How Much Protective Clothing Should I Wear While Working Bees?

Reader Contribution by David Burns
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No one likes to get stung. It hurts. By the way, the likelihood of dying from a bee sting is about as likely as dying by a lightning strike , according to the US National Safety Council:

Odds of dying from lightning: 1 in 81,949
Odds of dying from a bee/wasp sting: 1 in 72,494 

Even though bee stings aren’t as deadly as some might think, it still hurts and you’ll turn red, itch and swell up. This is a close up of the venom sack of the honey bee. It looks larger than it is. The stinger is only 1.5mm in length. Yet, as small at it is no one wants to be stung. Most of us have been stung by a honey bee whether we work bees or not. Wearing protective clothing can prevent most stings. The first defense against being stung is to always use a smoker! Blowing cool smoke into a hive and onto the bees prior to working them is your best protection. I can work most bees without any protective clothing if I smoke them first, but the same is not true if I don’t smoke them!

The second defense against being stung is to keep gentle bees. There is no reason to keep a hive that is very defensive. Re-queen a hive that is mean with a more gentle queen and in 30 days the eggs that she lays will emerge and be much more gentle. Near the end of this year’s bee season, I re-queened all of my hives and because we are queen producers and raise gentle queen stock, I worked my bees this with limited protection as my bees had no aggressive tendencies.

But let’s say you don’t want to worry about re-queening and you just want to wear some protective gear to keep from being stung. Sometimes, especially when removing hives from homes, more protection is necessary. We always recommend you wear a hat and veil which is a very wise investment. No one wants to get stung on the face or head. Most beekeepers use the plastic pith helmet with a veil.

The helmets are pretty common but the veils can be different. Some have square screens in the front, as in this picture, while others have different front screens. Some veils only come down to the neck, while others come all the way down to the chest. The style that you choose for the hat and veil is up to you.

In most cases a hat and veil is adequate protection, ensuring that the face and head do not attack a stray sting. However, some hives are more defensive and may require more protective clothing. Some veils have elastic bottoms that fit snug around the shoulder and neck while others have strings that tie around the beekeepers waist. Even with a hat and veil on it is still possible to have a stray bee enter into the hat. Most of us have experience this and we simply try to release the bee without taking off the hat. Believe it or not the bee in the hat and veil wants out as much as you want the bee out.

The next level of protection is a jacket with the hat and veil built in. These are nice, and are often referred to as an inspector’s jacket. They look kind of like a parka jacket. You can unzip your veil and the hat/veil drops behind your head and stays attached, as in the picture. I’ve unzipped the hat and veil and have laid them back out of the way. It’s important to always wear white. Jackets are white because bees mostly avoid white clothing but are attracted to dark clothing. Keep in  mind that jackets are worn in the summer heat and can become very hot. Also, when determining a proper fit remember you’ll be wearing jackets and suits over your clothes so a size larger than your regular size should be considered.

The next level of protection is a complete bee suit. Generally it is like the jacket but includes the pants. Bee suits are not totally sting proof. Though it is very rare, it is possible to be stung through a bee suit. Again, it is almost impossible, but can happen and did happen to my son once when we were removing a hive from a house.

So whatever you decide to wear, you may decide to change after you work your bees. If they are gentle bees, you may decide a suit is not necessary.

Suits and jackets are very hot in mid summer, so do keep that in mind. It is best to choose a fabric blend such as a cotton/polyester blend that is cool.  In this picture, you can see that among a group of beekeepers, there are many different configurations.

A low budget idea is to buy a real inexpensive painter’s suit from Menards or Lowes. These are made of a material that does not last forever, but it will last at least one bee season. I’ve used them. They can tear easily, but they are a white, very thin painter’s suit. They do not have a hat or veil, and a bee could sting through it, but they are white and bees do not like to land on white. I always wear a very light colored shirt and bees stay off. Bees have an instinct to attack a black bear.

To make sure queens are gentle, breeders wave a black cloth over the top of a hive and then count the stingers on that cloth. The hive with the fewest stings are the more gentle hive. Bees are “wired” to defend their hive against black bears so wearing a white painter’s suit can be a low budget solution.

If you are afraid of being stung on your hands, there are many different types of bee gloves with longer sleeves to tuck beneath or over your suit. Most are sting resistant, meaning a bee might be able to sting through the glove, and others are sting proof which means a stinger cannot penetrate your gloves. But, as you would imagine, the gloves that are sting proof are not the easiest gloves to work a hive with. They are big and clumsy and you look like a Haz-Mat worker. With gloves this awkward, you accidentally smash more bees and that makes them more aggressive. I prefer to work my bees bare handed. I like being able to feel what I’m doing.

If this is your first year to keep bees, wear as much protective clothing that makes you feel comfortable but as you become more experienced try wearing less so that you can fully enjoy beekeeping!

David Burns

Photo Credits: David Burns

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