With smoker, hive tool and other tools in hand, we approach our beehive excitedly, eager to find out what wondrous things our bees have been doing.
But before we do so there is one more important thing we need to do – protect ourselves from those same pesky bees.
Unlike the layman, who often has an irrational belief that bees live to sting and will take every opportunity to do so, we know a little more about the way they behave. They are not as eager to sting as many believe, but there is still the chance of a sting or two. Quality protective clothing can greatly reduce the chances of stings.
Let’s look more closely at what we can do to prevent stings through protective clothing.
Protection and calmness
First, let’s consider the “why”. Attitudes vary as to how much effort should go into avoiding stings. Only you can decide where you will eventually fall on this continuum, but we would like to reiterate one very important point.
Regardless of your tolerance for bee stings – medically or mentally – as a new beekeeper you need to be relaxed and calm around your bees. If you are like the majority of beekeepers, those first few inspections bring with them some trepidation. We think that is healthy, in moderation.
It is possible – indeed quite common – to undertake a detailed inspection of your hive without your bees being unduly concerned. In such situations, you will find bees carry on with their jobs on the frames in the box, even the ones you lift out for inspection. Apart from a small number of bees that may fly around you, times like this can be wonderfully relaxing and immensely enjoyable.
At other times, though, something may “stir” your bees. In these situations, there is more of a frenzy around the beehive as you remove boxes and inspect frames. The noise levels go up and there are more bees flying around you, focusing on you rather than their job.
For some beekeepers, this is reasonably standard and it depends on many factors (such as the time of year, the type of bees and so on). So operating with bees that are somewhat agitated isn’t particularly unusual.
But regardless of their activity and how much they care about your presence, you do want to maintain a calm, measured approach. To help with this, you need to be focused on the task at hand and not constantly worrying about being stung.
And for that you need good protective clothing.
What do you need?
That’s open to debate and different beekeepers take different approaches. So we won’t be recommending a specific level of protection here. Our aim is to arm you with the information you need, so you can find your own balance.
Let’s start, though, with the easy part.
Protect your head
We have said it before and we’ll say it again. Regardless of your level of comfort, protect your head. It’s very easy to find YouTube video’s of folks who don’t wear protective headgear, especially among “experienced” beekeepers (or the macho ones!).
Bully for them, but what they rarely show you is what happens when they are stung near the eye. This is not a good thing, at all.
So, regardless of how you feel about suiting up before checking your bees, just make sure you protect your head every time.
Upper body protection
Hat and Veil
The majority of beekeepers protect their head with a veil built into a jacket or suit, though this is not essential. “Standalone” veils work well too, providing there’s a clear fastening or coverage of the jacket i.e. no gaps.
Either type of veil works well but it is important that any design offers the rigidity to ensure the veil is kept away from your face as you bend down and turn. While very rare, bees can potentially sting through the veil, but if they land on a veil held away from the face then all is well.
A popular option for beekeepers is a beekeeping jacket (as opposed to a full body suit – see below). These are quicker to put on and often have a veil integrated into their design.
A good jacket will have strong zippers, as well as thumb hooks to help you insert the arms of your jacket inside your gloves. The zipper between the jacket and veil should be easy to engage too.
Ventilated clothing is a tremendously valuable benefit when operating in the heat of summer and we recommend this approach, since we all face such days. Aborting a hive inspection because you are overheating is unfortunate and today’s wonderful ventilated materials do a great job of reducing that possibility.
If there is one area where more experienced beekeepers sometimes push back, in terms of protective clothing, it is with respect to the use of gloves.
Stings to the hand are no fun but obviously not as concerning as stings to the head. Further, the argument presented is that gloves reduce the “touch and finesse” when undertaking a hive inspection. This may be true at some level, but many beekeepers use gloves all the time and do just fine (and with the benefit of protection from stings).
There are many types of glove available. Generally, look for a lightweight glove and maybe even a ventilated version.
A middle ground between wearing regular beekeeping gloves and not wearing gloves at all are nitrile gloves, similar to those used by medical professionals. While certainly not an assurance you won’t be stung, they do offer at least some protection while also providing more feel than beekeeping gloves.
Lower body protection
Many beekeepers do not use specially designed pants. But no regular clothing protects entirely against bee stings. Even heavy-duty jeans can be penetrated by a determined worker bee. But many beekeepers feel this is a reasonable trade off, assuming they do not have a full bee suit (see below).
Regardless of which approach you take (jacket, bee suit, etc) beekeeping boots are an option. Again, not all beekeepers will purchase specially-made beekeeping boots.
The one important point here is that you should ensure no gap exists between the bottom of your pants and your feet. This is normally easy to ensure. simply by tucking the bottom of your pants inside your socks.
Bees know very well how to get into small openings – and climb up.
The most thorough way to protect yourself is with a full body bee suit. These are very popular among beekeepers and do a great job of protecting the majority of your body.
A good bee suit has a number of features to help the beekeeper, including thumb ties to help insert into gloves, a good zipper on the front and a veil, plus elasticated ankles to ensure a snug fit around shoes or boots.
Regular or Ventilated
Let’s look more closely at the question of ventilated clothing. Beekeeping can make you a little “toasty”! In the middle of summer, donning any protective clothing is going to raise a sweat rather quickly. If you happen to have some new beekeeper nerves (don’t worry – these will pass!) this can all add up to a somewhat uncomfortable experience.
You really don’t want to be rushing your hive inspection. If you are rushing because you are too hot then that’s an opportunity wasted – use your time at the hive wisely and efficiently and don’t cut it short because you are uncomfortable.
To help with this, beekeeping clothing is available with wonderful ventilated materials. At first glance, it seems rather remarkable that any material that offers ventilation can also protect you from bee stings. But the triple-ply materials do just that (we guess they are based on the principle that bee stingers are larger than air molecules!).
Ventilated jackets and bee suits are available and the differential in cost, as compared to regular protective clothing, is not that significant, especially when you factor in the many hours you will probably end up wearing the clothing.
One final word. Whatever option you choose, be sure that you wear protective clothing with some freedom to move around, possibly by choosing one size too big. This again comes back to comfort and having a tight fit just decreases that comfort and can make you hotter still. And if you think beekeeping is a fashion contest, you are in the wrong hobby!
Actually scratch that….
A real example….
Here’s a picture kindly provided by one of our customers, Ken, who enjoyed his gift of a ventilated jacket so much that he posted to the PerfectBee Facebook page (and very kindly allowed us to use his image). The material for both the jacket and the veil has multiple layers and does a great job of protecting from bee stings, while allowing a little breeze through.