Although, from time to time there are news stories about Naked Beekeeping (it’s a thing, you can Google it), most beekeepers, especially new ones, don’t go in for that.
Humans use clothing for both protection and display, and beekeeping gear is no exception.
Protection is the main purpose for bee clothing. Both protection from being stung, and protection for your everyday clothing from the stains and grime it would accumulate from working around bees.
The most critical area of sting protection is for the face and eyes. For this, a simple tie-on veil will do nicely. Stings to the face are notorious for swelling up in dramatic ways, and a sting in the eye may cause permanent harm. So, consider some kind of a veil as the minimum, but essential, level of protection.
The next level of protection is a choice between a jacket and a full suit.
Full suits are often preferred by both beginners and experienced beekeepers. Beginners like them because full suits offer more protection from stings. Experienced beekeepers, who are no longer preoccupied with stings, like them for the protection of their street clothes.
If you’re just starting out and the idea of a full suit feels more reassuring, then go with that. Although beekeeping offers many exciting experiences, a fear of stings takes the fun out of it. If a suit makes it easier for you to go out and work with your bees, you will become a better beekeeper - and more quickly - because of it.
In time, you may find the simplicity of just slipping on a jacket, without the rigamarole of donning a full suit, becomes more appealing and practical. Your suit will always be useful though: visitors to your yard will appreciate its full protection. And occasionally you may even switch back to a suit, especially a ventilated one, in really warm weather when you can put it on over very lightweight clothes, such as shorts and a tank top.
Bee jackets offer excellent protection and are more convenient than full suits. Having a jacket at hand may mean you’ll seize more opportunities to make a quick visit out to see your bees.
You do need to think about what sort of pants you’ll be wearing with your jacket. Painters’ pants (being light-colored and loose fitting) are an inexpensive option. But most beekeepers just wear jeans, because that’s what they’ve already got on.
For women, however, this can be a problem, because the current style for women’s jeans is close-fitting. The fabric of jeans offers little protection from stings because it’s not thick enough. Instead, sting protection comes from jeans that are loose-fitting. (In other words, the jeans may get stung, but you won’t, if they are loose enough.) So, if you have a stash of somewhat baggy jeans (think “Mom jeans”, or even “Grandma’s jeans,” just not Beyoncé’s jeans) you can designate them as your beekeeping pants. Not only will they protect you better, but you will avoid ruining your favorite jeans out in the bee yard.
If you do choose to wear jeans, khaki-colored or very faded blue ones are better choices than dark colors.
Both men and women worry about bees crawling up their pant legs when they are wearing a jacket (Suits have elastic on the bottom of the legs, so it’s not an issue). It can happen, though it’s not common. You can get boot bands to cinch up the leg openings, or wear boots with the pants tucked down in them. Although, if you live in a Lyme disease area, you may already have your pant legs tucked into the tops of your socks in order to avoid ticks. (It’s goofy-looking, but effective for both insects.)
Finally, for jackets, it’s important that the garment be long enough so that when you bend over, the small of your back above your waistband is not exposed. Bees seem to have an uncanny ability to zero in on that vulnerability. You will be bending over, a lot, so if you’re tall or long waisted, or wear low-riding pants, be sure to measure your back neck-to-waistband-of-pants length while bending over, to make sure your jacket will fit correctly. Consider going up a size, if needed, because when it comes to bee gear, loose and comfortable are more important than stylishness.
It breaks down into two categories: three-layer, “ventilated” mesh-type materials and woven fabrics, either all-cotton or cotton blend.
Ventilated garments are made of two layers of mesh fabric sandwiched around a third, thicker, layer of mesh with wider holes. This works to prevent stings by being thicker than a stinger can penetrate. Because woven fabric of this thickness would be unbearably hot, the ventilated fabric is designed to allow body heat and perspiration to dissipate through its open mesh layers. This keeps you cool by evaporative cooling, like a swamp-cooler, as long as there is even a small movement of air. However, if you keep bees in an area with long periods of windless, very humid days, it may not be the best choice. Because of the nature of mesh fabric, the outer layer is also a bit more prone to snagging than woven fabric. With a bit of extra care, the ventilated suits and jackets will stand up to normal use and repeated launderings. And the high-level of sting protection and the cooling effect in hot weather make them uniquely attractive.
We also offer partially-vented styles which have panels of the ventilated mesh along the side areas of the garments to allow for cooling. They have woven fabric at the stress points where there is more wear and tear.
Woven fabric is the other option for bee clothing. The all-cotton Betterbee jackets and suits are sturdy, breathable, and will stand up to hard laundering. They start out feeling a bit stiffer than the blended fabrics, but over time they will acquire the same comfortable softness and breathability of a well-loved canvas shirt. The cotton-blend fabrics are lighter weight and thus may be a bit cooler right from the start. Our premium line, B.J. Sheriff bee clothing, is made from a durable cotton-blend fabric.
Both for jackets and suits, the last decision point is which kind of veil you prefer. Honestly, this is strictly a personal preference, and one you may only be able to sort out after you’ve been using one in your bee yard.
Round veils come with an attached fabric hat. The veiling hangs down from the outer edge of a wide brim. This keeps the bees away from your head, neck and shoulders all around. It’s like being inside a bee-free bubble.
English, or fencing style, veils are shaped like an upside-down U which has the veiling portion only on front and sides of your head. The back area is solid fabric. Fencing-style veils are more collapsible when tipped backward off your head during work breaks, and some people think they are a bit cooler without the hatband of a round veil.
Each garment comes with one standard veil style, however often other styles can be purchased if you want to try them, too. So, generally, you’re not locked permanently into one style or another. Unfortunately, the veils are not interchangeable among different brands of clothing.
All veils have an intricate system of overlapping zipper and flap closures to attach the veil to the jacket or suit, and then close it up securely once you’re inside. And all of the veils that we sell are fully removable from the garment for washing.
This is the thing that beginners are often most worried about. If you’re going to keep bees, you may have to overcome strong, perhaps lifelong, conditioning to avoid bee stings, all while voluntarily handling frames crawling with bees. It would be a rare new beekeeper who didn’t have to deal, at least to some extent, with this psychological challenge.
Leather gloves with elbow-length fabric extensions, will give your hands and lower arms the highest level of protection. Most people start beekeeping using them. In order to learn how to keep bees, you need to be able to handle frames and bees with security and confidence. If leather gloves will give you that, they are the right choice for you.
You may have seen experienced beekeepers working without gloves and wondered how they can possibly stand it. No one likes being stung, and bee stings never stop giving you a little jolt when they happen. But with continuing experience, you may realize that with leather gloves on your hands, you can’t feel the bees. This can make it nearly impossible to avoid crowding or crushing some of them. Which, in turn, alarms the other bees, making stings even more likely.
A chilly bee warming herself on a cold day.
In time, your own comfort around bees is likely to increase enough that you want to change to a less-interfering kind of glove. Nitrile gloves are a good first step. The first few times you dare to use them, you may be astounded at how indifferent the bees seem to be to your hands, even if they fiercely attacked them before. The reason is that your hands are no longer clumsy “weapons of destruction” to the bees. You can easily feel a bee, and will instinctively avoid injuring one which gets in your way. Uninjured, undisturbed bees, don’t give off any alarm pheromone, and so your inspections will be less fraught.
Eventually, you may feel comfortable enough with, and even take delight in, the feeling of bees walking on your bare hand. It’s all part of the evolution of your life with bees.
Meanwhile, the best plan is to make all your clothing choices for whatever level of comfort that you have now. That will make you a happier, more confident, beekeeper right from the start. You’ll have more fun, too, if you’re free to focus on the bees and their amazing lives, without cringing every time one gets too close.
Just two final suggestions: Be sure to properly zip up and close-up all the openings in your jacket or suit. Having bees get inside with you rarely ends well.
And be sure to wash your bee suit or jacket from time to time. The garments will last longer, be more pleasant to use and keep the bees calmer. Check out our detailed laundering instructions.