One of the most unnerving ideas for new beekeepers (me included) is the possibility of getting stung. As a beekeeper you’re in close proximity to your beehives on a regular basis. But you also have to consider other people moving around your hives. Neighbors, friends and family obviously need to be taken into account.
This list is not exhaustive, but some good beekeeping safety tips would include the following:
- Know how to avoid upsetting bees.
- Get the right protective clothing and equipment.
- Locate your beehive well.
- Know how to reduce the possibility of stings, and how to deal with them if they occur.
- Know when to inspect your beehives
- Avoid certain smells and strong perfume
- Protect your back with proper lifting technique
- Use bee warning signs where appropriate
- Reduce risks of swarming
- Keep your Beehive Location Neat and Tidy
- Keep a First Aid Kit nearby
We’re all concerned about the safety of those close to us. Also putting yourself at risk is bad for you and your bees. I hope the following tips will help make your beekeeping safer and more enjoyable.
Bees only sting defensively and not by aggression like some other types of stinging insects. So for a start, it’s good to know that your honey bees aren’t looking to sting people. In general, if you leave bees in peace they won’t panic and think you’re after them.
When you get stung by a bee the venom sac remains attached to the stinger which stays stuck in your skin. As a result the stinger gets ripped from the bees abdomen. You get stung, the bee dies!
Avoiding stings is good for everyone including your bees! In general your likelihood of getting stung increases the more time you spend inspecting your hives. As a beginner this is a bit tricky, but as you grow in experience your visits will become shorter. I know of beekeepers who can complete a non intrusive inspection in just a few minutes.
Practice makes perfect.
How often do beekeepers get stung?
In theory it’s possible to keep bees and never get stung. But in practice, even if you apply proper hive management and take precautions (such as using good clothing and equipment) then you can probably go through a season and suffer just two or three stings.
Again, if you’re quick and don’t meddle with the hives too much you can probably go a very long time without getting stung.
What to do if you get stung:
Although bee stings are painful, for most people they are relatively harmless. If you do get stung during a hive inspection, keep calm.
Move away from the hive to deal with any sting whether on skin or clothing. The best method for removing a bee stinger is to scrape it away. The most important thing is to remove the stinger quickly to minimize the amount of venom injected into the skin since the sting will continue to pump venom.
Check that the reaction to the bee sting is normal. It may be advisable to have another person present when you start beekeeping to watch for any adverse reaction to stings. Most people only suffer a small amount of pain and a couple of days of local swelling. Anything worse and you should probably seek medical help.
Sometimes you can get a sting on your bee suit or through clothing. Use a smoker (see below) to blow smoke onto the site of the sting. When a bee stings it also releases an alarm pheromone. This can attract other bees to the location of the sting and provoke further stings. The smoke will mask the effects of the alarm pheromone.
When to Inspect your Beehives
Dealing with your bees at the right moment is a very sensible precaution in beekeeping. I heard a story about a beekeeper who tried to move a hive at night. Bees can’t fly at night so if disturbed they get agitated and crawl over you. The poor person involved got stung !
Begin by learning what kind of behavior and situations bother your bees. You can then integrate this knowledge into your beekeeping routine to diminish the risk of stings or aggravating your bees.
When you begin beekeeping you might find it fun to open up the hives to see your furry friends everyday. But this probably isn’t the best routine. During the colony’s busy season when bees are foraging (usually between spring and autumn) a weekly inspection is enough.
During this period the best moment is a warm sunny day, preferably without a lot of wind.
The best time of day to inspect hives is when honey bees are out foraging, which means less bees in the hive.
There are other times when bees can bee moody and more defensive. In the autumn bees can get upset because food supplies are dwindling (less blooming plants around). Extremes of weather are also bad times to visit your hive. Avoid thundery conditions and hot humid days.
How do Beekeepers Avoid getting Stung?
Stay calm and relaxed and use slow movements when performing your inspections. Avoid bumping the hive too much since the vibrations will upset them. Your objective is to perform a hive inspection without your bees being concerned by your presence. This is absolutely possible, but as a newbie beekeeper, personally I find the idea of stings a bit unnerving. Which is why beekeepers wear protective clothing. Each of us needs to measure our own endurance to the idea of being stung and then choose the kind of protection that suits you.
Protective Clothing for Beekeepers
In general I think it’s easier to learn about beekeeping if you’re not mentally preoccupied by getting stung. Protective clothing helps put you in a state of mental safety.
You sometimes see videos of experienced beekeepers manipulating bees without any protection at all! The amount of protection you take is obviously a personal choice, but keep in mind that sometimes hive inspections may require an extended stay on site, and the longer you’re there the greater the risks.
A veil is perhaps the most important because you want to keep bees away from your face while you work. The most painful part of your body to receive a sting is on your face. Bee suits exist in a couple of formats, either as a full suit or just a jacket for the top half of your body.
Oh… And yes. You will look goofy! A lot of jackets come with integrated veils which when zipped up seal the top half of your body effectively. If you don’t want to look like a lost astronaut, personally I think this example is pretty good…
Make sure your suit is a little bit baggy to leave some room between a potential sting and your skin. Always be methodical about checking zips and removing bees from your suit when you’ve finished work. Some bees might get trapped in folds and be annoyed when they get loose. And bees like crawling into holes!
If for some reason you get a bee stuck inside your veil, don’t panic! Move quickly away from your beehive and remove your veil to release the captured bee. It will probably be pretty agitated about being entrapped in your veil so get out of it’s way quick!
Beekeeping gloves are also another useful addition to your kit. Some beekeepers don’t like to use them because they claim it reduces sensibility and makes inspections more awkward. Others wear gloves all the time and get on fine. For me, the obvious choice is to find a pair which are thick enough to prevent stingers penetrating but thin enough to allow free movement and get the job done, (like these ones on Amazon).
Think about the footwear you’re going to use. Some people wear special beekeeping boots, but whatever you choose go for closed shoes of some kind.
Use a Bee Smoker
First of all a beehive smoker is an essential piece of equipment when inspecting hives. A smoker is the main means of controlling your bees.
Smoke helps to pacify bees for a couple of reasons. When bees perceive an attack on their colony, they communicate this to other bees by releasing a pheromone (kind of like a smell) to warn the other bees. Smoke interferes with this pheromone and prevents bees panicking.
It’s also thought that bees associate smoke with a genetic memory of bushfires. When smoke is detected, bees interpret this as a signal to fill up on honey and get out of town!
Smoke effectively disrupts the defensive behavior of the colony. A good smoker should have a good sized chamber. The bigger the chamber the more oxygen that can circulate and the less likely your smoker will go out. You don’t want your smoker to fail in the middle of a hive inspection! Here’s a good example. Bear in mind that the combustive material you use is perhaps more important than the smoker.
You also need to keep in mind the hazards of using a smoker. A smoker can get hot so handle it properly to avoid burns. Keep the smoker in a place where there is no combustible material nearby to eliminate any risk of accidental fires. When you’ve finished with the smoker make sure the combustible fuel is completely extinguished. You can either snuff out the fire by plugging up the nozzle or just dump it into a bucket of water then remove it later for drying.
Avoid Strong Perfume
Bees can be attracted to strong smells such as perfume or aftershave. It’s probably a good idea to avoid strong scented products, to prevent bees from coming to investigate. I’ve also read that the smell of bananas is similar to the alarm pheromone emitted by bees when they become defensive. Do it’s probably wise to avoid eating bananas before visiting your buzzy friends!
Hive Lifting Techniques
It’s said that beekeepers suffer from bad backs!
When full of honey, medium sized hive boxes (known as supers) can weigh between 30 and 60 lb (14 to 27 kg). Try to use proper lifting techniques when lifting hive elements. Moving heavy parts may not be a problem at first but over time it can wreak havoc with your back!
Position your hives at the right height to make inspections easy without being doubled over all the time.
Locating your Beehive
Don’t position a hive close to where people are walking. Avoid locations where there’s a lot of activity like near doorways and pathways.
In addition you should try to put the hive in a place where there won’t be any lawn mowers passing nearby. It’s common to hear that the fumes and vibrations from a lawn mower will aggravate bees.
As you learned above, a good time of day to insêct hives is on a warm sunny afternoon. At the same time this can be a disadvantage if you have to work under a hot sun. You’ll soon get hot and bothered. Locating your hive in a place with some afternoon shade is a good way to make your conditions more comfortable and also avoid you getting dehydrated.
(When working on hot days and in isolation be sure to have some cool drinks available).
Don’t point the entrance of your hive in a direction where people will cross it. As a general rule beekeepers approach and work from the rear of their hives so that they’re not in the bee’s flight path.
Urban or Residential Beekeeping
If your beehive is located in a residential or urban setting you may need to permission to keep bees. Some places may require you to obtain a permit depending on where you live. Your neighborhood association may also have rules about beekeeping. To ensure good safety practices you may receive regular apiary inspections to make sure the safety of everybody concerned is being looked after properly.
Honey Bee Signs
If your bee yard is in a location likely to be visited without your knowledge or accessible to others, you might want to consider installing a warning sign. These can be used to warn about beekeeping activities and help avert unnecessary surprises!
Swarms of honey bees are a little scary for anyone who witnesses them. In reality, swarms are not aggressive. Swarming bees are simply looking for a new home and not out to attack people.
Nevertheless, large numbers of bees in unexpected places can give rise to dangerous incidents, especially if people panic and do something stupid to the bees.
Swarming is perceived as a sign of success by your honey bees. It means the colony is prospering and has probably become too large. Swarming is nature’s way of splitting a colony so that bees can reproduce and increase in numbers.
But the size of the colony isn’t the only factor involved in swarming. There are a few different ways to manage swarming. You should learn swarm control and swarm prevention methods as part of your beekeeping practices.
Keep your Beehive Location Neat and Tidy
I’ve heard it said that predators like skunks and raccoons can be attracted by the odor of honey. Don’t leave any hive elements lying around at the site of your hives as this will increase traces of honey around the hive location. Creatures who want to rob your hives are a danger to you and your bees…
Keep a First Aid Kit nearby
Most of the safety tips included above are concerned with the the risk of someone getting stung. There are plenty of circumstances which could give rise to stings but with good handling, bees are not aggressive and bee stings can be avoided.
If by misfortune somebody does get stung, it can be useful to keep a first aid kit nearby specifically for this eventuality. Remember to remove the stinger as quickly as possible to reduce the amount of venom pumped into the wound. Seek medical advice if you think that a reaction to a bee sting is not normal.