Safe beekeeping practices

Protective clothing and equipment

It is important to wear protective clothing that is smooth and light-coloured because bees react unfavourably to dark or woolly material. The clothing should also be clean — bees dislike certain odours such as dog, horse and diesel fuel.

Ensure the protective clothing has no holes because bees have a knack of crawling through small holes. Bees that make it through to the inside will often panic and sting.

Put on your protective clothing and equipment before you move close to the hives. When you have finished working in the apiary, move well away from the hives before you begin to remove protective clothing. It is not uncommon for one or two bees to follow the beekeeper when leaving the apiary.

Beekeeping hat

Ventilated helmets are available from beekeeping supply shops. The ventilation helps to keep the head cool on hot summer days and the hat gives firm support for the bee veil.

Dark felt hats and floppy hats should be avoided.

Bee veil

A folding wire veil fitted to a firm hat keeps its shape and this ensures a good separation between the beekeeper's face and the bees outside the veil.

Black cotton veils are cheaper than folding veils but can be easily blown against the face.

Beekeeping coveralls and bee suits

Most beekeepers wear khaki or white coveralls fitted with elastic cuffs and wrist bands. These are available from beekeeping supply shops.

If standard coveralls are purchased they are best fitted with cuffs and bands. Make sure the leg length is long enough to protect your ankles when you bend to reach the bottom box of the hive.

Purpose made bee suits available from beekeeping supply outlets are also worth considering. They have a number of additional protective features such as a bee veil built into a strong hood attached to the body of the suit.

Beekeeping gloves

Gloves, usually vinyl or plastic coated, must be strong but also pliable to allow movement of the fingers when lifting boxes and frames.

Elbow length cloth sleeves attached to the gloves prevent bees gaining access inside. A band of elastic sewn into the sleeve at the elbow will make the glove and sleeve entirely bee-proof.

Footwear

Elastic sided boots are commonly worn because they cover the ankles. Sock protectors provide additional protection for the ankles.

Bee stings

Anyone who keeps honey bees will receive a bee sting sooner or later. There are no exceptions to this fact.

If you know or suspect that you have an allergy to bee stings, seek medical advice before taking up or continuing with beekeeping.

The following information about the effects of stings was supplied by the Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy:

'Most people are not allergic to stings. The normal reaction is for some local pain for about 10 minutes and some local swelling for a day or 2. Occasionally the person stung may be sensitive to stings. Extensive swelling or redness may occur over a localised area — a generalised rash may also develop. In extreme cases, breathing may become difficult and the person may become very weak. This is an emergency and urgent medical treatment is required. Even if the reaction is self-limited, people should seek medical advice regarding future stings.'

When starting beekeeping, it is important to have another person present to watch for any indication of an adverse reaction to stings. This person should be available to get medical help for you if required. Joining a beekeeping club where beginners are able to open hives and handle bees under guidance of an experienced beekeeper is recommended.

Most beekeepers have found that the first few stings will cause a 'local reaction' of swelling and discomfort. Usually this reaction becomes less as more stings are received over time. Eventually, the stings cause little or no local reaction apart from the pain. However, this is not true for everyone. In some people, the reaction increases as more stings are received. These people should not keep bees without medical advice.

Dealing with bee stings

Removing the sting

Remove the sting as quickly as possible to minimise the amount of venom injected. Muscles in the detached sting will continue to drive the sting deeper into the skin and at the same time pump more venom into the victim. Delay in removing the sting increases the venom injected.

Remove the sting by scraping or plucking it. Research reported in the medical journal, The Lancet, in 1996, pointed out that the method used to remove the sting did not seem to affect the quantity of venom received. It was more important to get the sting out as quickly as possible.

Apply appropriate medication to the sting site if required, to minimise pain.

Bee inside your veil

It is important to remain calm. Move quickly, well away from the apiary before removing the veil to release the bee.

An agitated bee freed from a veil may quickly return to attack. So it may be better to kill the bee inside the veil before it has an opportunity to sting. Keep the bee well away from your face when squashing it.

When a bee stings through clothing

Remain calm. Immediately blow smoke on the clothing at the sting site to mask any pheromones that invite other bees to 'sting here'. If you need to apply medication to minimise pain, move well away from the apiary before removing any clothing.

Bee smoker

Effect of smoke on bees

Smoke stimulates bees to gorge honey or nectar. This temporarily disrupts the defensive behaviour of the colony, making the bees easier to handle.

A smoker with a barrel of 100 mm diameter is recommended. Smokers of this size provide a good stream of dense cool smoke which subdues the bees when opening the hive and during the period the hive is open.

Lighting the smoker

Place a small amount of newspaper in the bottom of the barrel of the smoker and light it.

Add a small amount of dry fuel (such as pine needles or dry stringy bark) in the barrel. At the same time work the bellows to gently draw the fire. Continue to add fuel at the same time as working the bellows. When the fire is well established with plenty of smoke, add more fuel to fill the barrel. Pack the fuel reasonably firmly, but not so tightly that it will prevent air flow. This will make sure the smoke is cool and the fire is not too hot. Hot smoke and sparks make bees angry.

Frequent use of the bellows will keep the fire alight provided fuel is added as required.

To avoid burns, keep the hot barrel of the smoker away from you.

When not in use, place the smoker in a metal bucket positioned so that smoke drift does not affect your eyes and breathing.

How to extinguish the smoker fire

Empty the smouldering smoker fuel and ash into a bucket of water. Ensure all the ash and fuel in the smoker is thoroughly soaked.

If it is unsafe to empty the smoker, due to a strong wind, place a tight roll of paper in the smoker nozzle to smother the fire. Then place the hot smoker in a metal bucket until the smoker is completely cold.

Restrictions affecting use of smokers

A smoker must not be used on a day of Total Fire Ban unless you have a permit. For advice on Total Fire Ban days, contact the Country Fire Authority, phone: 13 1599.

During declared Fire Danger Period or Fire Restriction Period, fires in the open air are restricted. Because bee smokers are considered to be a fire in the open, the following restrictions apply during these periods:

  • Smokers should only be lit on ground that is bare of combustible material for 3 metres or in a fire proof receptacle such as a steel bucket.
  • A knapsack or water extinguisher, containing no less than 9 litres of water, and a rake hoe or fire rake should be located as close as practical to the lit smoker.
  • When the smoker is not being operated, it should be placed in the fire proof receptacle.
  • A person must be in attendance of a lit smoker at all times.

Opening the hive

Honey bees are relatively manageable when the following conditions occur:

  • The weather is fine, air temperature is about 16°C or above and there is no strong wind.
  • There is good daylight — avoid very dull periods.
  • Bees are flying to and from the hive.
  • Foragers returning to the hive may have pollen pellets on their hind legs.

The following points provide a guide for opening the hive and examining combs:

  1. Stand at the side of the hive so that sunlight shines over your shoulders. When examining a comb, this position allows the sun to shine directly into the cells.
  2. Direct 5 to 6 puffs of smoke into the hive entrance so that the smoke circulates inside the hive. Never open a hive unless smoke has been applied.
  3. Wait about 1 minute for the smoke to reach its maximum effect — then direct a few more puffs into the entrance.
  4. Use the hive tool to lift the cover (lid) about 20 mm at one corner and direct 3 to 4 puffs of smoke over the hive mat (if present) or top bars of the frames.
  5. Remove the lid and the hive mat and at the same time direct a few puffs of smoke between the frames.
  6. Use the hive tool to separate 1 of the side frames (next from the hive wall) and the adjoining frame.
  7. Lift the side frame out of the box and stand it on end at the opposite front corner so that it does not block the hive entrance and obstruct forager bees. There is now room to separate the remaining frames and remove them to inspect the combs as necessary. Failure to separate frames will result in bees being rolled and crushed as each frame is lifted out of the box. This will cause bees to become angry.
  8. Apply more smoke when bees gather on the top bars of frames and suddenly fly up towards. This behaviour indicates that the beneficial effect of smoke has mostly worn off. Direct smoke around the top bars to ensure the bees remain manageable.
  9. When a hive of 2 or more boxes is opened, it is best to put the supers on an upturned cover placed near the front of the hive — but not directly in front of the entrance. Using the hive tool, lift the super about 20 mm at one corner. Direct a few puffs of smoke between the 2 boxes and then remove the box.
  10. Inspect and manipulate combs in the bottom box first. Inspection of combs in the super before it is removed from the hive will in many cases result in bees moving from the super to the bottom box. When the bottom is attended to, the bees are unnecessarily agitated.
  11. Reassembling and closing the hive is done in the reverse order. Smoke may be used to direct and move any bees that might otherwise be squashed when the hive lid and boxes are returned to their position.

Working in isolation

Beekeepers who keep hives away from home often work in isolation — a long distance from contact with other people. Beekeepers working in such conditions should have effective means of communication so they can get help in an emergency. A mobile phone or trunk radio should be considered.

Before leaving home, a beekeeper should advise family members or an appropriate person of the apiary location and expected time of returning home.

Effective means of communication, including receiving emergency radio bulletins during the proclaimed fire danger period, is important for monitoring any wild fires that might pose a safety risk.

Beekeepers should always carry a first aid kit and have a basic understanding of first aid.

Beekeeping in hot weather

Take special care when working with bees on hot days. Wearing protective clothing and working the hives in full sunlight can easily result in the body becoming over heated and dehydrated. It is essential to have a supply of cool fluids for frequent drinks and for the beekeeper to detect early signs of heat stress and dehydration.

It is best to avoid working bees on very hot days or during the hottest part of the day. This will be better for you and the bees.

Lifting hives and heavy equipment

A considerable amount of lifting is necessary in beekeeping and a number of beekeepers have had back injuries.

An 8-frame super (box) with all combs full of honey may weigh around 32 kg. Hives with 2 or more boxes and some stored honey will weigh much more.

Beekeepers are encouraged to adopt correct manual handling techniques and to use mechanical lifting equipment when moving hives. Information on suitable lifting equipment is available from beekeeping supply shops and beekeeping journals.

Further information

If you require further information or assistance, please contact the Customer Service Centre on 136 186 or email: honeybee.biosecurity@agriculture.vic.gov.au

Page last updated: 23 Jun 2020