Category Archives: Protective

Ouch, that hurt

If you keep bees you’ll inevitably get stung.

Not necessarily often and not necessarily badly, but getting stung goes with the territory.

You’ll probably get stung more often if your bees are stroppy, or if you are clumsy. But even if you’re careful and the bees are calm there’s always the chance of being stung.

I moved a very feisty colony late one evening last week 1. The hive was sealed, moved and re-located to an out apiary. Knowing they were, er, rather temperamental I let them settle for 15 minutes, then gently lifted the entrance block.

Out they boiled … as I beat a very hasty retreat ūüôĀ

I thought I’d got away with it, but driving home 20 minutes later I was stung on the ankle by a stowaway in my boot.

Ouch! That hurt.

I’ve only been stung a few times all season. Most didn’t hurt much at the time and were forgotten within minutes. That sting on the ankle¬†hurt like hell and was sore for a further 48 hours.

Why does it hurt when you’re stung? Furthermore, assuming stings are inevitable, which parts of the body hurt¬†more when stung … and so deserve additional protection?

Why do bee stings hurt?

The honey bee sting is a hollow barbed tube used to deliver the venom. About 50% of bee venom by weight is the small protein mellitin.

It’s fair to say that mellitin is small but potent. It’s only 26 amino acids 2 long and forms a tetramer in aqueous solution. The ‘noughts and crosses’ shape it adopts hides the hydrophobic parts of the peptide and therefore allows it to ‘dissolve’ in venom. However, the tetramer dissociates at or near cell membranes into which monomeric mellitin embeds itself.

Mellitin

Mellitin

And this is where the pain and damage start …

Membrane-association causes cell lysis 3. This results in the release of all sorts of cytokines from the cells which signal ‘damage’ to the body, leading to the inflammatory response usually associated with bee stings. That’s the long-term effect of a bee sting. However, simultaneously, mellitin triggers the expression of proteins known as sodium channels in pain receptor cells. These allow large amounts of sodium to flow across the membrane. It is this that is directly responsible for the pain sensation when you are stung.

So, if being stung is almost inevitable and if bees have evolved stings to cause pain (which they have), in which parts of the body is the pain sensation most marked?

Measuring pain

Pain is a subjective response.¬†What’s painful to me might hardly be noticed by someone with a higher pain threshold. Two individuals receiving the same sensory input can experience very different sensory responses 4.

As an aside it’s well documented that there are differences in the pain felt by males and females 5. All the pain reported in this article is from studies – or personal experience – by males.

Therefore, to meaningfully determine how much pain a sting causes, from a particular insect or at a particular location for example, it’s essential that the studies are properly controlled. This includes taking account of variation between individuals and variation within an individual on a day to day basis.

These are not the sorts of studies that attract large numbers of volunteers ūüėČ

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the scientific work in this field is often published in single author papers in which the author alone is the ‘volunteer’.

The Schmidt Sting Pain Index

Before discussing honey bees specifically a brief diversion must be made to introduce the seminal studies by Justin Schmidt.

Schmidt is an entomologist at the Carl Hayden Bee Research Centre in Arizona. He’s interested in haemolysis (the cell lysis caused by mellitin and other constituents of insect venom) and whether the evolution of sociality in hymenopterans (bees, ant and wasps) required the evolution of toxic and painful stings.

Over about twenty years Justin Schmidt published a number of papers on hymenopteran venoms and the pain that they cause. In his early papers he rated stings on a scale of 1 – 4 (actually 0 upwards, but 0 was totally painless to humans).

Only a very few insects scored 4, including bullet ants¬†about which Schmidt comments “Paraponera clavata stings induced immediate, excruciating pain and numbness to pencil-point pressure, as well as trembling in the form of a totally uncontrollable urge to shake the affected part“.

You can’t fault his commitment, but you might question his sanity.

Schmidt published his¬†magnum opus in 1990 in which he ranked stings by 78 hymenopteran species covering 41 genera 6. His descriptions of the pain induced are often entertaining. ¬†The aforementioned bullet ant is “pure, intense, brilliant pain…like walking over flaming charcoal with a three-inch nail embedded in your heel“.

Another sting scoring 4, that of Synoeca septentrionalis (the warrior wasp) is accompanied by the statement “Torture. You are chained in the flow of an active volcano. Why did I start this list?”.

Why indeed?

Standing on the shoulders of giants

Bees and wasps scored 2 on the Schmidt Sting Pain Index. What Schmidt didn’t investigate was the influence of the¬†location of the sting on the pain experienced.

Which brings me to Michael Smith. In 2014 Smith published an entertaining paper entitled¬†Honey bee sting pain index by body location. It’s published in the journal¬†PeerJ and the full paper is available for¬†download.

It’s a well controlled study written in an engaging style that most readers will appreciate.

Building on the landmark studies by Schmidt, Michael Smith rated the pain endured from honey bee stings in 25 different locations.

Some of these locations should really be protected with a bee suit.

Sting locations tested

Sting locations tested

Smith controlled the study by always including an “internal control”¬†i.e. comparing two test locations with three stings to his forearm.

Every time.

All locations were tested in triplicate (randomly). This meant that Smith was stung a minimum of five times for 38 consecutive days. Ouch.

There are some excellent quotes in the paper … “Some locations required the use of a mirror and an erect posture during stinging (e.g., buttocks)“. Scientists involved in studies that require ethical approval will appreciate the comments made in the paper on self-experimentation.

And the results? To quote directly from the paper “The three least painful locations were the skull, middle toe tip, and upper arm (all scoring a 2.3). The three most painful locations were the nostril, upper lip, and penis shaft (9.0, 8.7, and 7.3, respectively)” 7.¬†Interestingly, skin thickness did not correlate with the pain experienced.

My experience of stings is limited. Those I’ve had to the face (including the lower lip) have been relatively painless, but the subsequent inflammatory response has been dramatic. Smith only scored immediate pain … I think a follow-up study on inflammation and its duration is needed.

I’m not going to conduct it.

Points pain means prizes

You can’t fault the dedication shown by Justin Schmidt and Michael Smith 8. That sort of dedication should be recognised with prizes and honours.

And it was.

Schmidt and Smith shared the 2015 Ig Nobel prize for Physiology and Entomology. The Ig Nobels – a parody of the Nobel prizes – recognise unusual or trivial achievements in scientific research.

The list of Ig Nobel prizes awarded is eclectic and highly entertaining … Medicine (2013) “for treating “uncontrollable” nosebleeds, using the method of nasal-packing-with-strips-of-cured-pork“, Economics (2005) for¬†the inventors of “Clocky, an alarm clock that runs away and hides, repeatedly, thus ensuring that people get out of bed, and thus theoretically adding many productive hours to the workday” and Psychology (1995)¬†for “their success in training pigeons to discriminate between the paintings of Picasso and those of Monet9.

Sir Andre Geim received the Physics Ig Nobel in 2000 for levitating a frog by magnetism. Yes, really. Ten years later he was awarded the Nobel prize in Physics for his studies on graphene. He’s the only holder of a Nobel and Ig Nobel.

Marc Abrahams, the founder of the Ig Nobel awards, regularly tours giving talks on Improbable Research and the Ig Nobel prizes.

Go if you get the chance … it’s highly entertaining.


 

 

Shelter from the storm

The new bee shed is in an apiary with space for about a dozen additional hives around it. The apiary is fenced and heavily sheltered from cold easterly winds by a convenient strip of woodland. However, the site is open and exposed to westerlies. These can whip in across the fields and their impact is exacerbated by the apiary being elevated on a small mound a few feet above the low lying – and often flooded – adjacent land.

Laden foragers returning ...

Laden foragers returning …

The bees occupying the hives in the shed are protected from the full force of the westerlies by the shed itself, which is angled slightly to deflect the wind. However, those outside in the apiary get the full impact, and the wire mesh security fencing provides no shelter.

We’ve had one summer gale that lifted a few polystyrene hive roofs and caused a bit of damage. Better preparation might have prevented this; I should have heeded the weather forecast and strapped the hives to the stands.

Inspection deflection

The major problem isn’t gales though. Instead, it’s the impact of the wind on returning foragers and the irritation it causes the bees during inspections on a blustery day.

Several of the hives face west so the bees often approach the entrance downwind. They can get a real buffeting and often have to make repeated crash-landings and attempts to reach the hive entrance.

A small mound of earth ...

A small mound of earth …

In marginal weather or on a cold day some inevitably get chilled and don’t make it back. The apiary has a compacted hardcore base and – unlike long grass – it’s easy to spot the bees ‘lost in action’.

Hive inspections are conducted from behind the hive. On a windy day – and it’s not always possible to inspect on calm days – the bees can show their disapproval when the crownboard is lifted. They’re not really aggressive, but can be a bit surly and are certainly less appreciative of the disturbance than those inside the shed.

It has become obvious that some additional shelter is needed.

Shelter belt

Herbage

Herbage

As a long-term solution we’ve planted a double row of mixed native hedging plants (predominantly blackthorn but with a smattering of hazel, crab apples and dogwoods) mixed 1:2 with goat willow (Salix caprea). The latter is fast-growing and provides excellent early-season pollen at a time when colonies need it for brood rearing.

We planted 60-80cm ‘whips’, cut them back to ~35cm, wrapped them in perforated spirals to deter the rabbits and pretty-much left them to it. We’ve had a dry summer so have inevitably lost a few 1. However, the majority are now at or well above the spirals.

We didn’t – but should have – used old carpet tiles or cardboard squares as a weed suppressor around each plant. This was due to lack of preparation on the day and lack of organisation subsequently. The plants would undoubtedly have done better if they’d been given a bit of help competing with the surrounding weeds.

The intention will be to cut this hedging back so that it provides a light screen and an abundance of pollen, rather than letting it develop into an impenetrable barrier around the apiary.

We’ll let it grow for another couple of years and then start staggered pruning as required.

In addition, and a little further from the apiary, we planted more willow which we’ll allow to grow larger – though probably still coppice it periodically. This will help landscape the otherwise rather unattractive earth mound and help it merge better with the trees to the east.

Windbreak

Although willow is relatively fast-growing, it’s not fast enough to provide protection from this autumn’s westerlies. Using the security fence as a support we’ve therefore installed a 2m high netting windbreak around part of the apiary.

Windbreak netting

Windbreak netting …

This netting was easily ‘zip’-tied to the fencing and is claimed to reduce windspeed on the lee side by 50%. From the outside – see above – it’s a bit of an eyesore. This is partly because the viewpoint is oblique and partly because it’s viewed against a dark backdrop.

And partly because it’s a bit ugly ūüėČ

However, from inside the apiary – which is where I usually view things from – it’s far less obvious. We’ve had no strong winds since installing it but even with gentle westerlies the initial impression, in terms of the shelter provided, is positive. We’ll see how it performs in the winter gales.

Now you see me, now you don't ...

Now you see me, now you don’t …

The netting has the added advantage of forcing all the bees ‘up and over’ as they exit the apiary, making them even less of a problem to passers-by 2. The security fencing has ~15x5cm rectangular ‘holes’ in it and already forced most of the bees to fly above head height, but the addition of the netting reroutes them all.

I’ve previously discussed urban beekeeping¬†and suggested engineering the flight lines of foragers by facing the hives up against a fence. As an alternative I’ve seen hives in a back garden encircled by a tall mesh net 3 that forced the bees up about ten feet before they set off foraging.

In that situation the net is present to protect the people outside.¬†In my apiary it’s there to protect the bees inside … until the hedge grows.

The view from the west ...

The view from the west …


Colophon

Shelter from the storm is the title of track on the 1975 studio album Blood on the Tracks¬†by Bob Dylan – Nobel Prize in Literature 2016 and University of St Andrews Honorary Doctorate in Music 2004. Widely regarded as being one of his greatest albums 4 it has been interpreted as recounting the turmoil in his life due to estrangement from his wife Sara. Although – perhaps inevitably – Bob Dylan has denied this, his son Jacob said it was¬†“my¬†parents talking”.

Two out of three ain’t bad

Beehives are full of things that get all over your hands – honey, propolis and bees. Most beekeepers therefore wear gloves.

Gloves provide protection from the sticky stuff that’s easy to remove (honey), the sticky stuff that is both hard to remove and gets everywhere else (propolis) and the sticking of stings into your delicate digits by the bees.

How to get stung

Perhaps surprisingly – at least for beginners – protection from stings is probably the least important thing that gloves provide.

Gauntlets

Gauntlets …

Surely not? What about those huge leather welders gauntlets? Thick impenetrable leather, heavily stitched seams along the sides of the fingers, protection up to the elbows. You’re certainly not going feel the stings through those.

Yes … but you will get stung.

You’ll get stung because you’ll have¬†“hands like feet” as my graduate students used to say of my laboratory skills. You will have little manual dexterity, no real tactile ability and – probably – poor grip as the leather becomes hardened with age.

You’re like a brain surgeon wearing mittens.

Consequently, the bees will sting the gloves (but not you) as you fumble about handling the frames, inadvertently squashing bees under your fingers, or the frame lugs. The alarm pheromone released will agitate the colony and you – or rather the gloves – will get stung again. And again.

What’s more, unless you carefully wash the gauntlets between inspections, the lingering alarm pheromone will agitate the next colony you inspect … before you’ve even had an opportunity to squash a few more bees.

How not to get stung

Paradoxically, I think the best way to avoid being stung is to use thin gloves. You’ll have better grip, much better dexterity and a hugely enhanced tactile awareness of what’s happening in and around your fingers.

You’ll be able to feel individual bees. Unsurprisingly, they buzz in an agitated way if you start to squash them. You probably won’t hear it above the noise of her 25,000 half-sisters that are also in the hive.

But you’ll feel it.

Consequently, you’ll be able to move your fingers slightly, allowing the bee to move before you lower the frame back into position.

Thin gloves aren’t enough

Of course, the other two things that help you not get stung is having well-tempered bees and learning how to carefully inspect a colony. These points should be self-evident. If your bees are naturally belligerent or you bash the frames about clumsily you are much more likely to get stung.

The combination of thin gloves, gentle bees and good beekeeping makes weekly inspections a real pleasure … for you and the bees 1.

Marigolds

Marigold gloves

Marigold gloves …

Standard washing up gloves provide a good combination of protection and sensitivity. Buy them so they’re a reasonably snug fit. I usually buy the bright yellow “Extra Life” kitchen gloves which you can find for less than ¬£2 a pair. With care and with minimal washing they’ll last half a season. Of course, there are hundreds of alternative kitchen ‘rubber’ gloves. Try several. I like the makes with the rolled cuff as they don’t ride down my arm as much, so protecting that super-sensitive (to stings) wrist area. The Lidl ones I’ve tried lack this rolled cuff and were a poor fit.

I strongly advise you do not buy the Marigold Extra Tough outdoor gloves. Yes, they’re thicker and so provide even more protection. But that extra thickness markedly reduces sensitivity. More importantly, they’re black so your hands look like the paws of a bear and the bees will give you a hammering anyway ūüėČ

Bees can sting through standard Marigolds. However, the sting cannot usually get embedded into your skin. Consequently, you feel a tiny pinprick – a reminder that you’ve been a bit clumsy perhaps – but little else.

Nitrile and latex gloves

Nitriles ...

Nitriles …

Even better in terms of sensitivity are gloves made from latex or nitrile. These are very thin, provide excellent grip and still give some protection. Powder free nitrile are probably to be preferred as repeated use of latex gloves can lead to allergic reactions.

You can buy long cuff nitrile gloves in boxes of 50 or 100 for about £10 per hundred, or much cheaper if you arrange to buy in bulk through your association.

Do buy the long cuff versions. Some of the nitrile gloves sold through beekeeping suppliers are short cuff (and are much more expensive per pair if bought in small amounts). The longer cuffs pull over the cuffs of your beesuit and protect your wrists.

Nitrile gloves can be reused time and again, though they’re much less resilient than Marigolds. They eventually lose their slight stretch and either go super-baggy at the wrist, or you pull your hand through the glove when putting them on.

Propolis, apiary hygiene and sweat

Gloves get dirty. Propolis gets caked on the outside and, particularly on a sweltering hot midsummer day, you’ll fill them with sweat if you use them for prolonged periods. I rinse them in washing soda solution after use and then turn them inside-out to dry … usually stuffed into my beesuit pocket or dropped in the bee bag.

I use separate pairs for each apiary, not each hive. This probably isn’t ideal in terms of apiary hygiene, but I rationalise it because I’m aware of the very high level of drifting of bees between adjacent colonies.

It’s also much, much more difficult to pull on a new pair of nitriles if your hands are soaking wet with sweat … so not changing them is also a pragmatic decision.

If they’re heavily soiled with propolis it’s probably best to simply chuck them out, though you can freeze them and then easily peel it away.

Psycho bees

I’ve never worn gauntlets for beekeeping. I’ve tried them on many times. Since I can’t easily pick up a pen wearing them I’m not going to try picking up a frame by the lugs. In contrast, with nitriles you can easily pick up the queen, for example for marking. You can also usually pick her up with a bit of care when wearing Marigolds.

So, if thin gloves provide sensitivity with protection, what about the rare times when you want protection with protection? The times when the colony are truly psychotic.

Not my bees of course ūüėČ

What about the colony you’re asked to requeen for a nervous beekeeper? The colony that dive bombs you from across the garden. The colony you’ve been warned is a bit ‘hot’. The colony you’ve donned a thick fleece under your beesuit for.

The colony that goes absolutely postal when you lift the crownboard 2.

Under these circumstances I simply wear two pairs of Marigolds. I’ve never needed anything more. They’re effectively impenetrable to stings.


Colophon

Bat out of hell

Bat out of hell

Two out of three ain’t bad is a track by Meat Loaf from his 1977 album Bat out of hell. It seemed appropriate as two of the three types of gloves described “ain’t bad”.¬†Bat out of hell, the first of a trilogy of albums that together have sold more than 50 million copies, was a collaboration between Meat Loaf and the lyricist Jim Steinman. It was produced by Todd Rundgren. It’s a great album to crank up loud and sing (badly) to driving back late at night from beekeeping talks.

 

Thumb loops

My first beesuit was bought from BBwear. It’s still going strong. It lacks a bit of sartorial elegance these days – it’s¬†got holes in some¬†pockets, the hive tool pocket is ripped beyond use, the elasticated leg bottoms are no longer elasticated and the entire thing is mottled¬†with wax and propolis stains.

It’s been through the washing machine countless¬†times and it’s got lots of life in it yet.

BBwear suits

BBwear suits …

Since that first suit I’ve bought many more. All are from BBwear. All are as well made and look to be as hard wearing. Their BB2 jacket is particularly good and the one I use for most apiary visits. I’ve stuck with BBWear as I’ve been pleased with the product and the service. Many have been bought for work – for trips to¬†Varroa-free regions or¬†for apiary visitors – and Belinda¬†at BBWear has always given us a good deal and quick delivery. We now have a good range of colours in the work apiary; apricot, denim, cerise (or cerese as BBwear list it) and the more conventional – less lurid – white or¬†sage.

Good but not perfect

S t r e t c h e d ...

S t r e t c h e d …

However, all the suits and jackets (at least those I own, which include BB1, BB2 and BB101) have a design flaw. The thumb loop‚Ć elastic isn’t great quality and soon ¬†s ¬†t ¬†r ¬†e ¬†t ¬†c ¬†h ¬†e ¬†s. These thumb loops are designed to prevent¬†the cuff of the suit from riding up your arm. If it does it leaves a tempting little gap at your wrist for any bees to take out their irritation on. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a gloves ‘over’ or ‘under’ (the cuff) beekeeper … without using the thumb loops you’ll soon be waving¬†that little half-inch strip of oh-so-stingable wrist at your charges.

And it hurts (me) like hell if they target that little patch of tender skin on the inside of my wrist. Ouch.

Once the stretch is gone the temptation is to wind the elastic repeatedly round the thumb to take up the slack. Unless you’re careful, you’ll do this a bit too tight and then every time you’re at full-stretch the blood supply to your thumb is cut off. On a hot day, the relief of stripping off your perspiration-filled¬†gloves is almost matched by the relief of unwinding the elastic and letting the blood back into your thumb.

You then drive on to the next apiary and the dangling elastic¬†catches on the gearstick and the indicator stalk …

Replaceable elastic loops

In a new BBwear suit/jacket the elastic thumb loops are sewn directly onto the cuff (and it looks to me as though Sherriff suits are the same). Once mine are stretched beyond salvation I cut them off and replace them with a simple short loop of dacron (at least, I think it’s dacron … it’s a near indestructible manmade tape I had some spare bits of). My sewing skills are hopeless, but no-one who wears a beesuit for half the weekends a year cares much about appearances.

Ugly but functional ...

Ugly but functional …

With the dacron loop permanently fixed to the suit, it’s then a straightforward¬†matter to tie a loop of ‘knicker’ elastic in place using a¬†simple¬†overhand knot. This stuff is available inexpensively online. Once the elastic (inevitably) stretches just cut it off and replace it with another piece. No more accidental changing gear in the car¬†… no more atrophied thumbs due to restricted blood supply … and no more little strips of pale, tender flesh exposed.


† or should that be thumbloop?

 

Hopping mad

Stanley Rigger boots

Stanley Rigger boots …

Almost exactly a year ago¬†I recommended these rigger boots. I’d been using them for about six months and had been pleased with their fit and function. They’d been warm enough in the winter, strong enough to protect my toes from a carelessly dropped full super and easy to get on and off.

I spoke too soon.

Sometime this spring the lining on one boot worked loose. When I¬†tried to slip the boot off the lining remained trapped round my heel, necessitating some unbalanced hopping about while prising my heel free with my fingers. Now both linings have come adrift from the inside of the boot and it’s a real palaver¬†to get the damn things off. They remain comfortable, safe and secure, totally waterproof and easy to get on. They’re just nigh-on impossible to remove again.

Screwfix still supply these ‚Ķ my advice is to get something different and I’m now on the lookout for an alternative. Any suggestions?

Beekeeping footwear

Aigle Wellingtons

Hotfoot …

Until this season I’ve used a variety of beekeeping footwear. Other than for quickie inspections (using a jacket only) I usually wear a full suit and Wellington boots – waterproof, reasonably long in the leg, easy to tuck the beesuit into and, if you choose carefully, a grippy sole for wet grass or mud. Most recently these have been neoprene-lined Aigle boots. Although supremely comfortable they were far too warm to wear for summer inspections ‚Ķ with the beesuit suit tucked inside my feet and ankles would be soaked in sweat for the entire afternoon and they were a nightmare to remove if I needed to go in the house for the (inevitable) things I forgot. They were tight on the calves, which ensured they were completely bee proof, but this undoubtedly contributed to the overheating.

Stanley Rigger boots

Stanley Rigger boots …

I purchased a pair of Stanley Rigger boots in the Screwfix winter sale, paying about half the list price (¬£60 at time of writing). They have¬†thick dark brown leather uppers, are quite wide in the leg, comfortable enough to wear all day and have a sole with excellent grip. They are waterproof and – less usefully¬†– have an oil, chemical and heat resistant sole (!). Importantly, when you’re as forgetful as I am, they are pretty easy to slip on and off. They are shorter in the leg than most wellies, but are easily long enough to tuck the beesuit into. When walking in long wet grass – the sort of thigh-high stuff that seems to accumulate more that it’s fair share of rain or dew – your calves will get wet, but some of my apiaries are so overgrown this used to happen in wellies anyway. Although the leg width is generous I’ve had no problems with bees getting inside. The sole is reasonably broad, but driving isn’t a problem.

Fat calves?

Fat calves … ?

Note that the photograph on the Screwfix website of the boots ‘in use’ is clearly doctored (unless the wearer has spectacularly fat calves). Importantly – as I’ve recently discovered – these boots also have steel toe caps, so that when you drop a full super onto them from head¬†height you don’t damage anything other than the box.