If you’ve bought, or even looked at buying, a beekeeping suit, you have probably noticed a pattern emerging – almost all bee suits are white. So why do beekeepers wear white, instead of other colors? The answer is quite simple.
Beekeeping suits are white because it makes them less likely to be attacked by bees. Most animals that steal honey from bees have dark-colored fur, typically black, brown, or grey. These include bears, birds, skunks, and raccoons, among others. Bees sometimes mistake someone wearing dark-colored clothing for a predator and are therefore more likely to attack them than a person covered in white.
Honey Bees See Colors Differently to Humans
In 1914, Nobel Prize-winning scientist Karl von Frisch proved that bees can see different colors. Like humans, bees are trichromatic. This means their vision is sensitive to three independent colors.
For humans, these three colors are blue, green, and red. Bees, on the other hand, base their colors on the green, blue, and ultraviolet light. This means that they do not possess a photoreceptor to see the color red. They can see different variations of red, however, such as orange and yellow.
Bees are also able to distinguish colors five times faster than humans. Their color vision is among the fastest in the world. They have a special ability to differentiate between individual flowers that might look the same color to us.
Why Bees Don’t Like Dark Colors
Like many insects, honey bees have evolved over the years. In order to be able to defend their hive, they have developed a keen awareness of common predators who are likely to attack their hive to steal honey. These predators can vary greatly, depending on the country. However, common threats include bears, birds, skunks, raccoons, and mice.
The one thing all these animals have in common is that they are primarily covered in dark fur or feathers. While this varies from animal to animal, they are typically black, brown or grey.
In the past, my bees have had problems with Australian magpies, black and white birds well-known for their territorial behavior during the breeding season. I have seen them sitting outside the hive entrance, picking off the occasional bee as they return from collecting pollen. I’ve had to shoo the magpies away multiple times, as they aren’t easily discouraged. Fortunately, they didn’t take very many bees out of the many thousands there are in the hive!
Because bees have come to associate dark colors with predators, they are more likely to become aggressive and sting you if you wear dark clothing. Whether it’s black, grey, brown, or dark blue, it’s best not to wear dark colors when going near your hive.
I’ve even read stories of beekeepers wearing white bee suits with dark lettering on the back only to have bees fly around and attack the lettering! So opt for light colors, and remove any black accessories such as watches or jewelry. It’s also a good idea not to have a strong-smelling deodorant, perfume, or aftershave as bees may react negatively to the aroma.
The importance of wearing white is especially true when inspecting your hive, as bees are more likely to become defensive and sting while you’re doing this. Beekeeping suits are usually loose-fitting and are often made using multi-layers of fabric, so they will provide sound protection if a bee tries to sting you through the material.
White Reflects the Sunlight and Keeps You (Relatively) Cool
When you spend a few hours wearing a beekeeping suit, you’ll quickly realize why some beekeepers choose not to wear one – being entirely covered from head to toe in clothing can make you feel quite hot. This is especially true of beekeepers in warmer climates.
Fortunately, most bee suits are completely white – and white is the best color you can wear when it’s hot because it reflects the sunlight. So, if you think it’s warm in a white beekeeping suit, you could only imagine how stifling it must be to wear a dark one.
Most beekeeping suits are also made from cotton, which is relatively lightweight and breathable. I find the material, combined with the white color, make it comfortable enough to inspect a hive anytime. I also recommend having a few breathable and low-maintenance pieces of clothing to wear under the suit so you can maximize your comfort.
Do You Really Need To Wear a White Bee Suit?
I almost always use a beekeeping suit because it offers one-piece coverage and it keeps my regular clothes clean from wax and honey. I feel confident knowing that I’m completely protected from head to toe. Before inspecting the hive I check that I’ve completely closed all the zips and fasteners, as you’d be surprised how the girls seem to find even the tiniest opening to enter uninvited.
However, as I mentioned earlier, not everyone likes wearing a suit. Even though they are white, they can become quite hot and bothersome. Other people find them uncomfortable and don’t believe the extra protection is worth it. I’m not very tall, so even the smallest-sized beekeeping suit is too big for me, and it’s not entirely easy to walk around in for an extended period.
Beekeeping suits can also be quite expensive, especially when added to the other start-up costs involved (though long-sleeved beekeeping tops are available at a cheaper rate). If you are new to beekeeping and haven’t bought a hive yet, you may want to wear alternative attire until you’re certain about taking it up as a hobby.
While I find most people who try beekeeping enjoy it, it’s not for everyone. So if you are just helping out friends or other part-time beekeepers in your area to get a feel for things, I’d suggest you hold off on investing in a full suit.
In saying that, I’d still recommend purchasing at least a hat and veil, and gloves. Angry, protective honey bees will often attack the face, and this part of your body is more sensitive than others. I can say from first-hand experience this can be very painful. One sting on my eyelid left my face incredibly red and swollen for several days.
As your hands are delving into the hive you want to protect them too. Rubber washing-up gloves are okay to use if you have them, but good beekeeping gloves give you more sensitivity and dexterity when manipulating the hive components. They offer more protection too as they are long enough to extend past your elbows.
A hat and veil are inexpensive and provide excellent protection, and they give you added confidence. Just don’t forget to tuck the veil into your shirt. Otherwise, bees can find their way under the veil looking for their hive, and this can be quite scary!
What Colors To Wear To Avoid Bees
If you aren’t wearing a suit, there are a few pieces of advice I can offer regarding alternative clothing. For starters, you should avoid dark colors such as black, brown, and grey. I find bright clothing attracts the attention of bees as well. Research by scientists suggests that bees are most likely to be attracted to purple, violet, and blue.
Taking all this into account, the best choices are neutral tones. If you have white, that’s perfect. But other pale colors, such as beige, cream, and tan should be fine too. These colors blend in with the background and make bees less likely to notice you.
From time to time my husband helps me while I’m inspecting the hive. When he does, he wears my spare hat and veil, along with light blue jeans, a white shirt, and white gloves. The white gloves are important. When inspecting the hive, you’re more likely to be stung on your hands, as this is the part of your body with which you will be disturbing the colony.
My husband usually tucks the shirt into his jeans, and the veil into his shirt. This makes the covering continuous and prevents bees from getting inside.
Does the Type of Material Matter as Well as the Color?
As well as color, bees will react to certain types of material. Bees have a strong sense of smell. Clothes made from wool or other animal fibers can cause bees to think that animals are nearby and trigger a defense response. That’s why it’s best to wear plant-based materials or synthetic fibers, such as cotton or nylon.
Remember, bees also react to strong smells such as perfume, deodorant, body odor, alcohol, or even clothing washed with fragranced detergents and softeners. Eliminating these smells will help minimize the chances of triggering bees when you are close.
Bees associate dark colors with predators. While not completely eliminating the possibility, wearing a white beekeeping suit will decrease your chance of being stung by a bee. If you don’t have a suit, opt for light, neutral tones, and always wear gloves and a hat and veil to protect your hands and face.