Alexis’ post about going to Girouxville “to visit a local apiary and watch honey extraction” brought back some funny memories for me. I don’t think I’ve ever posted about that job experience in its entirety, and it’s interesting in a number of ways. Mostly in terms of the things I learned:
- If you’re not sure whether you’re asthmatic, a week working as a fieldhand will confirm or falsify the diagnosis. I was playing saxophone a lot then, and using my inaler not so often, so i didn’t consider my asthma so severe. But the first week on the job — when they had me working in the fields, picking up hives and chucking them in the back of a huge truck — was not just exhausting. It was thoroughly debilitating. After a few days out in the field, with all that pollen in the air, even a ventolin inhaler didn’t do anything for me, and I ended up in the emergency room at a local hospital, with a mask on my face, thanking heaven for modern medicine. I was thereafter put on duty inside the factory, which is too bad: I’d have built up some strength and lost a lot of weight working in the field, but it was not to be.
- Bees really care about the weather. On hot days, you’re happy, because the bees are really dopey and they don’t much care what is going on. The factory, in fact, was kept artificially hot because it kept the honey from solidifying, but it also had the very useful side effect of doping up the bees. They’d fly around, but they weren’t very grouchy at all. In the field, hot days were almost all I saw, and that was good. We’d smoke the bees out of the hives and then carry the hives, with the few remaining bees inside, up to the truck. But on cold days, if you smoked them out they mostly came out mad — and lots stayed inside. When you lifted the hives, they sometimes got mean. Even worse was when you had to deal with cold boxes that had been brought in from the field. There would be these angry, angry bees flying around inside the plant, and anyone’s bad luck meant a sting. Which didn’t happen to me more than twice, but both times it really sucked. (For the reason I’ll mention last.)
- Bees stings don’t suck for everyone. My boss, for example, was quite happy to be stung a few times a year. He was 100% convinced that the bee venom was the reason why he managed to experience no more symptoms of athritis not long after he started running his apiary. (Which he usually referred to as a “bee ranch.” I didn’t know the term “apiary” until sometime after I’d finished working there.) Since then, I’ve heard that bees are using in some traditional forms of treatment for arthritis, with similar results.
- There’s a whole semi-nomadic society of bee-farmers who are practically scholars about bees. It’s semi-nomadic because you can’t do a damned thing with bees in the winter. But people, on the other hand, can fly to the Southern Hemisphere, where it’s summertime during Canada’s winter. Some of the guys working on the same staff as me were spending half the year in New Zealand and half the year in Canada, just working with bees. They knew all kinds of things about bees, they were as comfortable with the critters as someone like me is with cute dogs, and they just loved the honey business… enough to live half the year abroad every year, enough to do pretty demanding phsyical work all year round.
- “Talk radio” (as opposed to music radio) is good for mindless work. When we harvested the honey, it was really a case of pulling out slates from a hive, scraping them with a kind of small rake-like utensil to rip open all the waxed-off repositories of honey, and then setting the slats onto a conveyor belt. It was mindless after the lunchbreak after the first day, and at first I was a bit annoyed to be listening to talk radio instead of CBC FM, where they played classical music and jazz all day. But after a while, I realized two things: first, that unlike music, talk radio is unobjectionable. If we’d had the radio on a music station, it would have been pop or rock, not the kind of music I wanted to hear, and I would have gone nuts. But with talk radio, everyone was fine. Second, it was usually slightly inane, which meant I would never be so distracted from my work as to miss something important or hurt myself, but it was engaging enough to fill the time almost satisfactorily. I sure knew what was going on in the world during those two months, as well as anyone I knew, anyway.
- Some people are really assholes; this will often win them the perplexing approval of some higher-ups, but less often with competent supervisors. Take, for example, this girl I knew whose name was Rebecca. She was the friend of a friend, sort of; actually, the friend of a previous girlfriend, to be exact. They had grown apart, mostly for the reason that Rebecca was, let me say it again, a jerk. I’d dropped by her home to pick up some books that I’d loaned her brother, and he’d declined to buy from me, and Rebecca’s mother had inquired about whether I’d found a summer job yet. “Why, yes,” I said, “I’ve got a job working on a professor’s bee farm this summer.” What do you know Rebecca tried to get my job straight away. She was hired, and then wimped out after half a summer, at which point my boss confided he was glad he hadn’t hired her instead of me. (His daughter-in-law took over and worked out fine.) The crazy thing? Rebecca did the same thing a couple of years later when she got a job at the same record store I’d been at for a few months. She started calling herself a lesbian, because the (married, pregnant, incompetent) boss had what amounted to an obsession with homosexuals. It got to the point where there were only two straight people on staff, which isn’t a big deal except that Rebecca was on a campaign to put me in the boss’ bad books. It took her months, but she finally did. A few months later, I quit, took the summer off from work, and got a job in a bookstore soon after, through my very cool (then-)new friend Joleen. In any case, Rebecca was almost the worst co-worker I even had. A horrible person named Aiden with whom I worked at another record shop in the same chain, but in Edmonton, was the worst — so bad that most of the staff complained to our supervisor about her behaviour towards me, and the boss finally put her foot down — but that’s a story for another day. The bosses at the record shop liked Rebecca, because she flattered them, played whatever role she thought they wanted, and tried to make others look bad in their eyes. Maybe the real lesson is, only one in three record shop managers will be competent, and two in three will be idiots?
- No matter what you do, you’re going to get stung. What matters is what you do after. But you really can’t avoid being stung, that’s for sure. The first sting I got was through my suit. I was wearing shorts under the white cotton worksuit, because it was hot in the factory. The bee stung right through the pants, and the thing was, I didn’t realize that the stung was still in my leg. I should have left the floor, pulled off my boots and gloves, taken the suit off, and dug out the stinger, but I thought scratching at it a little through the suit had probably removed it, and then just went about my business. What a mistake! By the end of the day, the stinger was in deep and my thigh was swollen (just a bit), but worse, it stayed that way a long time. I even temporarily lost feeling in the area, like, for a year or so. (Which was weird, because on my next job, I banged the other calf so many times by accident that I got permanently deadened sensation in a corresponding area.)
- Why there’s a Chinese restaurant (or convenience store) in every little podunk town in Saskatchewan… I often went to buy a cold drink or even some food at the place round back of the honey plant. The family that ran the place was Chinese. I can’t remember if it was someone working there, or one of my co-workers, but I remember being surprised that this was far from unusual. My experience of rural Saskatchewan was pretty limited, in that the only small town I’d lived in was Lac La Ronge, way up north. Since then, I’d lived in cities like Prince Albert and Saskatoon, which were bigger and more diverse, but I’d (rightly, in general) assumed that rural Saskatchewan was roughly as diverse as any city I’d lived in… meaning, not very. But an exception was Chinese-Canadians, who are quite present in small towns in the prairies, or at least, used to be. It turns out a lot of Chinese were brought over to Canada to do work construction railroads, with the promise that they would be allowed to bring their families over later. I’m told that when the time came, most of them were unforutnately told to get lost, and ended up settling in a scattered way, with Vancouver being the main focus of their settlement, but with many individuals (and later their families) ended up setting up small businesses in small towns. So you can often find a Chinese restaurant, Chinese-run convenience store, or something like that in lots of out-of-the-way prairie towns. How true this is, I don’t know, but it’s what I was told.
- There’s a reason that we have a word for “irony.” I learned that I was allergic to towards the end of summer. I think I had a couple of weeks of work left before I would be let go, though the season had actually extended farther than I’d hoped. I was about to move to Edmonton with my then-fiancee and we were going to look for work when we got there, and I’d wanted to nab any job someone had abandoned for the start of semester, so it was, in a way, good that I had to stop working. Good also because my sister was touring Canada with the National Youth Orchestra that year and because of my allergic reaction, I was unable to work and had the day off to go see the concert.
I was able to go to a concert, but not to work? Well, yes. It’s because of where I got stung. It had been the end of the day, which meant I’d gone most of the way through the cleanup routine that we did at the end of work everyday. Honey’s a crazy substance, and if you let it build up on concrete or on the machinery, it will absolutely destroy it, so you have to clean up everything thoroughly. After cleaning the machines, we would spray and squeegee the floor with a gigantic squeegee. The problem was that our gloves were ridiculously sticky by that point, so we would take them off at the end of cleanup. So it was that wrapped my bare fingers round the handle of the squeegee and surprised a bee that was sitting on the far side. It stung me on my right index finger, which promptly swelled up to 150% or more of its normal size.
But if swelling had been my only reaction, I would have been happy. The swelling might have passed after a couple of days. Instead, it stayed. My finger hurt excruciatingly, and worse, I found myself completely winded all the time. A day or two of that was enough to send me to the doctor again, and I was informed that I was, quite obviously, allergic to bees. I was shocked, having just worked with them for two whole months, but the doctor spelled it out for me, plain and simple: I was allergic to bees, and my allergy would either improve or worsen over time. If it improved, I would get progressively less allergic with each sting. If it got worse, I would get progressively more allergic with each sting, until it would be a fatal danger.
The doctor also offered me a treatment, which was, essentially, the same as being stung, with, she said, roughly the same effect, though with a slightly higher chance of my allergy improving. However, I saw it this way: I’ve been allotted a number of possible stings in my life, and I can either save them up for now, or burn them off on the vague possibility that I might be less allergic later… or the much more horrifying possibility that one sting could kill me quickly later. No treatment was the obvious choice, and I haven’t looked back.
Well, except over my shoulder when I hurry away from anyplace where there is a bee.
I guess that’s what I learned during my summer working with bees. Summer jobs… what an otherworldly, strange idea that is…