Managing Honey Bees: Protective Clothing.
Protective clothing is important to beekeepers, or apiarists, in assisting to avoid painful stings and the distraction of flying and crawling bees. When managing hives, protective clothing should always be used in conjunction with a smoker. Smoke has a calming influence on honey bees and masks their alarm pheromones, thereby neutralising the colony’s defensive reaction. Although smoke has limited effect upon swarms of honey bees, they have no nest to protect and are far less defensive in nature.
Protective clothing should be light in colour, but not colourful (white is typically preferred as bees prefer not to land on it), and made from a smooth material. Dark, woolly fabrics will agitate the bees, as they are representative of their natural predators, like bears and other mammals. Bees are attracted by stings that are retained in clothing; they also dislike some odours such as horse, dog and diesel fuel, so clothes should be cleaned regularly. Similarly, aftershave, perfume, hair spray and watches will also provoke an aggressive reaction. Defensive bees are attracted to the breath, and for this reason it is especially important to protect the head and neck. A sting in this region is particularly painful and can cause considerably more swelling than elsewhere on the body. Protective clothing should be put on and removed at some distance from the hive. Check for small holes, as bees that become trapped inside will often panic and sting.
An appropriate hat and veil are probably the most important items of protective equipment. Ventilated helmets are popular, and can be sourced from beekeeping supply shops. Agriculture Victoria’s guide to safe beekeeping practices notes that these plastic pith helmets help keep the wearer cool, as well as providing firm support for a veil. There are a variety of styles of veil. Folding wire veils maintain their shape and will therefore keep bees at a safe distance. Cotton veils are cheaper but have a tendency to be blown against the face. Some veils only reach to the neck, whilst others extend all the way down to the chest. Some have elastic bottoms or a drawstring fitted. If a bee becomes trapped in your veil, move well away from the hive before attempting to release it. If it is already agitated, it may be better to kill the bee, as it is likely to return in an attempt to sting.
Addition protection is afforded by a bee jacket or suit, some of which also have a hat and veil attached. These have elastic cuffs and bands, and can also be purchased from beekeeping suppliers. Bee suits can be very hot in summer, so choose a lightweight fabric. When determining size, remember that the suit will be worn over your normal clothing, and make sure the leg length is sufficient to cover your ankles when bending. White painting coveralls are sometimes used as an inexpensive alternative, however these tear easily and do not always have elastic cuffs. Although rare, it is possible to be stung through a bee suit. Remove the sting as quickly as possible (to limit the amount of venom injected) by scraping or plucking it out. Then apply some smoke to the site to mask the pheromones that encourage other bees to sting. Stingers are less likely to become lodged in protective clothing than skin.
A number of types of beekeeping gloves are available, however those that are truly sting proof can inhibit delicate manipulations and for this reason experienced beekeepers do not always use them. Extended cloth sleeves may be attached to the gloves, and these will prevent bees from gaining access.
Lastly, high, steel-capped boots are highly advantageous. Agriculture Victoria also recommends the use of sock protectors to provide additional protection for the ankles.
Most beekeepers use some form of protection, although some professionals may elect not to wear protective clothing in certain circumstances. It is important that you utilise a level of protection that enables you to work in comfort and that builds confidence. For the novice, added protection is usually therefore beneficial. In Melbourne, some professional beekeepers offer personalised training.
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