Beekeeping for Beginners: Common-Sense Guide to Bee Safety

It's common bee safety knowledge that bees are defensive by nature, so don't set off their warning bells is one beekeeping for beginners tip.

Veil Over Hat

Safety equipment can be as little as long sleeves and a veil fitted over a hat you already own.

iStockphoto.com/Horst Puschmann

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Apiphobes … we all know one. Someone who is terrified of bees, who sees a bee and cannot contain his fear. Maybe he truly is allergic, or maybe, like a friend of mine, he was just trained from a young age to be afraid. Most of us (except perhaps those raised by beekeepers) have been conditioned to a certain degree: See a bee, think only of their capacity for stinging, not of their other less injurious attributes like making honey and pollinating many of our favorite fruits and vegetables. Because of this almost inborn fear, beekeeping for beginners can be a challenge for many people.

The first time you take the lid off the hive, hear the buzzing, and find yourself surrounded by bees can be a little scary for everyone, but keeping yourself safe is relatively easy. Many tactics for beehive safety involve plain old common sense.

Though we have been conditioned to think of them as attackers who live to sting us, bees are by nature defensive and reactive. Bees become defensive only when threatened in some way. They release an alarm pheromone (a smelly chemical that alerts the other bees of an attack), and when the odor gets the hive up in arms, the beekeeper is in for a bad day.

One of the keys to beekeeping is doing your best to avoid putting the bees on the defensive; a difficult task considering you’re hoping to steal their hard-earned food supply. 

Timing is everything

When handling bees, it’s important to remember that a hive is moody. Knowing the natural rhythms of your bees is essential for staying safe. If you take the time to consider a few things before working the hive, your next bee encounter is bound to be more enjoyable.

If possible, choose a day that is bright, sunny and warm. Rainy or hot, muggy days can make bees more defensive. Thunderclouds or storms are to be avoided, as environmental factors during these times are thought to cause bees to be more irritable. More bees are likely to be in the hive during a storm – meaning more hanging around with the express purpose of defending the hive, and more bees for you to handle or avoid.

Working the hive on a colder day can be dangerous for the bees. The way bees stay warm is to bunch together in a complex cluster. Honeybees begin to cluster if the temperature drops below about 57 degrees. If you work the hive after the cluster has formed, you may cause the bees to become disorganized, and they may not get their cluster rebuilt before the temperature drops, causing the hive to be more susceptible to the cold. If you must manipulate them during colder weather, do so in the morning to give them plenty of time to get their cluster organized again before temperatures plummet.

The optimum time for hive management is during nectar flow, when most of the bees are gone from the hive collecting nectar. This occurs when the most flowers are in bloom and producing nectar and pollen for the bees to use. The timing varies based on your climate. Check with your local beekeepers association or extension agent to find out when nectar flow happens in your area.

You can’t always manipulate the hive at the best possible time, so getting to know your bees is essential. The mood of the bees changes from day to day. If you open the hive and the bees seem agitated, you can always close the hive and come back another day.

Pay attention to what’s going on when they are more defensive. Was the weather bad (did a storm come in soon after)? Was there some other threat present (animals or other insects, like wasps)? Has a car or lawn mower been by recently to get them excited? Paying attention to these small details and avoiding times when the bees are up in arms can make your next trip to the hive more rewarding. 

What to wear

One relatively easy way to keep bees from becoming defensive is to consider what you’re wearing. The best-dressed beekeeper wears light-colored, smooth fabrics. Strong colors, especially red and black, can cause bees to become agitated. The hooks on the feet of bees can become caught in fluffy fabrics, such as sweaters, flannel and athletic socks. Your sweat can antagonize bees, so light-weight clothing that breathes is preferable on hot days.

Bees are sensitive to movement and light. Remove your jewelry when you work with them. The sunlight glittering off your rings or watch may agitate your bees. Tuck or tie back long hair, both to keep it out of the way and to keep it from moving in the wind.

Your charges are quite resourceful and can use gaps of less than 3 millimeters to find their way into your clothing. To keep them from crawling up your pant legs, tuck your trousers into your boots or socks. Be sure that any gaps are closed. You can even use tape or elastic bands on your pants and sleeves.

Because scents and pheromones are so important to life in a bee colony, they also are an easy way to cause a defensive response. When you’re on the way to visit your bees, avoid fragrances (hair products, perfumes, aftershave or deodorant) and other odors or fumes. For example, you might want to avoid filling your car with gas on the way to your hives.  

Look like a pro

The objective of protective gear for beekeeping is to keep bees away from your skin, and you can find beekeeping regalia that covers you from head to toe. Special clothing includes a veil, suit or jacket, boots and gloves.

Experts advise new beekeepers to start out with more protection to keep them more comfortable. Remember, you can’t put on more protection while you’re working the hive, but you can take pieces off if your comfort level increases or if you find the bees particularly malleable.

The veil is the most important piece of protective gear. Most beekeepers will not work bees without it. Being stung on the face or neck is more dangerous than other places. A sting to your eye or inside your mouth or throat could be particularly harmful. Many types of veils are available. Some hang from helmets and some (called the “Alexander” type) stand alone without a helmet. They can be made from wire mesh or sheer fabric. Some even zip to your coverall or jacket.

You can find suits or jackets made especially for beekeeping. Usually, they are made of fabric that bees can’t sting through and that fit tight around your wrists, ankles and waist to keep bees from crawling in. Some have built-in veils, or veils that zip on to create a bee-safe barrier. Coveralls and jackets are great for keeping honey, wax and other bee messes off your clothing as you work the hives.

Bee gloves are specialized with long cuffs gathered close to your arms with elastic bands so bees cannot find a gap. Many types of gloves are available, from canvas to rubber to leather. Make sure they fit you well, because you’re trying to avoid any awkward movements. Longtime beekeepers suggest that those new to the business use gloves, but many old-timers prefer to work without them as it’s easier to manipulate the equipment and the bees. One option is to start with gloves on, and then remove them if the bees are feeling cooperative.

The best way to decide what type or combination you like is to try them. Contact your local beekeeping association and ask to try others’ equipment to see what works best for you. Beekeepers work in differing levels of protection. Some are covered head to toe, others prefer bare hands and short sleeves in the heat of summer. Wear what makes you comfortable.

Be sure to wash your beekeeping gear regularly. Alarm scents stay in the fabric (and upset the next hive you approach) even if garments look clean. 

Smoke ’em if you got ’em

One of the great tools of the beekeeping trade is the smoker. Smoke has been used for centuries to calm bees and keep them under control. Remember the alarm pheromone that gets the bees excited and triggers all their defensive responses? The smoker masks those scents.

A smoker is a relatively simple tool. It consists of a container for fuel (anything from pine needles to cow chips) and a bellows of some type. Using a smoker is often referred to as an art form. It sometimes takes a little practice, but the key seems to be patience. You aren’t getting the most response if you puff a couple of times and then start working. Most resources agree that waiting at least two minutes after applying smoke to the bees is optimum. Giving the smoke time to take affect can save time in the long run. 

Unavoidable stings

In the end, however, you will get stung. Prepare yourself for that eventuality. No matter how much protective gear you wear or how much research and planning you do, you will be in close proximity and stealing the bees’ food, and you will get stung.

If you know that you are deathly allergic to bee stings, beekeeping isn’t the right vocation for you. If you really want fresh honey, just buy it from your neighbor down the road.

If you’re worried about bee stings, steel yourself, and know that most beekeepers say they get used to being stung, and stings hurt less as you get more of them. Beekeepers who are stung often develop antibodies to bee venom (apitoxin). Some beekeepers even think you should make sure you are stung each season to keep your antibodies up. Do, however, take whatever precautions are necessary.

Each person reacts differently to a bee sting or to multiple stings. Some people have a local reaction, such as a red welt and swelling at the sting site, while others experience a systemic reaction, also called anaphylactic shock, where breathing is affected. It’s best for a beekeeper to have a sting kit (which requires a prescription) on hand at all times, especially if you expect to have visitors to your hives. It includes antihistamines (which treat the allergic response) and an epinephrine pen (which relaxes the muscles in the airways). Be sure you are familiar with how to use the kit in case of an emergency.

Attitude makes all the difference

None of this preparation, protective gear, timing, smoke or lack of deodorant will do you any good if you don’t approach the bees with the right attitude. Bees are like dogs, they can smell fear (quite literally). When working bees, it is imperative that you are calm, cool and collected.

Calm, sure movements are best. Stay relaxed. Don’t work too fast or with quick jerky movements. Bees are sensitive to vibrations, so bumping or banging on the hive can set off their defensive response.

In the beginning you may feel awkward and frightened. Don’t worry, this will pass with time and practice. Wear more protective gear until you get comfortable. Make sure your equipment is in top form and that your gloves fit you well to make manipulating the bees easier. Eventually you’ll be the old hand in the business.