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Protective Clothing for Beekeepers: Beekeeping Suits, Jackets, Veils, and Gloves
The friendly beekeeper might have the best interest of his bees in mind, but the bees don’t seem to always see it that way. Protective clothing makes beekeeping a lot more enjoyable when the bees take exception to having the roof popped off and their home rummaged through by a human. A variety of protective clothing is available to beekeepers. Choosing what to wear is a matter of balancing protection and comfort. Here is a rundown of some of the choices.
But before we start, let me say this: No piece of protective clothing is sting proof. If you work with bees, you will be stung. The sooner that you get over the fear of being stung, the faster you will progress as a beekeeper.
Veils: A veil keeps the bees from reaching your face. An absolute necessity, it is the single most important piece of beekeeping equipment. Bees should never be worked without one; a sting in the eyeball is bad news. The several different styles available can be divided into two main types: 1) those that do not attach by zipper to a jacket, or coveralls, and 2) those that do.
Veils that do not attach: The square folding veil belongs to the first type and is probably what you think of when you picture a beekeeper. It consists of a wire mesh, or polyester, screen that fits over a helmet such as a pith helmet. Long draw strings snug the veil around the collar, go under the arms and then are tied around the waist to secure the veil. This is what the beekeepers are wearing in the above picture. Some designs replace the helmet with a soft round hat, the kind that is often associated with fishermen, others replace the draw strings with elastic. The nice thing about these veils is that you can wear them with whatever clothing you choose; you don’t have to worry about matching them to a zipper.
Veils that attach by zipper: Commonly called hoods, these veils are zipped to a jacket or coveralls making them somewhat more “bee proof” than the first type. The drawback to this type of veil is that not every veil matches every jacket and the veil is no good without its corresponding jacket or coveralls. Without being zipped to the other piece of clothing, there is no way to secure the veil around the neck and keep bees out. A jacket and veil are usually purchased together, if you need to replace one then you have to make sure that the new item matches the zipper on the old.
Rather than incorporating a hat into the veil, the Sherriff style veil (named after its developer) is more like a bubble around your head. Some designs have protective fabric in the back, because when you lean over, the back of the veil rests on the back of your head, this makes it possible for the bees to sting you through the mesh. The fabric in the back prevents this from happening. My favorite veil is a Sherriff style with mesh all the way around and is designed to be worn with a baseball cap. The veil isn’t attached to the cap, but the cap is worn under the veil and keeps the veil off the back of your head when bending over.
The problem with veils that are sewn onto or otherwise attached to a hat is that the weight of the veil tends to pull the hat off when you bend over. It’s annoying to have your hat fall off and it puts the back of the veil against the back of the wearer’s head, again, making the back of the head vulnerable to stings. Also, the hat part tends to stay in place when you turn your head so that your head is turning inside the hat rather than the hat turning with your head. This is particularly true with veils that zip onto your other clothing. It’s not so bad with the veils, like the square veil and helmet, that don’t attach directly to a jacket, or coveralls. They seem to have more fabric around the neck and therefore more freedom of movement.
Bee Suits and Jackets: You don't have to have either of these items. A light colored, heavy knit, long-sleeved shirt offers adequate protection under most circumstances but is not as "bee proof" as a full suit, or a beekeeper's jacket.
Note that all clothing designed to be worn around bees is light colored. Bees are naturally more aggressive toward dark colors, perhaps because many of their natural predators are dark colored, like bears.
A bee suit is just a pair of coveralls. A good pair is made of a cotton-polyester blend and has zippers in the legs, elastic around the cuffs of the wrists and ankles to keep bees out, and pockets. I almost never wear a full suit; I find them too hot. Most new beekeepers start off with a suit, then gain confidence and move to a jacket.
Jackets are cooler and more comfortable than a full suit, but don’t offer as much protection. Even though elastic holds the jacket snug around the waist, the occasional bee still finds its way in. Bees can also crawl up your pants leg unless you tape them shut. Most experienced beekeepers find this a small price to pay for the comfort and convenience that a jacket offers over a suit. Not only is a jacket cooler, but it is also easier to take on and off.
Most beekeeper jackets are made of the same cotton blends as the suits; some suppliers do offer a nylon jacket. I have tried the nylon and see no advantage. It is hotter than cotton, which is a big disadvantage.
Most beekeepers who wear a protective jacket wear blue jeans with it. Bees have a hard time stinging through denim, although they can. They act more aggressively toward dark colors so dark blue jeans tend to get stung more. I prefer faded jeans for this reason.
Tip: When washing suits, or jackets, remove the hoods. They zip off and will last longer if they don’t go through every wash.
Gloves: Every beekeeper needs a good pair of gloves. Under most circumstances, you can work bees without them. It is more comfortable not to wear them, but there will be times when even docile bees get upset and then it is good to have gloves nearby. The hands of most beekeeping gloves are made of cowhide or goatskin, a canvas forearm extends the glove to the elbow. I have always used goatskin. It is soft and pliable and even with them on I can still feel what I am doing. Leather gloves lose a lot of their protective value when they are wet. After they dry out they are fine.
Some bee equipment suppliers offer vented gloves. They have a mesh strip around the wrist. It doesn't make any difference in comfort. Don't pay extra for vented gloves.
If you are in a pinch and can’t find your leather gloves, nitrile or plastic dishwashing gloves offer good protection against stings. Bees have a hard time stinging through them; I have been told that this is because they can’t get a good grip. The downside of using plastic gloves is that your hands tend to sweat in them.
Conclusion: So starting out, your choice of protective gear will be based primarily of how you feel about getting stung. At minimum, you need a veil, a pair of gloves, and a heavy knit, light colored, long sleeve shirt, which you probably have in your closet. If you are a little nervous about being around bees, then buy a full bee suit. I recommend a pair with a Sherriff style hood. If the idea of the occasional sting doesn’t bother you, but you want more protection than what you get from a shirt off the rack, then start out with a beekeeper's jacket.
Whatever you chose, make sure that you can move and work in it comfortably so that you can concentrate on your bees and not on your clothes.
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