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STORYTELLING: The naked beekeeper

Mar 2nd, 2014 | Category: Columns

 by Bruce Vilders

Being a beekeeper I get asked a lot of questions; How are the bees doing? What’s causing Colony Collapse Disorder? Do I have honey to sell? But the one question that is almost always asked, often times quietly and with a little trepidation, is “Do you ever get stung?”

Umm, that would be a “yes.”

Having a backyard pollination business, I sometimes get myself into some pretty unusual situations. Often a week doesn’t go by without something interesting presenting itself. After all, I am often moving boxes filled with tens of thousands of stinging insects. The odds of something unlooked for happening are pretty good.

Weather conditions (sun, wind, barometric pressure), equipment failure, and the general mood of the bees all play a part in the life of a beekeeper. Sometimes just not making the right decisions or ignoring obvious warning signs can bring the wrath of nature down on you.

Recently I was visiting some of the hives that I keep at my sister-in-law’s place in rural SkagitCounty. The  goal was to take a quick look inside the hives in order to assess the condition of the bees, their food supplies, etc. It was an overcast day with a bit of a growing wind and that usually means that the bees will be a bit ornery as they like to be out in the sun, versus being inside and cooped up.

As I just wanted to get in an out quickly, I wouldn’t even bring my smoker (smoke is used to make the bees docile). So, once there, I put on my veiled hat, glovesand jacket and went about lifting the tops to look in. Yep! Looks good. Probably 30,000 to 50,000 honeybees per hive and all doing thier thing and keeping, well, busy as bees. The inner covers and roofs were put back in place and I was done within twenty minutes.

Now, it just so happened that my nephew, a professional photographer who often works for National Geographic, was home visiting his folks. When I came to the door, still in my bee outfit and hoping to snag a cup of coffee he asked if I wouldn’t mind if he took a few photos of me working with the bees. Of course when a photographer of his caliber asks you if he can take a few shots you don’t say no. Who knows, maybe one could land on that famous yellow cover!

But, somewhere  inside my head, amongst the creases and cobwebs, there was a little warning bell going off. Hadn’t I just opened the hives and disturbed the bees? Weren’t  there overcast skies? Increasing wind? Dropping barometric pressure? No smoker! Ding, ding, ding! But, hey! Photos! National Geographic! Ego! And so the warning bells were ignored and I said “Sure, lets do it!”

My nephew grabbed his camera and threw on his black hooded sweatshirt.


Oh, oh.

“Hey Mike”, I said, “do you have anything to wear that isn’t black?” (almost all predators of bees are dark; bears, raccoons, skunks. That’s one of the reasons beekeepers wear white). But no, that’s all he had and he promised to stay back while he took photos.  So off we went back to the hives.

The idea was to open a box, pull out a frame dripping with honey and bees and let him take some shots.  Taking off a hive cover, I started pulling out the frames covered with thousands of my beautiful honey bees while hundreds more hovered in the air all around me. But, unbeknownst to me, my protective bee veil was not pulled tight on the back of my neck and, as Mike snapped photos, a vanguard of about a dozen bees were quietly and quickly crawling up my back. I felt them when they reached the top of my head wherein they commenced to sting me right on that cute little bald spot I’ve been cultivating.

Yikes! Ouch!

And that’s when I made a beekeeper mistake. Without thinking of the possible repercussions, but instinctually wanting to stop the pain, I ripped off my veil intending to brush the bees from my scalp. Of course the bees (and now even more of their sisters) had easy access to my open and exposed jacket collar and they took quick and full advantage by going down my chest. Mistake #2: I ripped off my jacket and shirt hoping to rid myself of the bees who were now having their way with me.

My nephew, while getting all this on film, was laughing so hard at my contortions, that he didn’t realize that a ball of bees had spotted him in his black sweatshirt. They went after him en masse with a vengeance . We were both yelling and laughing, he at me and me at him, as we ran as fast as we could for the shrubbery, hoping to knock the bees off within the bushes.

All I could think of was that my career as a beekeeper was over, I would be found out a fraud as his photos would make their way onto Facebook and YouTube, going viral for all to see. So much for National Geo Live! But, as it turned out, my nephew, under attack, had dropped his camera and somehow the photos were not captured. Or so he says.

(In the end, I was stung about a dozen times and all directly due to my own misjudgments. But having been stung many times over the years, I’ve built up a bit of immunity. But for good measure, I put raw (non-pasteurized) honey directly on stings and almost instantly the pain goes away.)

To this day when Mike and I see each other, we just start to laugh. But next time, I’ll remember to listen to those warnings in my head. And, I am sure, he won’t wear black.

Bruce Vilders started keeping bees in 1978 and is a WSU certified beekeeper. He is the owner/operator of a Skagit County backyard micro-pollination service. He can be reached at


Published in the March 2014 issue of Grow Northwest


Story Telling is a reader-generated column. Local residents are welcome to share their heartwarming, fun, educational, etc. stories. Submit a story and photos to


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