Field Guide to Beekeeping

April 2014

 Personal Protective Equipment for the Body

by Jamie Ellis


Honey bees sting. Tell anyone that you work with bees and they immediately ask, “Have you ever been stung” (well, they ask that right after they ask, “Are cell phones killing bees?”). It is the bee’s sting that causes most people not to want to associate with honey bees/beekeeping. After all, who would willingly work with an insect that can inflict physical pain? However, stings are a reality for beekeepers, a reality that must be addressed prior to one’s engagement in the profession. Fortunately, beekeepers have numerous options when it comes to protecting themselves from stings.

Humans interacting with honey bees have been wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) since their relationship with bees started. The allure of honey and other hive products was simply too great for man to ignore; so, man had to develop ways of working with bees to minimize stings. The evolution of beekeeper PPE was slow, often comical, and even remains stalled in many parts of the world. I was in a developing country years ago and the beekeepers there simply did not have the resources to purchase or even make PPE. One beekeeper poked two eye holes in the bottom of a shoe box and then rubber-banded the box to his head to protect his face while working his hives. This shows you the great lengths that one will go in order to interact with bees.

All beekeepers, aspiring and old-timers alike, have to confront the reality of bee stings and devise a game plan for working with bees. Some beekeepers take the “full space suit approach”, being suited up from head-to-toe to protect against the flying darts. Other beekeepers take the minimalist approach and would work their bees naked if public decency laws allowed. The good news about PPE is that there is no right way to work bees, though there are good recommendations that should be considered.

Of course, personal safety is paramount and should always be considered when one is contemplating what to wear while working with bees. Honey bees are not domesticated in the sense that we have tamed them and bred out their wild tendencies. All colonies are capable of mounting a massive flying assault, assaults which can be unpredictable and even deadly if not handled property. The vast majority of European honey bee races are considered docile if managed and handled appropriately. This fact, though, can lull people into believing that they need not use or even own PPE, that they are “bee whisperers” who can tame any colony. This is not a safe belief as it completely ignores hive “personality” which can change on a whim. Beekeepers of all levels of experience should recognize the sting potential associated with every colony and plan their use of PPE accordingly.

The amount of PPE to be worn/used depends on the individual. I know many beekeepers who only ever wear veils (me included). They find the suits and gloves too cumbersome, awkward, and at times, dangerously hot. That does not mean that suits/gloves have no place in bee husbandry. There are certainly times when one should be fully suited, especially when working abnormally defensive colonies (i.e. African honey bees). New beekeepers often are expected to wear full bee suits, but I know many professional beekeepers who do as well. PPE is a matter of safety and taste. I recommend that people wear what they are comfortable wearing, but that they own the complete set of standard PPE for times that it must be used.

I will note that new beekeepers especially are vulnerable to the opinions of other beekeepers when considering what PPE to wear. Working bees without any PPE is seen as macho or even necessary to prove one’s worth as a beekeeper. However, it can also be very dangerous. I always recommend that new beekeepers overdo their PPE and then back off as they become comfortable working with bees. Some individuals will never divorce themselves from full PPE and that decision should be respected.

On the other hand, I believe that I became a better beekeeper when I quit using gloves. People who wear gloves often handle colonies with less finesse than do people who do not use gloves. This is due to a simple fact – gloveless beekeepers have learned how to work a colony to minimize stings. They learned what behaviors/actions excite bees and they have eliminated those behaviors/actions from their own repertoire. Watching a person who does not wear gloves work bees reminds me of watching a conductor lead an orchestra. There is a melody and rhythm to their work. Regardless, I will reemphasize that beekeepers should consider their safety and the safety of others when deciding how to approach their use of PPE.

Bee Veil
The first piece of PPE, and arguably the most essential, is the bee veil (Figure 1). Its purpose is simple: protect the head and neck area from bee stings. Though I have worked bees many times in the past without wearing a veil, I feel that veil-less beekeepers are taking a risk. Bee stings to the throat, mouth, nose, and eyes can result in significant injury and even death in some cases.

Veils come in all shapes and sizes, but most share a basic structure. This includes a (1) helmet/hat/scalp-cover that goes on top of the head, (2) black screen mesh that surrounds the face and head, (3)  a looser screen netting that goes around the throat and (4) some sort of fastener to fix the veil to the body (Figure 1). The more traditional veils have hard plastic, pith, or other types of helmets that are worn on top of the head. These protect the scalp from bee stings and they also provide the infrastructure from which the screen mesh is hung around the face. The helmets are often vented and some contain hooks or other catches that keep the screen material from “riding” to the top of the helmet. Many new veils omit the need for helmets and instead, use a wired-cloth material to serve in place of the helmet. These, typically, are one-piece veils.

Regardless of the head covering, all veils contain screen mesh material that protects the face. The mesh is usually black, to reduce glare, and often made of metal, though mesh fabric is becoming increasingly popular. The black mesh usually goes around the front, sides, and back of the head. Some veil styles only include see-through black mesh in the face area.
Veils are always anchored to the body to prevent bees from crawling into the veil through the bottom (Figure 2). To that end, veils can be tied (more conventional) or zipped (becoming increasingly popular) to the PPE worn around the torso area. The value of tied veils is that they can be used on any outfit or even no outfit at all for the friskier beekeepers. The downside is that improperly-tied, and sometimes even properly-tied, veils are navigable by bees, which are able to crawl up from the bottom and into the veil. Zipper-anchored veils can only be attached to the suit/shirt that has the other half of the zipper track. So, they are limited in usability across multiple outfits. What they lose in transportability, they make up for with impenetrability. Zipped veils are nearly impenetrable to bees. I say “nearly” because the zippers on a zipped veil meet and often leave a small hole at the meeting junction. Most manufacturers of suit/veil combos cover this hole with Velcro material. Furthermore, tears in the veil fabric allow bees into the veil, despite how well it is zipped to the body.

I want to reemphasize my statement about the vast diversity of veil styles. Some are made only of screen fabric, making them foldable, collapsible, easily packed away, etc. Others are huge, bulky, etc. Some tie in the front, others in the back. Some keep the screen mesh away from the face, while others put it very close to the face. This diversity in styles allows beekeepers to choose the type of veil that best meets their needs.