Health & Safety in Beekeeping

Conducting your beekeeping practices in a safe manner is essential for not only your own health and safety, but also for the health of your bees and the safety 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. What follows is some general advice to help reduce risks in the apiary, however it is always the responsibility of the beekeeper to assess all risks and to decide on safe working procedures in their apiary.

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 out of the bee's body and remain attached to the victim's skin; the bee will die shortly afterwards.

Other Hazards - connected with beekeeping are from products and procedures used in normal hive manipulation such as physical injury, fire, burning, poisoning and asphyxiation, these are covered below and detailed throughout management the pages. Risk Assessment is essential to avoid injury.

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 "anaphylaxis" or 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. In general honeybees, bumblebees, wasps and hornets will not attack and sting unless provoked or 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 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 to the gate! 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 more defensive towards the end of the year.

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. There is always a risk to humans when apiaries are sited near to public areas such as 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) before they finally sting. Always heed the warnings!

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. Always risk assess your apiary beforehand for hazards and plan how you intend to minimise the risks to ensure safety all round.

Risk Assessment

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 you 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.

Follow a few Simple Rules

Follow a few 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.

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

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