Protective clothing for beekeepers is almost invariably white. Honey bees are reputed to dislike dark colors. This dislike is generally attributed as a defense mechanism against predators such as bears, raccoons, and skunks. Thus, goes the thinking, wear dark colors, and the bees might think you’re a bear coming for their honey and attack you.
But, beekeeping hoods and veils generally are black mesh (mine included) to protect your face. If the color black will trigger a bee attack, why have it on my head? After all, that’s where I exhale carbon dioxide, which, along with bee alarm pheromones and other stimuli, can trigger defensive behavior.
Despite the warning that dark colors may trigger bee aggression, black mesh is used to reduce the reflection of sunlight that might hinder the beekeeper’s vision.
Researchers at the University of Sao Paolo tested veils that were light-colored on the outside and dark on the inside. They found that bees were significantly less aggressive toward the lighter veil. However, I would note that the “aggression” came after “riling up the colonies.” (De Jong, David & Gonçalves, Lionel & Francoy, Tiago. (2007). A light-colored veil greatly diminishes attacks by Africanized honey bees. American Bee Journal. 147. 153-156. Find it here on ResearchGate.) Despite this information, black veils seem to be the norm.
By the way, most bee behavior considered “aggressive” is the bees being “defensive” and protecting the colony.
A Better Reason Why Beekeeping Suits Are White
There’s another reason beekeeping suits are white, and it has nothing to do with bears.
Most beekeeping activities occur in the summertime. It can get freaking hot in the summer, and light colors (like white) absorb less heat from the sun.
Put on a bee jacket and work through some hives in the middle of August. If you’re like me, you’ll be drenched in sweat by the time you’re done. Wearing a dark color would only make it worse.
Dark Colors Absorb More Heat From Light
Light from the sun is a form of radiant energy. When sunlight hits something (like a beekeeper’s suit), some of that light is reflected while the object absorbs the rest, creating heat. Colors we see depend on how an object reflects light.
White reflects all (or almost all) light, meaning very little is absorbed, creating heat. Black absorbs all (or nearly all) light, which creates more heat. Since black doesn’t reflect light, you may say it’s not even a color. It’s the total absence of color.
Lighter Colors Absorb Less Heat From Light
The closer a color is to white, the more light it reflects, and the less heat it absorbs. A pale yellow beekeeping suit would be much cooler than a dark brown one. However, it would still absorb more heat than white making it less desirable on a hot summer day.
Regardless of whether dark colors make bees think you are a predator, white and lighter colors are a lot more comfortable in the summer.
Do Beekeeping Suits Have To Be White?
No, beekeeping suits do not have to be white. While white is far and away the most common color, there are some sellers (including Amazon) of other hues. If you’re looking for something a little different (maybe you want to stand out at the next outing of your beekeeping association) check out these sites:
- CustomBeesuits.com sells bee jackets and suits in a variety of colors. If you’re concerned that dark colors make bees more aggressive, I’d stay away from the red one…red is the same as black to a honey bee.
- NaturalApiary.com also has protective clothing with optional colors that include camouflage. Maybe the bees will think you’re a bush?
- BJ Sherriff in the UK has alternatives to white beekeeping clothes. I kind of like the Powder Blue or the Buttermilk (which looks pretty close to white). According to their website, they deliver worldwide but suggest you contact them regarding delivery charges.
- Pierco, a beekeeping supplier, had kids’ suits in white, yellow, and camo.
Will Bees Mistake Me For A Flower In A Colored Suit?
No, colors will not cause honey bees to think you’re a flower.
While color is part of what attracts bees to certain flowers, there’s a lot more to it. They can also smell the food source (nectar) and visually identify flowers.
Also, as stated in this article by National Geographic, bees “can sense the electric field that surrounds a flower.” I doubt you’re giving off these signals no matter what color you’re wearing.
And even though colors help bees identify flowers, it’s not the colors we see.
How Do Bees See Colors?
Bees see colors differently than humans. As shown on the visible spectrum below, bees see light wavelengths ranging from about 300 to 650 nanometers. Humans, on the other hand, see wavelengths ranging from about 390 to 750 nanometers.
Looking at this chart, you can see how, for bees, red is the absence of light. Thus, red is black. (This must be confusing for bees at the roulette table.)
Bees see ultraviolet colors that are invisible to the human eye. Ultraviolet light from plants helps guide them to locations for nectar and pollen. Here’s a video from PBS that shows how bees see ultraviolet light from flowers:
Are Bees Calmer Around White Beekeeping Suits? (An Opinion)
Surf around the internet on various bee forums. I think you’ll find lots of anecdotal evidence on both sides of this question. The fact that so many beekeepers indicate that dark colors don’t play a role makes me think other factors are at play.
While bees may target darker colors when they are defensive, it seems to me that the color is simply the target and not the cause. Bees become defensive for other reasons.
We once had a particularly defensive colony. Open the cover, and within seconds a lot of them would be banging on my hood…white (okay, dirty white) suit notwithstanding.
Bees may get defensive if:
- They are without a queen.
- It’s during a nectar dearth when resources are scarce, and robbers come calling.
- If varroa mites or other infestation stress the colony.
- You inadvertently grab a bee that stings you and sends out an alarm pheromone.
- Drop a frame full of bees by mistake.
In short, there a lot of reasons why the girls may come at you, stingers at the ready. And most of them have nothing to do with the color of your bee jacket.
See our article Do Honey Bees Sting? Yes, They Do (What You Should Know) for more information about defensive honey bee behavior and what you can do about their stings….because you WILL get stung!
If you need further evidence, look at what they did to this white face on several occasions when it was unprotected. The 2017 sting came when I lifted the outer cover to check on a feeder with no veil. The others were random events when I wasn’t even in the bee yard. I don’t think I look like like a bear…well, maybe the beard didn’t help.
Bees and flowers communicate using electrical fields, researchers discover by University of Bristol
How Bees See And Why It Matters in Bee Culture in Bee Culture, The Magazine of American Beekeeping
What Colors Absorb More Heat at Sciencing.com