Bees on foundationless frame

Is Beekeeping Dangerous?

Beekeeping is not considered especially dangerous, but it does entail some physical hazards and risks you should recognize.

The perceived danger of beekeeping stems from the fact that honey bees sting. Bee stings are painful and cause unpleasant swelling and itching.

However, most people do not experience acute allergic reactions such as anaphylaxis, which can be life-threatening.

The risks faced by beekeepers include:

  • Bee stings (and insect bites);
  • Injuries handling heavy equipment and other activities;
  • Burns and fire hazards;
  • Extreme exhaustion and dehydration;
  • Improper use of chemicals; and,
  • Beekeeper isolation.

In this article, we will go over each of these potential hazards and how to mitigate them.

Bee Stings

If you keep bees, you will get stung. For most people, the reactions to a sting are unpleasant and relatively short-lived. People react differently, and an individual’s response may vary with each sting.

Before you begin beekeeping, find out if you are allergic to bee venom. Speak to a medical professional. If you are allergic and still want to keep bees, follow your doctor’s advice. You probably need to carry an epinephrine pen at all times.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the United States average 62 annual deaths from hornet, wasp, and bee stings for the years 2000 – 2017. [1]

How To Avoid Bee Stings

While you cannot wholly avoid the wrath of defensive bees, you can lower the odds of being stung.

See our article Do Honey Bees Sting? Yes, They Do (What You Should Know) for more information on bee stings.

Wear Protective Gear

Properly designed beekeeping gear limits bee access to your skin.

We strongly recommend that you always wear at least a veil. Your face is a particularly inviting bee target. And stings to the eye, while rare, can be very dangerous and sight-threatening. [2]

The more gear you wear, the less likely you will be stung. How much protection you need is a personal choice. Some beekeepers always wear a full bee suit; others may wear just a veil. Do what is comfortable for you and your tolerance for stings.

Gear or no gear, I never wear a ring when I work with the bees, and I strongly recommend that you don’t either. My hands swell quite a bit from bee stings, and wearing a ring could cost me a finger. If you must wear a ring, consider a silicone one.

Check this article by Memic about rings and workplace safety in general.

Hand swollen from bee sting
Hand swollen from bee sting. Glad I didn’t have a ring on.

Plan Your Hive Inspections

Bees sting in defense of themselves and their hives. Plan your hive inspections to cause minimal disruption to the colony.

Choose sunny, warm days for inspections. Bees tend to be grumpier on inhospitable days. Rain, high heat, and humidity make for a defensive colony.

Try to inspect hives in the middle of the day when field bees are out foraging. It is easier to manipulate hives and frames with fewer bees in the way.

Use your smoker wisely. You can calm bees or move them out of your way with a few puffs of smoke.

See our article What Is A Bee Smoker? (A Must-Have Beekeeping Tool)

Do not stand in front of the hive; it makes the bees more defensive. Work from the back or the side.

Move slowly and deliberately in the hive. Don’t swat or wave at honey bees. The calmer you are, the more peaceful your bees are likely to be.

If the bees become overly aggressive during an inspection, it may be challenging to focus on the tasks at hand. Walk away for a few minutes or consider closing up the hive and returning another day.

Get To Know Your Bees

Colonies can have individual personalities. This year, all our hives have been relatively gentle, including two we caught as swarms. With that knowledge, any defensive behavior is out of character and immediately noticeable. It’s easy to come back another day.

A few years ago, we had a very aggressive hive. Lifting the cover meant a dozen bees instantly banging on my hood.

If a hive is overly aggressive, it could be a genetic issue. Mean queens make for mean colonies. Mean colonies pose a potential danger to you, to others, and pets. Consider replacing the queen.

Sometimes a hive is so aggressive that replacing the queen is virtually impossible or doesn’t change the situation. You may have to kill the entire colony as a precaution. Seek the advice of an experienced beekeeper in your area.

What To Do If You Get Stung

One sting can lead to more as alarm pheromones go out. One sting may not be too bad; multiple stings can exacerbate the problem even without severe allergy issues.

A little smoke can help mask the alarm pheromone. If a lot of bees join in an attack, it’s time to walk away.

Remove the stinger as quickly as possible to minimize the amount of venom injected. Scraping it with a fingernail usually does the trick for me.

Once the stinger is out, see how you feel. You may want to quit working, especially if you are distracted by the reaction.

I like to get away from the hives once stung and grab my medications of choice, Benadryl and Advil, as quickly as possible.

“Recommended First-Aid Kit for Bee Stings: Ice or ice packs, sting scrapper, ethanol wipes, anti-itch/antihistamine cream, Benadryl pills, and an epinephrine pen (or Epi-pen), if prescribed. Maintain a list of emergency numbers and addresses.”

from Bayer AG Beekeeper Safety webpage

Other Insects

As an outdoor activity, beekeeping can expose you to insects other than bees.

Here in the northeast, ticks can transmit Lyme disease. Lyme disease is a potentially serious bacterial infection. Prompt diagnosis and treatment are crucial to minimizing the impact of Lyme.

Lyme is not the only tick-borne disease. The CDC lists many others both inside and outside the United States.

Be aware of what insects you may encounter where you live.

Injuries Handling Heavy Equipment And Other Activities

Heavy Equipment

Reading beekeeping websites, you may see references to “beekeeper’s back.” Improperly lifting of anything heavy can cause severe back injury.

Full, deep hive boxes can weigh 80 – 90 pounds; medium boxes are around 40 – 50 pounds.

Thorough hive inspections and honey extraction may require you to lift and move multiple boxes. The handles on some boxes are shallow and may not permit a good grip.

Making matters worse, boxes low to the ground may entice you to bend over rather than squat and lift.

During honey flow, a productive colony could have boxes stacked above your shoulders. Lifting heavy items from that position is inadvisable. (I have used cinder blocks to elevate myself in such situations.)

Be careful handling heavy items.

You can lighten boxes by removing frames and setting them safely aside.

MyHealth.Alberta.ca network provides excellent information on proper lifting techniques. Mayo Clinic also had guidance on avoiding back injuries.

Lifting boxes is a lot easier with a partner. A partner and tool are even better.

Mann Lake sells this hive carrier designed to be handled by two people. They also carry a hive truck for moving boxes alone. Tools like this can be expensive, but they may save your back.

Consider using only medium 8-frame boxes for your hives. There is no law that says you must use 10 frames or deep boxes.

Medium 8-frame boxes are significantly lighter than 10-frame deeps. Also, if you use only one size box, they are completely interchangeable making your job a little easier.

Other Potential Risky Activity

The more tasks you take on as a beekeeper, the more hazards you may face. However, these are general risks not unique to beekeeping.

Using Tools

For example, if you decide to build your hives from scratch, you run the risk of injury with power tools. Follow instructions and take safety precautions as necessary.

You may decide to trap swarms to get free bees (free bees are good bees). Fifteen feet is a commonly cited good elevation for traps.

Climbing Ladders

Putting an empty trap fifteen feet up may not be that hard. Taking a box full of bees DOWN while standing on a ladder can be a lot harder. Your ladder may be on uneven ground.

Think about forgoing the ladder and just placing the trap as high as manageable with your feet on the ground.

I’ve done the ladder/trap thing. But my spouse and tractor with a front loader to make things easier.

Swarm trap
The bees missed the point of this swarm trap. Getting on a ladder to take this down came with its share of risks.

Be aware of the risks your taking, pay attention while you work, and use common sense.

Burns And Fire Hazards

Bee Smokers

As we’ve noted, a bee smoker can help you avoid stings and make beekeeping easier.

Never forget that the smoker contains a smoldering fire. Be careful not to ignite anything other than the smoker fuel.

Handle the smoker by the bellows. The hot sides and lid can burn your hand.

Do not set a hot smoker down on anything flammable (like dry leaves). Do not carry a lit smoker in your car. If you must transport the smoker, make sure it is empty and cool.

Beeswax

Beeswax is highly flammable.

Beeswax is melted to remove impurities. Never melt beeswax over an open flame; always use a double boiler. Be careful not to upset it and never leave it alone.

You may treat mites with vaporizing oxalic acid, a very effective method. Most vaporizers are inserted in the bottom entrance, just below the brood frames. Heated up to 372°F (188.9°C), they are hot enough to light beeswax. We met a beekeeper who actually did that. (You may want to have a fire extinguisher handy. Alternatively, opt for the dribble method with oxalic acid instead.)

Assuming the vaporizer does not light up your hive, it is still incredibly hot when you pull it out. Do not touch the heated pan before it’s plunged into cold water.

See our article Varroa Mites: A Complete Treatment Guide for more information on oxalic acid and other options.

Heat Exhaustion And Dehydration

Physical exertion on hot, incredibly humid days may cause heat exhaustion, a condition where the body cannot cool itself. Dehydration often accompanies and worsens the situation.

If not dealt with properly, heat exhaustion can lead to heatstroke, an emergency condition that can lead to severe complications or even death.

Beekeeping work often occurs in the hot and humid conditions that can lead to these issues.

The symptoms of heat exhaustion include, among other things:

  • Cramps
  • Excessive sweating
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Headache

If you experience the symptoms of heat exhaustion:

  • Stop working and get to a cooler location.
  • Rest.
  • Drink water or something with electrolytes like sports drinks.

See the Mayo Clinic website for more details on heat exhaustion and heatstroke.

Steps To Prevent Heat Exhaustion

When beekeeping on hot, humid days:

  • Wear light clothing. Consider ventilated bee suits like the very popular Ultra Breeze suits.
  • Stay hydrated. Take some water to the beeyard.
  • Avoid beekeeping on sweltering and humid days, if possible.
  • Avoid alcohol, which is probably good advice for beekeeping even on any day.
  • Be aware if you take any medications that increase your risk of heat exhaustion.
  • Pace yourself.

Improper Use Of Chemicals

Treatments for certain diseases and parasites (notably, varroa mites) often entail using either synthetic or organic chemicals.

Be sure to follow all the manufacturer’s instructions for safety. Make sure you have the proper protective equipment.

Do not be fooled by the classification of a chemical as organic. Organic substances can be hazardous in certain forms and concentrations.

Beekeeper Isolation

Beekeeping is often a solitary pursuit.

Even though Melanie and I share beekeeping duties, I am often in the beeyard alone. Melanie may not even be at home.

If you keep bees in an outyard, away from home, you are even more likely to be isolated.

Isolated, no one is there to assist you if something goes wrong. Isolation makes it more important to pay attention to your surroundings, your body’s behavior and avoid injury.

It’s good practice to let someone know your plans. Keep a cell phone handy for emergencies.

Conclusion

The point of the preceding information is not to make beekeeping sound like a high-risk, dangerous venture. It is not.

Be aware of certain hazards that exist. Exercise common sense, take necessary precautions, and follow instructions. Don’t take foolish risks you wouldn’t take in any other activity.

Just remember. No matter what precautions you take, you will get stung. Did I mention that?

Additional Reading

Safe beekeeping practices from Agriculture Victoria

Catch The Buzz – Heat Stroke And Heat Exhaustion. Know The Symptoms, Know The Treatment in Bee Culture Magazine


[1] QuickStats: Number of Deaths from Hornet, Wasp, and Bee Stings, Among Males and Females — National Vital Statistics System, United States, 2000–2017. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2019;68:649. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm6829a5

[2] Wiwatwongwana D, Jariyapan N, Wiwatwongwana A. Eyelid Bee Sting With Late Migration Onto the Cornea After Primary Removal: The Mystery of the Bee Stinger. Arch Ophthalmol. 2012;130(3):392–393. doi:10.1001/archopthalmol.2011.1796

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