Bee Culture: Keeping bees out of your BONNET

Is honey worth the sting? A moot question perhaps, since people and animals have been braving the honey bee’s revenge for centuries. To provide a more even playing field, people who harvest honey ñ beekeepers ñ have developed an entire wardrobe to choose from to reduce their vulnerability to this tiny insect.

But beekeeping is much more than stealing honey. It can be a full time business, a part-time occupation, science and research or an enjoyable hobby and recreation. Each of these requires a different type of interaction with a colony, and, to further comp licate matters, each individual is unique in their attitude towards bees, and beekeeping.

For instance. A commercial beekeeper tends to work bees hard, using heavy machinery, manipulating colonies in a fast and efficient manner and in all types of weather. Sideliners tend to be a bit less hard, but still need efficiency and speed. They’re als o a bit more cognitive of current weather, but only when other activities (job, family) allow. Honey bee researchers, too, tend toward the gentler side, but when a program or experiment dictate, colonies get worked, regardless.

Hobby beekeepers are generally the easiest going of the lot, taking care to work colonies in as ideal weather as possible, and efficiency and speed aren’t usually important. Into this group fall most beginners, and while some brand new beekeepers tend to be unintimidated by their tiny charges, others are at least cautious, and outright fear isn’t uncommon. For all these reasons ñ work, weather, attitude and experience ñ a wide variety of protective apparel has been developed to accommodate beekeepers.

Some of the earliest beekeepers were reluctant to use veils because material available was either too heavy, too hot, or to visually obstructive to be practical. Veils with glass or mica shields were tried, window screen and wire mesh, too, were used.

Over the years a great variety of styles, materials and techniques were tested, tried, adopted or discarded.

Certainly beekeepers made veils at home, usually based on styles available commercially, with materials obtained locally. The most common style was a mesh-like material fastened to a hat with a brim and tucked into a shirt collar. That mesh-like material evolved from wire mesh which was heavy and difficult to see through, to fine and delicate silks (tulle is a type of silk, hence the Tulle veil).

Gradually, two styles came to dominate the scene, but each has endless variations for different functions.

The most common style veil in use today is the two-piece veil/hat combination, which is probably the most diverse style. The standard image of a beekeeper includes the white pith helmet, square (or perhaps round) veil snugged down around collar and shirt front, and white coveralls. These tend to be rather heavy duty work styles, rugged and nearly indestructible. The helmets were first hard pith-type helmets, but soon changed to a cellulose mesh material that provided some level of ventilation, and finall y to plastic.

Square veils consist of four pieces of wire or stiff nylon mesh fastened together with flexible materials so the veil forms a square when worn. The largest section is in the front, with nearly-as-large sections on each side. The back, too is a mesh secti on. They attach to a helmet with an elastic top, and are snugged down around the shoulders and neck with either a tie-down string, elastic collar or zipper. The zipper connection is by far the most secure.

The drawbacks of this style (and the round veil, next) are the fact that a helmet must be worn. The typical helmet has an adjustable band inside to make it stable on your head but some heads just don’t fit those bands, and a helmet sliding off every time you bend over is, at best, inconvenient. Like the round veil, or any style that uses strings for that matter, you simply cannot make them beeproof. The elastic collar version is not meant for dicey work.

The round veil, by contrast, is a single piece of screened mesh running completely around the head. The advantage is increased visibility. The disadvantage is that it doesn’t fold, at all. Strings, elastic and zippers are the same.

The Alexander veil is similar to a round veil, but it has a cloth top, rather than fitting on a helmet. Most have an elaborate strap setup inside to help keep the top from resting directly on your head. They work, kind of. This is a good veil for a quick check or light work. A baseball cap underneath doesn’t hurt. They don’t come with zippers.

An even lighter weight model is the sheer nylon veil. Worn with nearly any kind of hat with an all-around brim they tie down. They definitely aren’t meant for heavy duty, but are recommended for an emergency, or a very quick check. Some beekeepers, howev er, wear nothing else, and are happy about the light weight, good visibility, quick on/off and no helmet. Be patient, you’ll get there one day.

Coveralls or beesuits are available in cotton (light weight, cool, but wear out fast), cotton/poly blends (heavier, wear well) and nylon (old style ñ hot; new ñ not quite as hot).

Cotton is fine for everyday hobby or sideliners. They don’t take a lot of abuse. The cotton/poly blends are true work horses, and will last for years. The weight of the material does play a role, though. Heavier = tougher, and more sting resistant. Oth er old style nylon suits didn’t breath, didn’t wick perspiration away and were uncomfortable. Newer materials, however, are cooler, lighter weight and tougher. Makers of the very slick material just recently introduced to beedom, claim that bees can’t get traction on the material, reducing stings. And, some workers simply douse themselves with water on hot days and the evaporation keeps them cool for hours. These may be the newest idea in beesuits in years. Watch for it.

Veil combinations are readily available that solve some of the earlier mentioned problems. A model from South Africa comes with a cotton hat, attached veil and either strings or a zipper. This solves the sliding problem.

The next step up are the vest or jackets with attached hood-type veils. A model from New Zealand, and three from England have these features. No helmet, no strings, only half a suit ñ all great for light to medium work.

The full line of suits from B.J. Sherriff cannot go without mention. With five adult models, in two different materials, plus two child suits, Sherriff easily is the most innovative suiter in the world. Initially inspired to improve on what they thought were poor designs, Brian and Pat Sherriff began what could be called a dynasty in beeware fashion. The line features a supported hood (no hat required, but a baseball hat helps) a snug zipper/velcro closing and zipper front (or pullover) with elastic cuff s and lots of pockets.

They are made of a medium weight cotton/poly blend that is light weight and still cool. The trade off is that in heavy work they will let some stings through. The veil material, too, is medium weight and prone to snags in heavy use. Replacements are easy to get. They also have the new, slick nylon material and vest/hood arrangements.

Similar models have appeared to capitalize on the convenience of a full suit with attached hood. One from South America is available but the design is meant for people with shorter than average-American arms and legs.

Mann Lake Supply has recently come out with one also, but it is designed for heavier duty work. Similar to the Sherriff models it is virtually bee proof, eliminating one prominent annoyance when concentrating on the job at hand. The suit, however, was de signed for a more commercial application ñ cut, material and size ñ than others on the market.

Mid-Con sells a unique product calle the Bug Baffler. Made completely of mesh, it was originally designed for sportsmen’s activities. It makes an ideal emergency veil and jacket, however.

Probably the most futuristic bee suit on the market is the one made by Golden Bee products. The concept is completely different. Basically, they made a suit, and hood, out of a foam material, which is about a quarter inch thick. It is covered on the outs ide with a tough nylon mesh that allows the suit to breath. Heavy worn areas (thighs, chest) are covered in cloth for wear. The hood is the same, with a fairly wide-view veil. Bulkier, but cooler than regular suits, the only downside is that it is totally alien in appearance. It’s popularity, however, should overcome that. Because of the foam’s thickness, and the secure closures, they, too, are sting proof.

The variety (I counted nearly 25 styles or variations of veils and suits) available from manufacturers covers security from barely none to almost armor. If you haven’t yet purchased a veil or veil/suit combination I suggest you err on the safety side. Yo u can get another, less substantial outfit down the road. Cost, too, is a factor. Full suits with attached veils are expensive. Light weight veils with your own hat aren’t. Peruse the catalogs for styles, prices and variety. Ask other beekeepers what they wear, and why. When it comes to bee proofing your activities, you get what you pay for, it seems, no matter where you shop. No matter which selection you make, keeping bees out of your bonnet is a never ending chore.

In The Beginning . . .
One popular image of a beekeeper is of someone using minimal protective equipment ñ a hat and veil, short-sleeve shirt and jeans. From a beginner’s perspective, this can be rather intimidating. After all, right in front of that beekeeper is a box full of hundreds, perhaps thousands of stinging insects.

There are people who, on their first-ever encounter with honey bees, dive in headfirst, so to speak, but most of us are a bit more conservative ñ our reactions ranging from timid to near panic. Moreover, experienced beekeepers often make light of beginner s who favor the use of heavy armor, stressing an already uncomfortable colony visit.

But there is absolutely no substitute for experience when working bees. And if you are uncomfortable, reluctant or even fearful when you open a colony, you will not gain the experience needed to become a confident and knowledgeable beekeeper.

You need to watch, look at, smell, feel and work with your bees. And even in the best weather and under ideal conditions, a pinched or irritated bee may sting. If that sting, or the fear of that sting, keeps you away from your colony, you and certainly y our bees will suffer.

To avoid that hesitation, we urge you to wear all the protective gear necessary to give you the confidence needed to open your hives and examine and learn from your bees.

A good, snug veil is of paramount importance. One with no gaps or tears or secret ways in. One that is foolproof. A beesuit closed at the cuffs (jeans work, but they need to be closed, too), zipped tight, is snug and the right color. And gloves. They are important. An errant sting on the back of the hand can cause a frame to be dropped, a super to slip out of control or a smoker to go astray.

You will, over time, become accustomed to all, or at least most of the activities in your colony, and you will learn to handle your bees in such a way that you provide minimal disturbance.

But in the beginning, wear gloves if you want. There are heavy leather gloves, lighter-weight plastic or canvas styles, kitchen rubber gloves and various other types. Gloves reduce your sense of feel and can cause you to be a bit more clumsy than if you didn’t wear gloves. Don’t, however, become cavalier and cause undo damage, be rougher than needed, or commit other foolish acts. Care, patience and understanding are always needed to work best with your bees ñ gloves or not.

A snug veil with no leaks and no chance for leaks is also a requirement. The styles that use a string to snug down the netting around your collar are OK, if you can figure out how to keep it from riding up about your collar when you lean over to pick up your hive tool. A veil that’s attached with a zipper to your suit is better, but a self-contained, zippered hood that doesn’t need a hat is best.

After a couple of seasons you’ll know the best times to work your bees, and you’ll have a better feel for their demeanor and your skills. Until then, err on the side of caution so you spend your time learning, not worrying about a bee in your bonnet.

Hands On … Gloves tend to be a non-issue in bee ware, unless, that is, they are your hands they are covering. Basically three types are available commercially ñ plastic coated (least protection, most dexterity), canvas (more protection, less dexterity), and leather (most protection, least dexterity). Rubber kitchen gloves work (little protection, maximum dexterity) as do many home made styles.

The less glove the better, and none is best, but sometimes that doesn’t work. Handling frames with a delicate touch keeps the bees calm. Harvesting honey, on the other hand (pun intended) requires a bit of protection (sometimes). Wear what works for what you are doing. And try it without gloves, at least once in awhile.

What you have in your mind?