bee stories

Stickier than honey

Someday I’m going to quit beekeeping so I can have clothes without propolis. I’m serious. Luckily, clothes have never been very important to me—jeans and a tee and I’m good to go. But once in awhile I’d like them to be clean enough so people in the shops wouldn’t squint at me and try to figure out the source of the god-awful glob on my shoulder. I see them wrinkle up and move further away, trying to pretend they’re not. I can see they imagine something way worse than propolis.

Every time I work the bees, I start out by believing I can stay clean. But it never works. Today, for example, was typical.

It was fifty-some degrees outside, a perfect day for checking the hives. All I had to do was make sure everyone was well fed. I wasn’t worried about my fairly new sweatshirt because I wore a grubby jacket that would protect my clothes.

I went through all the hives, delivering a sugar patty here and there. All was fine until the very last hive. I was closing it up when I felt something strange on my neck. I was wearing a veil, so I snugged up a little on the draw string. In retrospect, my neck was inside the veil so anything creeping across it was already there. But I cinched it up anyway.

I snatched up my bucket and began walking home. About ten feet from the hive, I got nailed in the armpit. Yow-eee! Searing, burning pain came from under my coat, under my sweatshirt, under my turtleneck. How anything got in there, I have no idea. I tried to ignore it. I see beekeepers all the time, and they all ignore it. I know they’re faking, but I try to do the same.

About fifty yards further down the path, the pain intensified, so I twisted the fabric to kill the evil-doer. I got to thinking, what if it wasn’t a bee? What if it was, say, a spider? That made the pain even worse. Finally, I couldn’t stand having it in my clothes. Dropping bucket, hive tool, some frames, and the few remaining patties, I decided to get rid of it.

It was all that frantic disrobing in the woods that got propolis on my sweatshirt and turtleneck. Both! I don’t know where it came from, maybe my hands, the hive tool, the frames. Who knows? But regardless of where it had been, it was now on yet another set of clothes. The indignity of the sting—although red and swollen the size of a orange—was nothing compared to the smudges of stupidity all over my clothes.

Back at the house I got out my trusty bottle of Everclear and cleaned the propolis as best I could. Most of it came out, but “most” is the operative word. If worse comes to worst, I suppose I could just drink the Everclear and then maybe I wouldn’t notice the stains or the prissy little soccer moms that stare at me in the grocery store.

But would I really trade clean clothes for a life without bees? Well, maybe not quite yet.



  • I have “bee” clothes for that very reason.

    I know you don’t like bee suits, but I’m still a newbie keeper so I wear a jacket and still use gloves. I’ve actually gotten stung through the gloves, but they’ve saved me more times than they’ve failed me. So I keep wearing them.

    For the lower extremities, I usually wear jeans and then sweat pants over them with the elastic ends on the legs so I don’t get surprises up the leg. I got stung on the Achilles heel once so I now wear thick socks. So far that’s working to keep the stingers away.

    The bad part about this outfit is I live in Georgia and inspections are often in the Summer. Yeah it’s hot, but I can deal with the heat. What I’m still trying to figure out is how to deal with the back fatigue…and this past year I only had 2 hives and was wore out after a deep-hive inspection of them. I’ve expanded the apiary to hold an additional 2. I’m not sure how well my back’s going to deal with inspecting 4 hives. I might just have to do more inspections, just 2 hives at a time. I don’t see how people with a dozen+ hives do it. Anybody willing to share their secrets?

    • We switched to all medium boxes, and 8-frame, to reduce the weights involved. If we’re removing a honey-filled super, I take out some frames first – those are crazy heavy! I keep an extra box or two nearby and transfer the frames there as I remove them for inspection.

      Also, our hives are on a platform about 20″ high. This helps with the continual bending problem.

  • Oh, I so relate! I have WAY too many items of clothing with that baby-poo yellow/orange propolis blotching. I can never get it out!

  • Regarding back pain, I have come across 3 concepts that make sense to me. Unfortunately 2 of them may require significant re-investment. I wish I had learned of these ideas before setting up my apiary. I will be doing no. 3 below this spring. And I think I have enough woodenware to set up 1 all-medium hive when I replace the dead-out chronicled elsewhere on this site. The other hive will have to wait. I imagine a top bar in the offing in a few years.

    1) Switch over to all medium boxes. When they are full of honey, pollen,and brood, they will weigh as much as 1/3 less than deeps.

    2) Switch to top-bar hives.

    3) Raise your Langs off the ground with a rail system so you don’t have to bend over as far. I started with a pallet on the ground, and once the hives grew in size, the job was way too big to undertake.

  • I can really identify with the awful suspicion that it might be a spider. Give me a box of grumpy bees over one of the many-legged ones any day.

    • Emily,

      In the winter I always find big black spiders under the lid. There were a lot yesterday, and I was flicking them away with my hive tool. I forgot about them until I got stung/bit. The welt was huge but I never did find the culprit, so I’m still not sure what got me.

  • It’s the gardener’s lament as well…I’m perfectly happy in my grubby, highly functional clothes, until I have to go to town…then I feel like a ragamuffin!

    • Bill,

      I do. Since I fear it, it seems to happen all the time, like a self-fulfilling prophesy. It started when I was a kid on a swing: a wasp flew under my shirt and stung me on the stomach. I was screaming and frantic and fell off the swing and practically killed myself. Stings on exposed skin don’t bother me, but stings under my clothes give me adrenalin overload. It borders on psychosis.

  • My very few “good clothes” stay way back in the closet on beekeeping days. My “jacket” is a boys’ size 12 shirt in a quiet blue stripe and my bee pants are old bleached-out khakis with socks cuffed up over them. And the smell of propolis which never quite washes out, has become as comforting as that of barn.

    But it’s tiring, explaining it to the smart, helpful young men whose job is to un-jam digital camera lenses. Honey, they’ve heard of: wax, they’ve heard of: propolis, they think I’m making it up.

    Shady Grove Farm
    Corinth, KY

    • I’m glad I’m not the only one to have to explain why the camera needs cleaning. My turn comes next week and I’m looking forward to it as a way to educate them on bees.

  • We have 3 plus feet of snow on the east coast of Canada and more coming today so I am envious of your 50 degree days. My husband and I are new bee keepers without a lot of capital so are using the $4.00 (Canadian $) painter suits. We used two each this past year and love the idea of no washing. The bees did not sting through the thin material and with a veil, we were safe. As for, the sore and tired backs, using a bee stand (16″ height) did help but my husband has decided to go with bottom deep and mediums on top. I have been stung under my clothes just walking around the property, not near the bee yard. Never a pretty site.

  • I’m SUUUUPPPERRRRR new to beekeeping, but I am quickly falling in love with it. I love vising the bees and reading your blog. So, I have a few questions …… 1. what does propolis smell like? I’ve had my hive for three weeks now. I notice a new smell when I go inspect it. Bees seem happy and working hard.
    2. I have not gotten stung yet. I’m way more afraid of my electric bear fence, which has zapped me numerous times. Am I doing something wrong? Should I be opening my hive to inspect just yet? Bees seem happy and are draining my feeder regularly.
    3. Slugs …… ugghh slug ……. they are starting to slime all over my hive! I remove them (ok, forcefully throwing them in the woods) as much as I can, but will they harm my bees?
    Thanks for your blog,I LOVE it!! And in advance, for your advice!!

    • Michelle,

      What does propolis smell like? That’s a good question. To me it smells a bit like wood, probably because it is often made from tree sap. It is hard to describe bee hive smell, but be sure to read: That busy beehive smell. It’s the best I can do.

      You asked if you are doing something wrong. Do you mean because you haven’t gotten stung or because you’re getting zapped by the bear fence? Couldn’t tell what you mean. You can inspect if you want, and take the opportunity to look for eggs, larvae, and capped brood. They probably are doing fine, but being new, it is probably a good time to take a look.

      I have slugs too. I just flick them away with a stick. The ones I have like to slime up the front of the hive, but I’ve never seen one actually go inside. I wouldn’t worry about them.

      Does anyone else out there have slug advice?

      • Yes!! Got it. I read your “smell” and it’s as you described. Thank you!! I work in a hospital (the OR) and smell lots of different smells (that usually mean something bad), so I got worried (infection). But it’s like wood, it’s soft, it’s natural, and now know it’s happy, and yes, your should wear it as perfume (my husband’s nose has not detected it quite yet). Thanks for the info.
        As for the bear fence, I’m dumb and keep shocking myself. I just haven’t gotten stung yet, but I also have not opened my hive, and I don’t want to disturb their fascinating work. I have hardly donned my bee suit yet. So, the “am I doing something wrong” was in refernce to the stings. I’m certain it will happen. I’m also certain I will dislike the shock from the fence MORE. I hope the bears feel the same. Thanks for your advice!!

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.