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Safe Beekeeping Practices

Beekeeping without getting stung

Most people think that the secret to safe beekeeping is to wear a suit.  The truth is protective clothing is your last line of defense.  Avoiding stings when working with honeybees is easy if you use safe beekeeping practices and the right safety equipment.

What provokes honeybees?

To avoid being stung it is often helpful to understand how and why honeybees become defensive.  Honeybees do not have emotions the way humans do.  So it is not correct to think of a honeybee as being angry.  Honeybees that appear aggressive are actually being defensive or protective of their home or themselves.  Remember that when a honeybee stings it dies.  Honeybees do not want to commit suicide therefore they do not want to sting.  When a honeybee stings it is effectively sacrificing itself for the protection of the hive and in that respect it is a noble cause.  Honeybees are not intellectual creatures so they often misinterpret the actions of humans as well as other creatures and become defensive when it is not necessary but the purpose is always defense.  When you think about all the creatures that would like to eat the contents of a beehive it begins to make sense why honeybees are so defensive of their home.  A beehive offers a lot of very tasty calories and protein that would sustain many animals for weeks.

Things like sudden shocks and vibrations will all be interpreted as a threat to a hive.  Remember honeybees are not intellectual and will not distinguish between a bear getting ready to eat everything in the hive or a beekeeper that is there to help.  To the honeybees they are the same.

When a hive is first opened there is usually a pop or cracking sound as the lid is removed and a second pop when the inner cover is removed.  This sound comes from the propolis that has been used by the bees to seal the lid in place.  This pop will momentarily alarm nearly all the bees just underneath the lid and many of the bees throughout the hive.  You will be able to hear the hum of the honeybees’ wings increase in volume and pitch as the lid is removed and then fade back to normal over the next few seconds.  Immediately after the lid is removed you will see honeybees with their stingers raised in the air.  Sometimes you will be able to see a small amount of venom on the stingers.  Usually they will slowly lower them and go about their business as if nothing happened.  Alarming the bees once or twice is not really a problem however if it happens over and over again eventually they will get defensive.

The venom that comes from their stingers contains a pheromone.  This pheromone gets fanned around the hive and alerts other bees to a possible threat.  If you were a honeybee and you had a very effective means to defend the hive but using it meant certain death you would probably only use this defense in the direst of circumstances.  So a couple of vibrations or loud sounds would probably not be enough to convince you to sacrifice your life.  However if the bees around you were being crushed or injured then suddenly sacrificing yourself for the good of the hive would become an option.

Honeybees are easily alerted by dark colors and your breath.  Brushing your teeth will not help.  It’s not the way your breath smells that alerts the honeybees it’s the carbon dioxide in your breath.  When honeybees detect carbon dioxide they know that an animal is close and that the hive may be in danger.

What honeybees face in nature?

From the perspective of a honeybee the most common attackers are other animals which are usually dark in color, such as bears, skunks, and the occasional bird.  The typical animal would begin an attack by sniffing around the hive thus breathing on it and emitting carbon dioxide usually directly into or close to the entrance.  Once the animal has decided that it smells something interesting it will begin scratching and clawing at the hive in an attempt to break it open so it can eat the honey and brood inside.  If the animal is successful in getting inside the hive many bees will be crushed, injured, and killed in the process.  The attack will continue until the animal has satisfied its hunger or the hive is completely gone.  If you were a honeybee it would be easy to misinterpret the actions of a careless beekeeper for an attack from an animal wanting to eat everything inside the hive.  Isn’t it interesting how all the common things beekeepers do that provoke honeybees are the same things that they face in nature.

How not to look like an attacking animal

When you are trying not to get stung while working a beehive you are essentially trying to keep the bees from confusing you with an attacking animal.

Begin by approaching the hive from the back or sides.  Approaching from the front may be viewed as a threat.  Most of the bees will be located around the entrance and honeybees are always prepared to defend the entrance or any open areas of the hive.  If you have any openings that the bees are using to enter and exit the hive, such as cracks or holes, the bees will defend those as well so avoid approaching any entrance or exit if possible.  If you must approach from the front then do so slowly and use smoke as soon as you get close enough.

Smoke is perhaps the most effective way to keep honeybees calm.  Smoke has a variety of desirable effects on honeybees.  Smoke masks the honeybees’ since of smell which is used to communicate with other honeybees.  Remember that venom that is also an alarm pheromone, the smoke is to cover that up.  If a honeybee becomes alarmed it is important to prevent that honeybee from alarming other honeybees.  Smoke also makes honeybees engorge on honey.  When honeybees are full of honey they are less able to curve their abdomens into the necessary position to deliver a sting.  Smoke also pushes the honeybees away from the entrance and into the hive which is like sending the guards on a coffee break.

Usually several good strong puffs of smoke in the entrance is enough to clear the entrance and spread smoke throughout the hive.  Allow the smoke to circulate through the hive for a few seconds and then lift the top and direct a few puffs of smoke under the top cover as you slowly remove it.  Once the top cover is off apply several puffs of smoke toward any bees located on top of the inner cover and directly into the hole in the center of the inner cover.  Then remove the inner cover apply smoke toward the bees located on the top bars of the first super.  Apply smoke to the bees located on the top bars every time you remove a super.  You will also need to apply smoke occasionally throughout the inspection process to insure that the bees remain calm.

While you are inspecting your bees try not to breath directly on them.  Remember they do not like the carbon dioxide in your breath.

Finally, always use protective equipment even if you think you know your bees very well.  You never know if an animal has been harassing your bees.  If so they may already be alarmed before you even start your inspection.  It is always better to be safe than sorry.

Remember the way to avoid being stung is to not scratch, claw, breath like an animal, dress like an animal and if you do any of these things hide it from the honeybees with smoke.

Timing

If you have done much research about honeybees you know that they have different jobs within the hive.  Many of these jobs are related to how mature the bees are.  A newborn honeybee is not capable of flying because it lacks sufficient muscle strength necessary to flap its wings in a manor necessary for sustained flight.  They also have under developed organs necessary to deliver an effective sting.  A honeybee will have a difficult time trying to sting you if she does not have the proper equipment.

At night and when it is raining most of the bees will be inside the hive but on a warm sunny day honeybees that can fly well are usually out foraging for nectar and pollen leaving mostly younger bees to take care of the hive.  Use this to your advantage and work your beehives only on warm sunny days when many of the older bees are away.  If it helps you can think of the mature bees as being old, grumpy, and irritable.

Genetics

Always practice good queen management.  It is a known fact that the temperament of honeybees varies widely depending on the breed or even within the same breed depending on how the selective breeding process has been managed.  Opinions vary on the question of what is the most gentle honeybee breed, but it’s hard to go wrong if you stick with one of the more common breeds such as Italian, Carniolan, or Buckfast and you get your queens from a reputable breeder.

Every honeybee in the hive is the offspring of the queen therefore to change the entire hive all you have to do is replace the queen and in a couple of months every bee in the hive will be the offspring of the new queen.  If you do encounter a hive that is more aggressive than you would like it is a good idea to order a new queen from a reputable breeder.

Warning signs

So you are working your hive and everything is going well but how do you know if you are simply doing a good job or just being lucky.  Every beehive will eventually get to the point where it has had enough of you and become defensive so it is wise to plan your activities when you inspect your bees so that you can move from one task to another quickly and minimize the amount of time needed to work your hives.  Maintaining a good working pace is not the same thing as rushing through things.  If you rush you will be more likely to injure bees and they do not like that.  Simply stay on track and don’t spend unnecessary time with the hive open.

One of the first signs you will detect is the alarm pheromone.  Yes, humans can smell it to and it smells like bananas.  So when you are working your hive and it starts to smell like bananas reach for the smoker and finish up quickly.

Other signs include more aggressive moves such as crashing into you and an increase in the tone and pitch of the buzzing sound coming from the honeybee’s wings.  You can hear the difference between a honeybee that is just flying around or being curious and a honeybee that is trying to send you a warning.  If the bees flying close to you are louder than usual you can take it as a warning.  An experienced beekeeper will learn to recognize these sounds.  Agitated bees will sometimes attempt to warn away a perceived threat by flying directly at the offender and crashing into them without stinging but this kind of behavior is usually a short term warning and the first attempted stings usually follow within seconds.  The proper response to agitated bees is almost always to reach for the smoker and finish your inspection as soon as possible.

Layers

Remember that safe beekeeping is all about layers of protection.  Wear protective clothing as your last layer of protection.

To recap:

  • Plan ahead by choosing a warm sunny day and know what you want to accomplish when you are working with your hives so that your inspections will proceed smoothly and quickly. 
  • Wear light colored clothing and approach from the back or sides of the hives. 
  • Use smoke on the entrance and between each part of the hive you remove. 
  • Be gentle and avoid injuring the bees or handling them in a rough manor.
  • Avoid breathing directly into the hive. 
  • Practice good queen management so that your bees will have good genetics and therefore less defensive tendencies. 
  • Pay attention to any warning signs such as the sounds coming from the hive or bees crashing into you.
  • Finally wear protective clothing as your last layer of protection knowing that if you do a good job with your other layers of protection you will have a safe and fun time working with your honeybees.