For many beginners, the fear of getting stung is a big deal. Heck, despite the bravado of experienced beekeepers in saying that you get used to it, no one ever really wants to get stung. The sharp barbed stinger and venom aside, a bee sting results in a dead bee. Not good for business.
Can I get stung through a beekeeping suit?
The most obvious defence humans have against getting stung is a beekeeping suit. Now I do not want to put anyone off beekeeping by saying this, but you can still get stung through a suit! With good quality three-layer suits it is much less likely that you will get stung, but in our experience, there are still some vulnerabilities.
Common places are along the back of the neck where bees can get stuck in the neck roll, or as what happens quite often, getting stung on the nose if your face is pressed against the veil.
Well that sucks, I might give beekeeping a miss!
Fret not, there are ways to mitigate these vulnerable areas. Firstly, wearing a baseball cap underneath your beekeeping suits hood can help keep the veil further away from your face. As for the back of the neck stings, wearing a collared shirt with the collar popped up can provide you with additional protection.
Your choice of suit will also dictate your defence against stings. As mentioned, the good quality three layer suits do offer the best protection as they are designed to create a standoff between the bees abdomen and your skin. This makes the distance between the bee and your skin further than the length of a bees stinger, ensuring it can’t get you. Occasionally though if a bee gets caught in a spot say behind your knee and you squat down, the fabric may pinch together, frighten the bee, and unfortunately, you get stung. Again, not to scare anyone off, just pointing out that most beekeeping suits are not invincible!
Upgrade your defence
When purchasing a beekeeping suit be sure to check for quality stitching and zips. Suits with zips that are going to fail on you are a lousy investment. Most suits will have velcro tabs that cover the areas where zips meet. It is important that when you are suiting up, you check these tabs are down up properly. Furthermore, check for elastic or velcro closing loops on the wrists and ankles. This will also help avoid allowing bees into your suit.
Even the most docile of bees may sting if it crawls inside your suit and feels threatened. That said, if you do get a bee inside your suit, do not panic. Just calmly move away from the hive/s, brush off any other bees from your suit, and then gently open your suit and let the bee out. The worst thing you can do is to panic and upset the bee further. Remember, if a bee is inside your suit and it really wanted to sting you, it would have done so before you even noticed it was there.
Just chill out, do the above, and you’ll both get to go on with your day unharmed.
This leads us to the most crucial measure in avoiding bee stings.
The best defence against bee stings….
Learning when and why they sting!
Bees only sting for a limited number of reasons. Beekeepers aside, think about when people actually get stung by bees. It really isn’t that often. It normally only happens if they step on a bee by accident, get one caught in their hair while in a swimming pool, or while riding a motorbike. In all those scenarios the bee stung in self-defence. Sure, people get stung in other ways, but unless you go interfering with bees, they really don’t pose a threat at all.
So as beekeepers, we fall into the category of people who go interfering with bees. The only other reason that bees will sting is when they are defending their home and the young larvae inside of it. Beehives allocate a certain number of bees to be ‘guard bees’. These bees effectively stand guard and seek out threats to their home. Ever heard of someone getting stung while mowing the lawn? This will be because the noise of the mower and its proximity to the hive sets off the guard bees defence measures and they seek out the threat.
As an experiment, wearing protective gear of course, see what happens when you walk in front of your hive. With some colonies, no bees may go near you at all, however, with others you may find one or two bees repeatedly fly into you. This is referred to as ‘bumping’. The bees quite often aren’t actually trying to sting you, they are just warning you to get back. What often happens though is that the human will start waving their arms around, essentially making the bee feel threatened, and the bee stings them.
What happens from there is that once the bee has used their stinger, a pheromone is released around the wound site that elicits the stinging response of other bees within the hive, and before they know it, there are more and more bees stinging them. From there even bees who may not have been assigned guard bee duties will join in the defence of their hive, and the person ends up getting stung potentially dozens of times.
So how do we get around this?
The best tool beekeepers have to avoid setting a hives defences off is to use smoke. Among other things, the smoke interferes with the bees ability to release a defensive pheromone and prevents them from coordinating an assault on the beekeeper. A light puff of smoke in the entranceway keeps the guard bees distracted, and a puff in under the lid as you open it keeps the rest of the hive from filing out and attacking you.
As a beekeeper, you’ll also need to pick up on the bees ‘mood’. This can be determined by the weather, the amount of nectar coming in, or the time of day. Some days, hives just will not be happy about being opened up and inspected. Robbing them of their honey come extraction time can also upset them, particularly if you are using a blower-vac to get the bees out of honey supers. If you can help it, never open a beehive at night time. While it may suit your lifestyle better to open them up when you are home at night, it really won’t impress the bees. If it is too hot or too cold the bees won’t like being inspected either. Nor will they like wet and windy days. A simple rule to remember is; if you wouldn’t like the sun-roof in your car being opened at the time, then nor would the bees like their roof being lifted.
When dealing with bees ensure that you only work with them when they are least likely to sting, and in a manner that keeps them as calm as possible.
Wearing a good quality suit and knowing how to wear it properly can prevent most stings, however, the suit is not always bulletproof and is merely a measure taken in conjunction with good bee handling practices.
Finally, don’t let all the talk of bee stings put you off beekeeping. It is a great hobby and if done properly, is safe. You do eventually get used to the stings… kind of… maybe…