Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Do I Need a Bee Suit?

Update: Removed non-working photo links.

I was out inspecting the bees today, and one of the guys installing some siding for me noticed my veil. He used to do pest removals and exclaimed, "Just a veil! You've got more heart than me. I used to use a whole suit! Head to toe! Bees freak me out!" We laughed about it, but his remark reminded me that I'd started this post ages ago and forgot to finish. So here goes...

"Do I need a bee suit? What kind of protective clothing do I really need?" I hear those questions over and over, and I totally get it because beekeeping is not cheap. Starting costs include the hive (which can run anywhere from $15 to several hundred dollars per hive depending on whether one builds it or buy its and the materials used. Then, if you have to buy bees, a package runs about $110 and up. Nucs can be even more. Depending on how many hives one wants to start with, beekeeping can get pricey. Protective clothing just adds to the cost. Even an inexpensive jacket can run about $60.

What I wear
To be very frank -- I'm no clotheshorse. My personal philosophy on clothing is that it should be comfortable, practical, and appeal to the wearer. That notion applies to beekeeping fashions as well. My personal beekeeping attire depends on two factors 1) the temperament of the bees and 2) the season. The temperament of the bees is a no-brainer. I suit up -- jacket, veil, and gloves -- for the really nasty ones. However, even nice bees seem to have "seasonal affective disorder," so I also make modifications depending on the outside temperature.
  • Summer. I stick to shorts, tank top, and flip flops. I wear a veil, though, because bees burrowing into my hair raises my anxiety level, and to reiterate, this is all about being comfortable. The bees are usually easy-going this time of year, though, so my choice to wear as little protective clothing has nothing to do with (in the words of Morgan Freeman) "resonating" with the bees. I just want to be cool -- not James Dean cool, but let's-avoid-hot-flashes cool. My overall lack of protection results in me taking a fair number of stings. However, I prefer an occasional shot of venom to overheating, but that's my personal preference. 
  • Early spring or fall. I prefer a bee jacket with veiled hood and jeans because at that time of year, I need the warmth, and the girls are more likely to be irked by intrusions. A regular jacket is fine, but I just don't want to keep getting my jackets dirty. BTW, some people say that their bees attack their jeans. I've not really had an issue with this, though. It helps to wear clean clothes, I think, during inspections.
No matter the season, I skip gloves because I feel that I'm more sensitive and careful without them, and I like being forced to stay mindful.

To reiterate, these are my personal protective clothing choices, not general recommendations. Every person has to decide for him/herself what will make them most comfortable. There is absolutely no shame in wearing protective clothing from head to toe. Naked beekeeping may be entertaining, but it does not make you a better beekeeper. You want to be able to enjoy your bees -- so wear whatever gives you the best balance of physical and mental comfort. 

Do I need protective clothing?
Before buying clothing/deciding what kind of clothing to buy, I'd ask the following questions:
  • Will I be more relaxed if I'm wearing protective clothing?
  • Am I nervous about getting stung? 
  • Am I allergic to bee stings?
  • Do I want to avoid stings in any particular areas?
  • Do I want to have guests in my apiary?
  • Do I live in an area with AHB (Africanized honey bees)?
  • Do I have children that might assist me?
If the answer to any of these questions is "Yes," then you might consider getting some protective clothing. However, the actual types of clothing you get might depend on how much protection you need and how comfortable you are around bees. 

What are my clothing options?

Bee suit:  Bee suits are the most expensive option, but if you want full coverage from head to foot, a bee suit with a veil will give you the most complete protection. If you're working with some really mean bees, this is a good option since they can't squeeze in under the jacket waist, which is something I've experienced first-hand. The other bonus is that they usually have gaiters around the ankles to prevent bees from climbing up your pants. They are hot, though, so a ventilated jacket, like Ultra Breeze, might be something to consider. Ventilated jackets have multiple layers of mesh which allow air to pass through, but are thick enough to prevent stings.

If you want a full suit but can't swing it with your budget, some people use cheap painter's suits that they get from places like Walmart. I've never tried one, so I can't speak for how well they work. However, that might be an option.

Ultrabreeze suit

Bee jacket: Many people find a bee jacket with pants sufficient protection. Again, they can be quite warm, so a ventilated jacket might be a good option if you want to wear it all summer long. With jackets and suits, it's good to look for designs that have zero gaps where zippers meet. I write this because I've had bees slip through those holes. Another area where bees slip through for me is around the sleeve at the wrist. Even though the wrists are elasticized, they find a way in.

Whether you get a jacket or suit, pockets are very helpful.
Jacket from Mann Lake.
Oversized long-sleeve shirt: My first summer, I quickly tired of wearing a jacket and switched to using an oversized long-sleeve shirt (one of my husband's cast-off dress shirts). It was a lot lighter and more comfortable than a jacket, and I never had any issues with bees coming in at the wrists. It's not as thick or tight-fitting around the wrists or waist as a jacket/suit, though, so if AHB is a concern, a shirt probably wouldn't provide suitable protection.

Note: Whether you get a suit, jacket, or oversized shirt, get something loose and roomy. That gap between your fabric and skin will protect you from stings. If your clothing is too tight, the stinger will go straight through the fabric into your skin.

Pants: Some companies sell pants separately from the jacket. I'm not sure why a person would buy a jacket and pants separately -- maybe they might want options for more coverage in spring/fall and less in summer. Or maybe more coverage starting out before they start stripping layers away. But buying separately also lets people start with a just a jacket, and then if they decide they need more coverage, they can buy pants later without getting a whole suit. In any case, options are a good thing.

Helmet with veil: You can find helmets that are used in conjunction with a veil. I haven't tried using this combination, so I can't speak to the comfort factor. However, the veil and helmet are usually sold separately. There are also various types of veil styles. Veils usually cost about $15 - $20. The helmet is usually another $12 - $20. One nice thing about this style I think is that if the veil rips, you don't have to replace the whole thing.

Helmet with veil from Brushy Mountain

Hatless Veil: I have Brushy Mountain's folding hatless veil and I like it well enough. Instead of separate pieces, it has a thick piece of cotton that serves as a "hat," and the veil is connected to the cotton. The only thing I don't like are the vertical white strips which sometimes obstruct my view. It ties down, so it's not 100% gapless, but I haven't ever had any major issues with it.

Hatless veil from Brushy Mountain

I also recently purchased Mann Lake's Veil with Hat. Because it's round and doesn't have anything on the screen, I think the visibility is a little better -- when it's not falling over my eyes. The "hat" is way too big (seriously, it comes down to my nose) and doesn't really adjust. I'm going to have to hack it with velcro or snaps to make it fit.

Mann Lake's version of a hatless veil

Gloves: There are lots of choices for gloves.

  • Leather. I haven't tried cowhide gloves, but my first season, I ordered some super soft goat-skin gloves. They have decent flexibility and provide good protection, but they make my movements clunky, and I can't feel anything while I wear them. Also, my hands sweat. (Sorry, if that was TMI.) Actually, I think the bees are more angry when I wear gloves.
  • Nitrile. They provide more sensitivity, though significantly less protection than leather. They're usually about $2 a pair from a beekeeping supply company, but you can get big boxes of them from a hardware store for much less (per pair). I tried them my first season, and I liked that I could feel the bars and bees and that they kept my hands clean. The downside is that I felt like The Incredible Hulk because they kept ripping.
  • Plastic coated gloves. I haven't tried these, so I can't say much about them. They're supposed to be sting-resistant and cool, though.
In any case, if you want to wear gloves, avoid using old gloves that have been used for doing mechanical work. I've heard from a number of people who've done this, and they say the bees go straight for the hands. Maybe there's something in the smell of the oil or something that drives them nuts, but they don't like it.

Note: If you go gloveless, you could blow some smoke on your hands with a smoker (or rub liquid smoke on them) before starting your inspection to deter potential stings. Or if you do get stung, you could try masking the pheromone by squirting some water mixed with peppermint oil on your hands. I've found this doesn't always work, but sometimes it does.

Leggings from Mann Lake
Boot band/Leg straps: If you don't want to buy a suit, but you don't want bees finding their way up your pants, consider a boot band or leg strap. It's just a piece of elastic sewn to velcro (or just a piece of velcro) that you can wrap around your pant legs to keep bees from climbing up. (BTW, I can't see spending $$$ on this. I'm just too cheap.)

Leggings. These are an alternative to boot bands. They fasten all the way around the bottom of one's pant legs to keep them closed up.

Children's Clothing: I bought a beekeeping suit as well as a beekeeping jacket/pants set. Some kids may really like them and feel more comfortable in them. However, they were not cheap, and the protective clothing is sometimes a beekeeping deterrent. I've noticed that most kids (my own and their friends) initially don the suits because for the peace of mind, but they get so hot that they generally abscond pretty quickly.

An alternative to kid's suits might be some gloves, veils, and oversized shirts over their clothes (maybe even with a belt or some elastic around the waist if you're a sewer). If they have overalls, that would probably be a good replacement for the suit.


  1. 99% of the time my bees are calm and compliant. Its for that 1% of the time that I always dress up in my Pillsbury Dough Boy suit.

    1. LOL! That Pillsbury Dough Boy image is cracking me up.

      Over the past few years, as I've gotten more relaxed and comfortable, I think the bees have, too. They pick up on anxiety. But you're absolutely right. Every now and then they're ornery for no perceivable reason. If I had a suit on, I might work them, but without, I have to just close up fast and get the heck out of Dodge! And you're right -- there's no predicting what will happen during an inspection, so I'm definitely playing a little Russian roulette.

  2. I (almost) always wear a veil because I don't want to get zapped in the face. Having a swollen shut eye wouldn't be good for my computer work. If I have quick tasks like changing the sugar water in the back of the hive, then I skip the veil. This year, I've been using the gloves less, except when I've been doing the splits and the bees are pretty pissy. I agree that I have less of a feel with the gloves on - I use the goatskin gloves which as you say are pretty flexible - but I seem to kill a lot more bees with the gloves when putting the bars back. One thing I've noticed this year is that my reaction to stings is less severe - I don't swell up like I have in the past or if I do, it doesn't last long. Through time, one gets more relaxed around the bees which helps on both sides. But there's always one guard bee that just wants to be nasty!

    1. LOL! I don't like getting zapped in the face either. Nothing is worse than showing up to some meeting looking like The Elephant Man. And it never fails -- even if I'm just changing sugar syrup -- there is one overvigilant bee that will zap me in the head if I don't have a veil.

      Interesting that your reactions are becoming less severe. Do you think it's just your body acclimating? Or do you get stung more since you stopped wearing protective clothing?

      I've noticed the same thing. Of course, I have almost double the number of colonies that I did last year, but I've accumulated almost as many stings by this season's mid-point as I did all of last year -- I wonder if the higher frequency of stings is causing me to create more antibodies or something.

    2. I've actually gotten fewer stings this year even with more colonies and fewer clothes. Go figure! I do wear long pants and a long sleeved shirt most of the time, but I could probably get away with a short sleeved shirt. BTW, I just use rubberbands for my pant legs - they come for free with broccoli and asparagus at the store. ;-)

      I'm hoping my body is more acclimatized. To me, the worst part of the sting aftermath is the itching. I can deal with the swelling, but the itchiness drives me crazy. Fortunately, neither has been much of a problem this year.

    3. " BTW, I just use rubberbands for my pant legs - they come for free with broccoli and asparagus at the store. ;-)"

      LOVE IT! Yes, I think I'd have a hard time buying boot bands, too.


Thank you for your comment! I can't wait to hear what you think!