At first I thought I had grabbed some thorny weed that pierced my work glove and into my finger. The pain intensified with the realization that it was a bee sting, not a thorn. I won’t lie: when the bee stung me, I let go with a diatribe of profanities as if the little bugger’s lancets contained some evil spirit that possessed me.
I ripped off my gloves and abandoned my yard work, pacing through the house, breathing through the pain as if giving birth. My hand thumped and throbbed, but my primary feeling was rage.
Since I was very young, maybe nine, I have detested bees. I have suffered stings before and since, but one encounter with a bee changed my relationship with them forever.
The stage is set
My grandparents lived on a forgotten road in a two-story stone farmhouse with no plumbing and only the most primitive electricity. Despite this, or maybe because of it, I loved visiting them, spending weeks on the decrepit farm each summer.
Having no plumbing necessitated the use of an outhouse. This wooden structure sat some distance from the back door of the house. It was dark inside, frigid in winter and stifling in summer. I always approached the structure slowly and opened the door with all the caution of a character in a horror movie, knowing something unpleasant or even terrifying waited inside. Spiders. Centipedes. Even a black snake stretched out across the splintery seat.
But that day nothing waited except a solitary bee humming around the door. He buzzed past me as I entered, and I recalled my grandfather’s words: “Don’t bother them, and they won’t bother you.” I sat down and did my business, keeping my eyes tightly shut so I wouldn’t see the creatures that shared the space with me. When I emerged from the privy, the bee was waiting. He swooped past me, and I instinctively swatted at him. I picked up my pace, but suddenly he was hovering right in front of me.
The battle is on
I say he, but it was likely a she. I assume it was a female carpenter bee who perceived my entry into the wooden shed as an invasion. Male carpenter bees don’t have stingers, but females can sting multiple times.
That’s what this one did. As it dove at me, I turned my face away, covering my eyes. The bee landed on the top of my right ear and began to sting. Twice, three times, four times it stung me, each one like a nail in the side of my head. I screamed and kept screaming as it stung.
My Uncle Curt was the first to reach me. He saw the fiend on my ear and began swatting at it, smacking at my head over and over until he knocked the bee loose. My mother grabbed me and pulled me away, and I saw my uncle savagely stomping the insect into the ground. I never loved him more.
The aftermath of a bee sting
The sound of the bee in my ear never left me. It made me hyper-sensitive to the sound of any buzzing insect, and even now, some forty years later, my body flinches and my hands instinctively cover my ears whenever one zips past me. When I work in the yard, I wear ear buds attached to an MP3 player so I can drown out the sounds of nature going about its business.
Even our exterminator recognizes that this childhood incident has traumatized me, and he is careful to seek out those wood-boring nests along our deck and eaves.
It is not politically correct to hate bees. I know they are in danger and therefore our world is in danger. I am fully aware that the fruits I enjoy, the vegetables I need, the flowers I love, are possible through the hard work of the many varieties of bees. I KNOW THIS. I would also be a fool to fail to acknowledge that there is something astounding in the pluck of a creature that is 114,000 times smaller than I am yet can send me screaming into the house, cowering behind my children.
But I will never love them. I won’t share your memes about how friendly and innocent bees are, and I won’t gently scoop one into my hands and release it out the door when it has wandered into my house. In fact, I am more likely to burn the house down until I am sure it is good and dead.