The Day We Almost Lost Dad
June 17, 2007

I've tried many times to write about my dad and his bees, but it always comes out sounding too melodramatic. My father tells the story so much better than I do--I'll have to record his version some day. However, in honor of father's day, I'll tell the story once again in my own words.

I remember how much my dad loved keeping bees. Mason jars of honey used to magically appear in the dark storage room of his general store. I remember how much he loved to reach into the dark shelves and give a jar of his own honey to a visitor on a whim. (Dad gets a kick out of giving things away for free.) His partner in beekeeping, Mr. Melnychuk, was a gregarious shoe salesman from a nearby town. Mr. Melnychuk was an over-exuberant tease-you and pinch-your-cheeks kind of guy. As a girl, I thought he was adorable and somewhat terrifying. His honey house was a beautiful place to be--warm and fragrant with beeswax and the sweetness of liquid gold spinning out of the hand-cranked extractor. We loved this runny honey on mom's homemade hot buttered toast.

My dad has had a lot of hobbies over the years. He took to duck hunting and skeet shooting in the days before he was a father. In our early childhood he took up fishing and collecting antiques. In fact, he took me to a shop of dusty treasures called "McGowan's Indefinite Articles" as soon as I could walk, and dad collected antiques long before it became a fashionable hobby. My father has always been a nature lover and an avid community photographer. We used to take spontaneous trips out to the fields to see migrating swans and sandhill cranes. Often he didn't tell me what we were going to do, just said "Wanna go on a trip?", and we'd head off in our car for an adventure looking for meteorites, horned owls, or native artifacts. We've walked for hours in dusty farmer's fields looking for scrapers and arrowheads that would be revealed by the scouring spring winds.

One day, dad decided to keep bees. He established one or two hives a few metres away from our home, which borders on a neighbor's wheat field. Dad must have lasted through at least one successful honey harvest before he developed an allergy to bee venom. Occasionally he's come home with his hand or arm puffed up grotesquely from bee stings. When opening the hives he was careful to wear a beekeeper's veil and a big puffy down jacket, but he should have worn a veil that zipped right onto a suit. One early cloudless summer day he and Mr. Melnychuk opened up the hives and a few bees flew in underneath dad's veil. He tried lifting up the netting so the wind would blow them way, but as he says, it was one of the few days on the prairie there was no wind. He received several stings around the lower half of his face, passed out, and fell to the ground. It was so lucky that he was not alone that day. Mr. Melnychuk rushed over to the house to tell my mother to pull up the car. They rushed dad to the hearby hospital, which was in a town twenty minutes away. When they arrived, the doctor stuck a needle right through dad's clothes and saved his life.

I don't know why he didn't have an epi kit at the time, but you can bet he was rarely without it for many years after that, and he did give up his bees. The incident really gave my mother a fright. I'll never forget seeing her sitting at a neighbor's house, her pale hands clutching a mug of coffee. " Your dad almost died today," she told my sister and me. Almost died! We gasped and laughed, giddy with the knowledge that dad had narrowly escaped the clutches of the Grim Stinger.

Bee Safety
Yes, bee stings and wasp stings can kill. One in a hundred people is vulnerable to death by bee or wasp sting. That's why it's important to learn how to be calm around stinging insects and develop an awareness rather than a fear of bees and wasps. Start by learning t difference between bees and wasps. For those who aren't beekeepers, wasp stings are much more common than bee stings. The most likely way you'll be stung by a bee is if you sit on a bee or put your hand on it by accident. However, if you stick a shovel into a bumble bee's nest or a wasp's nest, you'd better make a run for shelter behind a closed door. The most dangerous place to be stung is near your throat, since the swelling could interfere with your breathing. A serious allergy means your throat will swell up and you'll need an injection of adrenaline ASAP. You should wear a medic alert tag, and carry an epi kit if you have an anaphylactic allergy to bee or wasp stings. If your child has this kind of allergy, it would be wise to sit down with his or her playmates and their parents and explain what to do in a bee or wasp sting emergency. For more info check out this page, but ignore the advice on using pesticides!

Being stung by a bee is just one of the many risks we take in our everyday lives. We can minimize the risks by learning how to move slowly and gently around bees and by becoming more aware of their presence rather than trying to avoid them completely. It's the same as teaching your child about traffic safety, fire safety, water safety, or bear safety. There are those who believe that when we are afraid of bees we give off an alarm pheramone that could agitate them if they feel threatened themselves. Therefore, it's better to remain calm and see a visit by a curious bee or wasp as something to be enjoyed--a bee blessing.

This father's day I celebrate these years with dad that are made all the more precious by the fact that our father survived the hobby that nearly took him away from us. I also celebrate the love for bees he passed down to me, a love deepened by respect for their spiritual gifts and their power over human life. It's no wonder that ancient people saw bees as sacred messengers of the gods. I wish a safe summer to you all.