One of the most commonly asked questions for beekeepers is “How often do you get stung?”
The answer varies of course. Some beekeepers seem to have a knack for working beehives with little or no protective gear.
Meanwhile, others choose to don numerous layers of clothing to approach a hive.
It is unreasonable to expect that you will never be stung while beekeeping.
With experience comes knowledge. We have researched the topic for you and come up with the best methods for minimising bee stings.
Why do bees sting?
Bees sting because they feel threatened. If a colony of bees is disturbed or comes under attack for any reason, guard bees will leave the hive and sting whatever is causing the disturbance.
Bee stings are painful. One bee sting in the right place, near the eyes or up the nostril, for example, will make most people think twice about continuing with a hive inspection.
A recently published article reported that there are up to 220 000 annual visits to emergency departments and approximately 60 deaths per year in the USA due to stings from hornets, wasps and bees.
Honeybees (Apis mellifera) originated in the northern hemisphere, primarily Africa, Europe and Asia where the main predators are large mammals such as bears and badgers. Birds, reptiles and other insects such as wasps and ants can take a significant toll on honeybee colonies.
Thankfully there are no bears to worry about in Australia. However, bees never forget the primal instinct to protect the colony with bee stings.
A colony of bees treats a human who is opening a hive for a routine inspection the same way as a marauding bear intent on raiding it for a meal of bee brood and honey.
A clumsy or ignorant beekeeper who fails to use the proven tools and methods available will find the pastime unenjoyable and painful.
What methods can beekeepers use to avoid bee stings?
Good beekeepers use a combination of skills and experience to minimise bee stings.
Never rely on one technique or method on its own. I have broken bee sting minimisation up into five broad topics.
Wear appropriate personal protective equipment.
Use a smoker
Don’t be an adversarial beekeeper
Inspect your bees under the right conditions
Maintain gentle genetics
1. Wear appropriate personal protective equipment.
It is understandable that new beekeepers have a fear of being stung while beekeeping.
This fear is overcome to a large extent by wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) such as bee suits, veils and beekeeping gloves.
Beekeepers who are fearful of bees wear excessive PPE at times.
It is rare under Australian conditions to require the triple layer, ventilated bee suits that are worn in the Africanised bee areas of the southern United States of America.
The use of PPE should correspond with the level of defensiveness being exhibited by the bees and the experience level of the beekeeper.
Selecting the most appropriate PPE for beekeeping comes down to personal preference.
For example, some beekeepers choose to wear minimal PPE when they know that the hive they are working on is docile and predictable.
They choose a day to work their bees that is warm and dry, and they have a good understanding of bee behaviour.
I occasionally work bees in short pants, a work shirt without gloves or a veil. At times I choose to wear more PPE, eg long pants, a bee jacket/veil and nitrile gloves when the temperament of the hive is unknown or when weather conditions will most likely result in some defensive behaviour.
Always check your veil for holes or tears
You will be a better beekeeper if you learn the skills to work your bees with minimal PPE.
Here are a few extra tips about beekeeping PPE and clothing.
Avoid tight clothing. Bees have more difficulty stinging through loose layers of clothing.
Why do beekeepers wear white clothing? Bees are more likely to sting dark colours. White or light coloured clothing is preferable.
Make sure that the zips fasten securely, the velcro tabs seal properly and check the veil for tears or holes.
Cover your head and face particularly if you have dark hair or a beard. Bees instinctively target your face. You don’t want a bee in your ear or up your nose. Stings on the face can distract you for quite a while.
Dark sunglasses will attract bees to your eyes. Dark watch bands will attract bees to your wrists. It is best not to wear them when working bees.
Bees dislike dark woolly socks and dark felt hats.
Wash your PPE frequently. Bees dislike the smell of humans, and frequent washing will remove any alarm pheromone left by bee stings. A few puffs of smoke on an area that has been stung will mask alarm pheromones.
Don’t wear clothing that you have just worn around horses or dogs. Once again bees dislike those aromas.
Avoid strong smelling perfumes and deodorants.
A word about gloves.
Heavy black welding gloves are unsuitable for beekeeping. Black leather gloves will attract stings. Leather beekeeping gloves (usually goatskin) should be light in colour, snug fitting and thin enough to allow you to feel what you are doing.
Better still use “nitrile” style gloves. Bees can sting through them if they are determined however they do provide some protection as they have some difficulty gripping them with their feet.
Ideally, you should learn to handle your bees without gloves by adopting proper inspection techniques that we will discuss further in this article.
Nitrile gloves are ideal for beekeeping
2. Use a smoker
Smoke has been used by people for thousands of years to calm bees so that honey can be harvested.
Our primitive ancestors worked it out by trial and error, and the use of cool, white smoke remains one of the most effective ways to allow us to work bees safely.
There are a couple of simple theories around how smoke works to calm bees.
When a predator (such as a human) disturbs a bee colony, the bees release alarm pheromones, isopentyl acetate and 2-heptanone. The alarm response spreads through the hive rapidly enticing more and more bees to become defensive and repel the perceived predator. The use of smoke interferes with the ability of bees to detect the alarm pheromones resulting in a calm, easy to manipulate colony.
Alternatively, it is known that where bees are threatened by fire they tend to consume honey prior to absconding from the hive to a safer location. Honeybees that are full of honey are calm and easy to manipulate. This is the reason why bee swarms are docile and can be hived with minimal PPE or smoke.
In reality, it is probably a combination of both theories. The effects of the smoke are short-lived and a hive manipulated with the assistance of smoke will turn to normal within a few hours at the most.
Beeco smokers are high quality and Australian made
Smoker tips and tricks.
Buy a good quality smoker. For Australian conditions, it is hard to go past the tried and tested Beeco smokers. Depending on the model, Beeco smokers retail from $75.00 to $100.00.
Make sure your smoker is in good repair. The bellows should be free from splits and tears. Ensure that the valves don’t become blocked. Scrape excess creosote and soot from the firebox occasionally to ensure that it doesn’t block up.
Practice lighting your smoker so that you are proficient at lighting it and keeping it going before you open a big hive. There is nothing worse than finding your smoker extinguished when you most need it.
The smoke should be thick, white and cool for best results. The types of smoker fuel used varies from region to region and is very much a personal choice. So long as it is non-toxic and plentiful, it is OK.
How to use smoke when opening a hive
Before opening the hive direct two or three good puffs of smoke into the hive entrance to disarm the guard bees positioned there. If you have vented bottom boards, you can direct some smoke through the base of the hive.
Next lever the hive lid up a little and direct a few puffs of smoke into the top of the hive. Best practice is to wait a minute or so for the smoke to take effect then proceed to dismantle the hive.
Smoke should be used whenever necessary, eg before removing the next super, the queen excluder or when you need to move bees out of the way.
Apply smoke when bees show signs of defensiveness, eg abdomens raised with stings exposed, bees repeatedly bumping into your veil or stings to the hands. Defensive bees should be pushed back down onto the face of the frames with smoke.
The use of smoke should be minimal. If a hive can’t be worked without copious amounts of smoke, they should be requeened.
Be wary of bee whisperers.
Finally, be very wary of the bee whispering types who promote the inspection of hives without smoke.
As mentioned at the start of this section, smoke is a tried and true method for calming bees.
Taking on a strong defensive hive with a sprig of lavender and positive vibes will more than likely get you a trip to the hospital emergency department.
It is possible, for experienced beekeepers under ideal conditions, to work very gentle hives without smoke. However, this is not the norm and not recommended for beginners.
3. Don’t be an adversarial beekeeper.
Competent beekeepers work their hives methodically and deliberately. Work with your bees rather than against them.
Alarm pheromone is released when bees are crushed and killed. Take care not to roll bees when removing or replacing frames. Avoid crushing bees between the end bars of the frames and the side of the super when using your hive tool to lever them loose.
Shake excessive numbers of bees off combs before you replace them. Bees respond to being shaken from frames more favourably than brushing. Bees should be shaken from frames gently onto the top bars of the frames or at the hive entrance. Brushing of bees tends to roll them and irritate them. I always try to locate and isolate the queen before shaking bees from frames.
Where bees are between the ends of frame spacers or under frame top bar lugs, a gentle touch or a few light puffs of smoke is usually sufficient to get them to move out of harm’s way.
Work your hives regularly and maintain bee space.
Work your hives frequently enough so that the supers and frames don’t become clogged and stuck with excessive amounts of burr comb and propolis.
Always replace frames tightly in the order that they were removed so that the correct bee space is maintained.
Lift frames out of the super so that they are kept straight and vertical.
Working without gloves means that you can feel bees under your fingers. Using heavily gloved hands will result in crushed bees.
Bumping and Jarring can cause defensive behaviour.
Defensive behaviour in bees can be set off by bumping and jarring of hives and hive components.
If you have multiple hives on one hive stand or pallet, remember that the bees can feel vibrations and jarring through the hive stand. The last hive on a three hive stand can often be in a defensive mode by the time you have opened and inspected the first two. Give them all a puff of smoke before commencing the inspection and minimise bumping and jarring during the inspection process.
Avoid placing your smoker and other equipment on the hive next to the one you are working. Once again the vibration and jarring can result in a defensive hive.
Never block the entrance to a hive or the flight path into the entrance while doing an inspection. Always ask helpers or spectators to stand to the side or the back of the beehive.
Our qualified trainer can teach you the skills that you need to open and inspect hives without upsetting the bees.
Bumps and vibrations can upset other hives on a stand
4. Inspect your bees under the right conditions.
Environmental conditions have a huge influence over the behaviour of bees.
It is best to open hives when the temperature is at least 15 degrees Celsius or greater.
Mid-twenties is ideal for the bees and the beekeeper.
A sunny spring day, with a light breeze and low humidity, would be my idea of a good day for beekeeping. Weather is variable, however, and conditions are rarely ideal.
Bees are more likely to display defensive behaviour under the following conditions:
Changeable conditions. E.g. temperature, humidity, barometric pressure.
Don’t open beehives in stormy humid weather.
Older bees are always more defensive than younger bees.
Any environmental influence that results in a higher proportion of older bees in the hive can increase defensiveness. There will always be fewer older, defensive bees in a hive on a warm, sunny day during a good nectar flow. You should never inspect your hives at night for the same reason.
Hungry bees can become defensive when nectar flows suddenly stop. Environmental conditions can influence nectar flows. Rain can wash nectar from flowers. Sudden temperature or humidity changes can turn nectar flows off or cause flowers to close.
Hives that are positioned in the shade can be defensive.
Wait until the colony has been exposed to the sun and warmed up for 20 to 30 minutes before you carry out your inspection. Always try to position your apiary in full sun.
If you don’t need to look at your bees, then you should reschedule the inspection to a time when conditions are more favourable.
Some types of flora will result in bees being more defensive. Canola is notorious for causing defensiveness, and otherwise gentle hives can be transformed into monsters when placed on a good flow of canola.
Get to know the types of flora in your area and ask more experienced beekeepers about potential floral sources that may change the mood of your hives.
5. Maintain gentle genetics.
If you find that a hive is defensive and prone to sting on three successive inspections, you should consider requeening.
Most queen breeders select for docility. If you breed your queens, you should choose hives that are docile and disease free over other traits.
Hives that are queenless can tend to be more defensive. As the population of the hive ages, the bees will become progressively more defensive.
What is the best first aid for bee stings?
Requeen regularly with gentle queens
What happens when a bee stings?
Bee stings can produce a range of symptoms from acute pain, itchiness and swelling. Most people will find that the symptoms will settle in a few days.
A bee sting should be removed by quickly scraping it out with a fingernail or hive tool.
Beekeepers tend to get on with the job, however, washing the area and then applying an ice pack to reduce the swelling may be beneficial.
Bee stings are a common cause of severe allergic reactions or anaphylaxis.
An EpiPen can be used for first aid treatment of anaphylaxis
The symptoms of anaphylaxis can include:
an all over rash,
sudden swelling of the tongue or throat,
a drop in blood pressure (shock)
After calling emergency medical help, the initial treatment for anaphylaxis resulting from a bee sting is adrenaline or epinephrine.
Adrenaline autoinjectors (EpiPens) are designed to be used easily by non-medical people.
Many potential beekeepers ask “Can I keep bees if I am allergic?”
If you or anyone in your family has a severe reaction from a bee sting, an allergy or anaphylaxis you should seriously reconsider taking up beekeeping.
Is it possible to build immunity to bee stings?
It is normal for people who don’t get stung regularly to experience minor discomfort from bee stings.
After ten years of continual beekeeping, I barely notice a sting beyond the initial pain.
Many beekeepers find that over time the reactions decrease significantly and it is possible to become immune to bee stings.
Beekeepers who have a bee venom allergy can consider allergen immunotherapy (desensitisation).
Desensitisation involves a series of gradually increasing doses of allergen extracts over a period of months or years.
The result is immunity to bee stings. Desensitisation must be done under medical supervision.
Are there any health benefits from bee stings?
Bee venom therapy (BVT) has been associated with the treatment of:
Even though some health benefits have been reported, there is a distinct lack of scientific evidence supporting any of the health claims of bee venom therapy.
Most reported benefits are anecdotal.
The risks associated with bee venom therapy, e.g. allergic reactions or anaphylaxis far outweigh any of the perceived benefits.
An article recently published in a Spanish medical journal reported on the death of a woman who was administered live bee acupuncture apitherapy.
You should consult your physician before you undertake any form of bee venom therapy or apitherapy.
About the Author
The owner of Mt. Coramba Apiculture, Glenn Locke, has had the beekeeping urge since the early 1980’s as a 14-year-old teenager.
The Warwick (QLD) high school agriculture department had a few beehives and beekeeping was taught as a subject. Glenn’s agriculture teacher Jim Caird let him have a nucleus hive, and the addiction started.
The move to the mid-north coast of NSW and particularly the beautiful Orara Valley means that Glenn now has the space to commence beekeeping again. Glenn has managed beehives in the Orara Valley since 2009.