Being a beekeeper can be very rewarding but along with the rewards come some safety hazards. The most common of these are allergic reactions, fire hazard, lifting hazard and exposure to some toxins.
The two most important considerations to help in avoiding issues before they start are:
1) Prior planning of your excursion into the bee yard.
2) Work with a partner if possible.
Knowing what you plan to achieve while in the bee yard will give you direction and prevent haphazard activity. Discuss what you want to accomplish and what you will do if there is a problem or complication prior to your outing.
Frequently a simple hive check identifies issues that have to be addressed including issues that can cause unexpected extended time inside the hive and exertion. Working with a partner can help with that. Your partner can share in the lifting, handing you tools and keep you on track! Not to mention the benefit of another pair of eyes to help diagnose colony problems and find the queen.
Getting stung is part of keeping bees. Every beekeeper I know has a tale about an ill placed stinger. See my cover photo – that was a recent sting to my lip. It didn’t hurt too badly, but I sure looked funny! And…my fellow beekeepers still can’t stop laughing at me. Luckily by the next day the swelling was fully resolved, as is frequently the case.
Most stings give a localized reaction including pain and swelling. There are several over the counter bee sting medications including Benadryl (an antihistamine) that reduces the body’s reaction to the bee venom. We use a product of the hive that works very well; tincture of propolis. Mix propolis with Everclear to make a tincture and then put it on the sting as soon as possible. It dramatically reduces the effect of the bee venom. If you tend to have reactions, before you go into the bee yard you may want to take an over-the-counter slow-release antihistamine (Allegra, Claritin, etc.) which may minimize the effect of a bee sting.
Some beekeepers may go beyond pain and swelling – the sting creates a systemic reaction; a true allergic reaction which causes systemic swelling, especially of the airways. This is an EMERGENCY, and you should get to an ER or call 911 immediately. In the event you have an anaphylactic reaction becoming or remaining a beekeeper should be carefully considered. If you decide to continue with beekeeping you should consult your Family practice M.D. to discuss the need for an EpiPen (epinephrine) to stop the allergic reaction that would occur if/when you are stung. I know a couple of beekeepers that are severely allergic to bee venom. They carry EpiPens and are very careful when working in the bee yard, allowing them to continue to enjoy the beekeeping hobby.
Another option your doctor may suggest are allergy shots taken over a long period of time to significantly reduce the effects of the venom. When you go into the bee yard just to feed “the friendly ones,” always wear some type of protective gear such as a veil or even a full suit. I’ve tried doing this a couple of times without protection and either got stung or had bees chasing me back to my garage. Not too bad if you are trying to get in a few wind sprints!
When lighting a smoker there is always a danger of burns to you or the surrounding bee yard. To prevent burns to your hands, it is best to light the smoker with gloves on. Having a hose or bucket of water nearby is a great safety precaution. After you finish with the smoker, let it cool down for a little while before you handle it. This will prevent burns or melting equipment (back seats of golf carts etc.)
The inhaled smoke can also be a problem for some people if they have respiratory issues. Try keeping the smoker “down wind” to avoid breathing too much of the smoke particulates. A lit smoker sitting there smoldering blowing back in your face is just as bad as when using it.
As a new beekeeper when the bees got all over my veil, I asked my beekeeping partner to smoke the bees off my head area. I would hold my breath as he smoked me like a brisket - I thought he would never stop! I think he enjoyed it! The bees did leave; however, his aggressive use of the smoker left my veil with several small holes as embers from the smoker landed on the screen and melted holes in my veil. Time for a new bee suit!
Bee hives and the equipment are heavy and when full of honey even more so making lifting them a problem. For beekeepers with back problems or the lack of a helping partner, using eight frame hive equipment as compared to ten frame can help. There are hive carriers that make it easier to carry a full hive, but keep in mind they do require two people.
Always lift with your legs. If you have to carry equipment or honey a far distance, some sort of carrying device helps. Some use golf carts or gas-powered carts with a loading area on the back to hold the hive and equipment. Others use wagons. I have even used a wheelbarrow, but needless to say, that works best on empty boxes and frames….not so well with honey and syrup.
Avoid exposure to airborne toxins– When doing an O.A. (Oxalic Acid) treatment always wear protective breathing equipment. Although O.A. is found in some common foods we eat and is harmless, when vaporized it forms crystals that can damage your airways. A ventilator mask rated for “particulate matter” is strongly recommended. Other Varroa mite treatments require touching treatment strips or containers. Avoid any skin contact by wearing rubber gloves and discard the used and unused products appropriately.
We have several signs posted around entrances to our bee yards informing anyone approaching that there is an apiary nearby and bees are present. Most of the signs also include a picture for those individuals who don’t know how to read (such as children) or choose not to do so.
When inviting guests into your bee yard, it’s a good idea to first identify anyone who may have an allergy or fear of bees. They shouldn’t be allowed to go near the bees but rather observe from a distance. Any non-beekeeper wanting to see the bees should always wear protective gear that include a minimum of a veil, long sleeve shirt, pants, and gloves.
In summary, beekeeping can be a very rewarding experience when done safely. Planning ahead and being prepared can and will ensure it.
Helping honey bees that otherwise might have a tough time on their own, harvesting honey and helping friends and neighbors enjoy GOOD wholesome honey make it all worth it!
By: Michael Ruttle P.A. (Retired)
Peach Creek Apiary