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Health, Safety & Welfare in Beekeeping

Responsible Beekeeping - Conducting your beekeeping practices in a safe and responsible manner is essential for not only your own health, safety and welfare, but also for that of your bees and of other people and property affected by your beekeeping activities. Whether one hive or many, there are several things to consider to ensure safe practice.

Health & Safety Legislation - requires all beekeepers to conduct their beekeeping activities in such a way as to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that neither they or other persons who may be affected, are not exposed to risks to their health or safety (this includes damage to property).

Animal Welfare Legislation - although this currently does not apply to invertebrate livestock animals, it does provide a useful framework that can be used to support responsible beekeeping practice to ensure correct provision for the health and welfare of honeybee stocks.

Apiary Biosecurity - maintaining sustainable healthy honeybee populations by effective management of pests and diseases through good husbandry practice backed by biological security control measures to minimise risks.

What follows is some general advice to help reduce risks in the apiary, however it is the responsibility of the beekeeper to assess all risks and to decide on safe and responsible working procedures in their apiary.

Health & Safety - Main Hazards

Stings - Honeybees (Apis spp.) like bumblebees, wasps and hornets have a stinger at the posterior end of their abdomen. The sting which is connected to a venom sac, is a modified egg-laying tube, it follows that if you are stung by a bee then it was a female insect that was responsible. However, in general wasps (Vespa spp.) are involved in about 70% of the stings to humans and they are often mistaken for bees because of their yellow and black bodies. Most stinging insects can sting more than once, the exception is the honeybee (the female worker bee) which has a barbed sting. When the worker bee escapes after stinging, the sting and attached venom sac are ripped from the bee's body and stay in the victim's skin; the bee dies shortly afterwards. It's advisable to scrape honeybee stings off rather than pinching them out and squeezing more venom in!

Hazardous Substances are often used in regular honeybee health and hygiene procedures. They pose a risk not only to you but also to your bees and the environment. The Safe Use of Hazardous Substances page details how to recognise hazardous substances and how to go about ensuring safe use.

Other hazards connected with beekeeping are from products and procedures used in normal hive manipulation and colony health management such as physical injury, fire, burning, poisoning and asphyxiation. Assessing these and the associated risks is essential to avoid injuries around the apiary and to keep your beekeeping a pleasant experience. Read on for info on how to manage safe beekeeping.

Hazards of Being Stung

Generally, most stings only result in a temporary injury - pain, swelling, redness and itching around the sting site. However, sometimes the effects can be much more severe – and can even be life-threatening, depending on where you are stung and whether the injured person has allergies or is pre-disposed to allergic reactions. Summon medical help if the sting is near the eyes, nose or throat.

Normal Reaction - Most people experience local effects like pain, swelling, itching, and redness around the sting site. The effects will gradually disappear over a the next few hours.

Mild Allergic Reaction - Some people will experience swelling in a larger area, not just immediately around the sting site. They may develop a rash but no systemic effects (effects in the body away from sting site like effects on breathing and blood flow). This mild allergic reaction can last a few days. The affected area will be sore and uncomfortable, scratching should be avboided as it may cause a break in the skin which could lead to an infection.

Severe Allergic Reaction - In rare cases, a severe allergic reaction can occur. This situation is serious and can cause anaphylactic shock. Symptoms of anaphylaxis may appear immediately or within the first 30 minutes. The symptoms include:

  • rash, itching and swelling in areas other than the sting site,
  • swollen eyes and eyelids,
  • wheezing,
  • tightness in the chest and difficulty breathing,
  • hoarse voice or swelling of the tongue,
  • dizziness or sharp drop in blood pressure,
  • shock,
  • unconsciousness or cardiac arrest.

The “anaphylactic reaction” can occur the first time someone is stung or with subsequent stings, with health deteriorating within minutes of being stung. If you see any signs of this reaction, or even if you are not sure, get medical help immediately. People who have had severe allergic reactions to insect stings in the past, will probably have a similar or worse reaction if stung again.

The Risk of Being Stung

To You The Beekeeper - There is always a risk of being stung when working around honeybees, for beekeepers it is an occupational hazard no matter how careful you think you are. When a honeybee decides to sting you it will make every effort to do just that, to the point of drilling right through your leather gloves, which they are perfectly capable of doing! That said, in general honeybees, bumblebees, wasps and hornets don't attack and sting unless provoked or are physically attacked (or think they are being attacked).

Normal hive manipulations create a great disturbance in the colony making the bees tetchy and prone to sting anyone in close enough proximity. Honeybee colonies differ in temperament, some are well behaved and will tolerate fair amounts of disturbance, while others are ready to meet the beekeeper at the apiary gate, will harass them all the time they are there, then escort them back out! Experience will teach you to read their temperament and whether to suit up and go ahead or to leave them till another day. In general a colony will be more pacific in the early part of the year and become defensive towards the end of the season.

To Other People – As well as the risks to the beekeeper in the apiary, there are risks to other people in the vicinity of the apiary. Flight paths are often quite direct and may take bees straight into areas where people are going about their normal business. Stinging occurs when individuals try to wave away bees in a manner that looks threatening, or following a colony disturbance when the bees will be actively defensive. There is always a risk to humans when apiaries are sited in gardens, near to public areas and pathways where adults, children and animals pass. The latter two are often inquisitive and may get closer than is safe.

To Property - Honeybees pose no danger to physical property however they must void their bowels the same as any other living creature. They do this mostly in the relative vicinity of the apiary (up to 50 metres or more) and may cause soiling of laundry, windows and vehicles.

Note - unfortunately any sting to a member of the public in the vicinity of your apiary will be from your bees, even if it was a wasp!!

Know The Warning Signs - Bumble Bees, Solitary Bees, Wasps, and Hornets can all sting repeatedly to one degree or another. A Honeybee can only sting the once and will die afterwards, therefore they give warning signs such as buzzing angrily around your face, and will head butt you and emit an acetone smell (to attract reinforcements) as they finally sting. Always heed the warnings!

Health & Safety - Managing Other Risks

Normal activities in and around the apiary always present a range of other hazards and risks such as: slips trips and falls when entering and leaving the site; back strain when lifting and carrying equipment, during hive manipulations, and harvesting honey (a full super can weigh over 30lbs); setting fire to the hive or surrounding vegetation with the smoker; ingesting or inhaling hazardous substances when treating hives and colonies. Assess your apiary beforehand for hazards and plan how you intend to minimise the risks to ensure safety all round.

The 5 steps in Risk Assessment:

  • Identify the Hazards. Think about your apiary and activities you intend to carry out. What has the potential to cause injury or harm?
  • Who is at Risk. Think about who might be harmed by these hazards and also how they may be harmed?
  • Control the Risk. Decide on how you will control the risk - remove it altogether? If not, how do you reduce the risk to a minimum?
  • Make a Record. Note down your findings: Hazards; Risks; Controls. This will be your Risk Assessment for your apiary. Stick to it!
  • Review your Assessment. If something changes, go over the first three steps again and update your records, make it part of your annual procedures.

Some simple rules to keep risks to an acceptable level:

  • Site apiaries well away from areas where people and animals will be in close proximity (30m minimum).
  • Ensure there are barriers to lift bee flight paths above areas where people and animals will be.
  • Plan your apiary activities beforehand, have all necessary equipment to hand.
  • Always wear the correct PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) such as hat, veil, suit, gloves and footwear when working in the apiary, and make sure you maintain them in good condition.
  • Avoid working on hives when bees are not likely to be in good humour e.g. too cold, colony structure upset, wrong time of day, recent disturbance.
  • Avoid working on hives when there is a risk of members of the public being in the vicinity. It is NOT ENOUGH to give warnings.
  • Exercise care when using a lighted smoker particularly during long dry spells.
  • Always follow manufacturers instructions and approved codes of practice when using chemicals and products for disease control and hygiene, and only use approved products.
  • Be prepared for all eventualities and assess the risks before working with honeybees.

Honeybee Welfare

Key to overall health and sustainability of honeybee stocks are the welfare standards provided and maintained by the keeper. Using the guidance given in current animal welfare legislation as an example of good practice, beekeepers can ensure acceptable welfare standards for their stocks by providing adequately for their needs and avoiding unnecessary harm or suffering through neglect or omission. Some basic provisions to consider:

  • A suitable environment / secure accommodation in which to live.
  • Access to a suitable diet with sufficient availability to ensure full life and health.
  • Ability to exhibit normal colony behaviour and interactions.
  • Measures to protect stocks from unnecessary stress and disease, with diagnosis and treatment delivered in a timely manner.

Apiary Biosecurity

The UK Government encourages beekeepers to take responsibility for biosecurity and to regard it as vital in maximizing honeybee health and population sustainability, and maintain productivity. Apiary Biosecurity is described in more detail in the Honeybee Health page. Minimising the risks of contamination and spread of pests and disease is achieved by following some basic good practice and to consider:

  • Apiary Hygiene
  • Colony Health

View an example of a simple Health and Safety Risk Assessment and Biosecurity Plan here.

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