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The specialist international beekeeping organisation

Safety for beekeepers

To defend their precious honey stores, honey bees have developed a range of defensive tactics to prevent robbers. The most notable of these is of course the honeybee's sting. Being stung is always a little painful but getting a lot of stings can be very dangerous. Where a person is allergic to bee venom, even one sting can be fatal so it is important that bees are always treated with respect. However, it is not necessary to be afraid of them. In general, if you don't upset them they won't upset you. Bees do not sting unless they are upset - but quite a lot of things can upset bees. Bees will easily get caught in hair and, being unable to escape, will sting the head. They also selectively choose to sting the area around the eye, which can be both painful and dangerous. This means a beekeeping veil is an important piece of beekeeping equipment - it is an easy thing to make so should not be expensive. Bees also dislike dark coloured clothes especially black trousers and jeans and clothes of rough, woolly or textured materials where their feet get trapped easily .

Alarm pheromones

When a honeybee stings, it releases an alarm pheromone that indicates to other bees that there is danger to the colony. This mobilises other bees to attack the same place so that many bees will work together to drive intruders away. If a person gets stung it is essential to hide the smell of the sting to prevent further stings occurring. Beekeepers usually do this by puffing the affected place with smoke. Scratching out the sting quickly also helps to reduce the effects of the sting by reducing the amount of venom that is pumped into the wound.

Protective clothing

The most important clothing is protection for the face and head. A veil is essential for safe beekeeping. Overalls are not so essential and can be very hot but they do help to make the beekeeper feel confident. Whatever clothes are worn the veil should always be tucked inside the clothing as bees like to crawl upwards. This also applies to trousers and cuffs of sleeves. Both of these potential entry points should be elasticated or tied with strong string. Basic protective clothing consists of a veil, closed shoes or boots (rain boots are ideal) and clothing thick enough for the bees not to sting through the material and without too many places for a bee to get trapped. A light coloured overall that can be washed after using is ideal. Keeping clothes clean extends their life and removes the smell of any stings left on the clothes form a previous visit. Some people also like to wear gloves and in this case rubber gloves are best as they are most easily cleaned. 

Gentle handling

Beekeepers, of course, are doing things designed to disturb the bees and as a result, over time, beekeepers have learned how to control the bees to minimise the difficulties with stings when they are properly handled.  Calmness and gentleness is essential when handling bees so it is essential that the beekeeper feels protected and safe. The minimum safety precaution required is the use of smoke and protection for the head and face. A beekeeper feeling confident in the protective clothing worn will be relaxed about taking the time to be gentle in handling the bees. Bees hate to knocked or banged. They also interpret rapid or jerky movements as a threat so all dealings with bees should be gentle, quiet and as quick and careful as possible. 

African honeybees and Africanised bees are quicker to defend their colonies. However, honeybee races are very variable in their response to handling and the writers experience is that they are in general no different to many colonies located in the UK where there has been very little selection to reduce this characteristic.

Some honeybees will follow the beekeeper for some distance from the nest while others are less inclined to do this. This is a genetic trait that is not linked to defensive or stinging behaviour.  Both defensive behaviour and following can be reduced by colony selection and there may be possibilities in many parts of the developing world to improve the beekeeping experience with a modest amount of colony selection.


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