Staying safe when beekeeping

All the buzz on safety equipment and practices

It’s unavoidable: if you’re keeping bees, sooner or later you’ll get a sting. It’s just what bees do: the safety of their hive is of the utmost importance, and they’ll use their stings to protect it, even if it means individual bees die.

So, bee stings are a sign of a hive doing its job! But still, keeping stings to a minimum is important, both for your own comfort and for the long-term functioning of the hive. A bee’s sting releases a chemical called melittin, which triggers pain receptors and causes a burning sensation. Keeping safe around bees is really about helping the bees stay calm and happy – so it’s a win for you both.

The natural predators of the honeybee tend to be mammals – like us and bears! Bees get more aggressive and ready to sting around dark objects, fur or hair, vibrations and carbon dioxide – our very presence winds them up! So, the beekeeping safety equipment is as much about minimising our mammal-ness as it is about keeping bees away from our skin.

Safe beekeeping equipment

You’ll often see experienced beekeepers wearing nothing but a veil. If you’re just starting out, you’ll be smarter to get the full kit. That’s because you won’t have the experience to know when bees are most likely to sting. Confidence is also a huge part of beekeeping – the right equipment will be reassuring for you while you get more experienced.

Here’s what you’ll need.

Beekeeper’s smoker

Smokers are great to help your bees stay calm and manageable. The smoke masks the smell of alarm pheromones, which trigger an alarm response in other bees so they get ready to attack. So a few puffs of smoke before opening your hive and during the inspection ensures that your bees remain calm and manageable. Even if a few guard bees sound the alarm, the other bees won’t be alerted. You can find a good smoker here.

When using a smoker, make sure you consider another danger as well – fires. In Australia, we all know that a tiny spark in the wrong place can do immeasurable damage. If you need to put your lit smoker down while you’re working, place it on a stable, inflammable surface, like the lid of your hive. If you live in a particularly dry area, keep sand, water, or a fire extinguisher handy while you work, or consider using liquid smoke as a fire-free alternative.

Protective clothing

Basic protective clothing is essential to avoid those few bees that do go on the attack and try to sting – gloves, a veil, jacket, long pants and enclosed footwear. While any thick, long-sleeved clothing is going to do the job,proper bee suits and jackets come with extra functionality. They’re the right colour and texture (white and smooth) to reduce the bee’s alarm response and are designed to minimise the chance of a bee sneaking in under your clothes.

A beekeeper’s veil is an essential piece of kit – a sting to the face really hurts! Snugly fitting gloves are your number one defence against stings. Proper beekeeping gloves will fit snugly and be made from thin material so you can feel what you’re doing. Good ones will go all the way up the arm, secured with elastic above the elbow, like these. Don’t be tempted by cheap welding gloves – the dark, rough texture will trigger your bees!

Safety best-practice around bees

While the right equipment is a must-have, the way you behave is also a big part of staying safe around bees.

Take a buddy if you’ve never been stung

For most people, a bee sting is just painful and will heal fairly quickly.

About 3% of people will have an allergic reaction to bee stings that can result in anaphylactic shock, which can be fatal. So, if you’ve never been stung before, take a buddy with you, just in case. Anaphylaxis is easy to treat if you catch it in time, so your buddy can get the help you need if you react badly to a sting.

What to do when things go wrong

Whether a bee has stung you through your clothing or you have a particularly adventurous buzzer inside your veil, when things don’t go your way, the main thing is to stay calm. Easier said than done, but the more agitated you get, the more aggressive your bees will become.

If you’ve got a bee in your bonnet, calmly and quickly move well away from the hives, then take off your veil. If you can, try killing the bee while it’s inside the veil – once you release it, it’ll be hard to get, and will certainly return to have another go.

If you get stung, immediately blow smoke where you were stung. This will mask any pheromones and keep other bees from coming in for a sting too. If you need to get at the sting site, move well away from the apiary before taking off any clothing.

Take note of conditions

Honeybee behaviour is really affected by the weather – they’re calmer when they’re busy working. Choose a fine warm day, with little wind and a temperature of above 16°C. You’ll see bees flying to and from the hive, some with pollen pellets on their hind legs.

Open the hive carefully

When you open the hive, stand so the sunlight is behind you – this lets you easily examine the combs.

Direct five or six puffs of smoke into the hive entrance, and let the smoke circulate for about a minute. Direct a few more puffs into the entrance, then use a hive tool to lift the cover about 20 mm at one corner. Direct three to four more puffs of smoke before taking off the lid, continuing to puff smoke between frames. Keep puffing smoke as you remove the frames. Watch for bees gathering on the top bars of frames then flying up towards – this tells you the smoke has mostly worn off.

Be kind to the bees

Crushing bees will make the others aggressive and agitated, so following protocol to protect your hive is important when you’re manipulating the frames and the combs. Taking extra tender care around your bees goes a long way to keeping them calm and happy.

Keep calm and carry on – carefully

Keep in mind both aspects of safety around bees. One is the protective clothing you need to keep you from getting stung. That includes an essential veil, and if you’re new to beekeeping, a full, head-to-toe outfit that’s a calming white or pale colour. Getting stung isn’t just painful – you also might be fatally allergic to bee stings, and one attacking bee alerts others.

The other safety aspect is about how you behave when you’re working with a hive. Keeping calm and treating your bees with respect are your first steps. It’s also wise to include a bee smoker to calm your bees when you open their hive and choose the right weather conditions before you start.

Want to know more about bee-keeping safety?Contact Ecrotek today.