaller solitary bees, some bee-mimics. Then I catch myself, suddenly aware how close I am, how sharp the stings, and how dangerous it would be to have an anaphylactic reaction in this empty street. I walk away.
The Big Sting was my own fault. I had been helping a friend to move a hive, and was wearing a face-veil, rather than a full suit. I did not feel the sting at first, but suddenly became aware of my own heartbeat. Then my vision changed, as if someone was moving the sliders for ‘brightness’ and ‘colour saturation’ – with each heartbeat the grass and sky dislimned into whiteness, leaving only the dark trees, and the deep shadows of the hedgerows. Everything was becoming snowy.
First Aid training and bee-keeping knowledge kicked in. I moved away from the hive and focused on my breathing. As long as the airways were clear, I knew I’d be okay. Sight was not an immediate problem, but a swelling throat is a sign of anaphylaxis, and could be deadly. In the shade of the hedge, I sat and counted my breaths, and felt for restriction of my windpipe. Breathing was fine. After four deep breaths of counting, the colours returned to the world.
In the minutes that followed, my hands and feet began to itch. The skin on my face tightened. It was uncomfortable, but there was not the same fear – my throat did not swell. I took a cold shower and an antihistamine pill, and slept deeply for five hours of terrifying dreams.
Perhaps it was a combination of circumstances that made the reaction worse. It is late summer, and it’s suggested that bee-venom is now at its most potent. The sting was in my neck, close to major blood vessels, so the venom was not being diluted through my body. And it had remained in my neck for a few minutes, ensuring I received a full dose of the venom. Other beekeepers stung by the same colony have reacted badly too. Perhaps I was just unlucky.
But for now I am indoors, restless, watching from the windows as the bees rise over the shed roof, the membranes of their wings catching the slanting September light.
Jack Pritchard, Oxford, September 2017