The eventual goal for our homestead is to be as close to self-sustainable as possible. We’re still a long way off, so whenever we can, we try to introduce species that perform multiple tasks or that benefit the other species involved in our Food Web. Bees are a perfect example of this permaculture philosophy. Not only do we get the honey, which by itself is worth any work incurred by bee-keeping, but we also have access to wax and propolis, which are useful for all kinds of things. Then there’s the bees’ true role within the Web, that of pollinators for almost all of the plants that we and our animals rely on.
The sad part about bees is that they seem to be getting harder to keep. In recent years, almost all of our hives, and even a large portion of the wild ones we know of, have absconded, many even leaving behind brood and honey. So we’re trying to pander more to our bees, by increasing the flowers we have on our property with forest gardens, and adding to the property’s water storage (whether through ponds, cisterns, swales or organic matter in the soil). The aim is to provide such a lush environment here (where we know that chemicals are never used), that they won’t need to go elsewhere.
The other step we’re taking to hold on to the swarm we caught recently is to keep a closer eye on them and watch for any errant behavior. In doing so, we encountered an unexpected issue: our six year old’s fascination. As Leo gets older, his interest in natural sciences is becoming more acute. And with the bees, he begs to be able to go every time one of us suits up. So, we decided to make him his own bee suit.
During our bee experiences, we’ve found that a full suit isn’t necessary; if we hadn’t already bought two a long time ago, we wouldn’t be wearing them. The most important parts are the veil and gloves, beyond which you just need jeans and a long-sleeved shirt. However, seeing as Leo doesn’t really have any shirts that are of thick enough material, we figured a jacket would be a good idea. Also, for a six year old, standing patiently while you tie up all the bits and pieces of an adult veil is extremely hard, so we went ahead and made an all in one veil, mittens and jacket. All we have to do is slip it over his head and zip it up. It’s awesome, and he’s delighted that he gets to look at the bees up close.
You can make this project faster (but more expensive) by buying a thick shirt and wide-brimmed hat. You can then add the veil and mittens, and sew the zipper into place as described later.
Step 1: Tools and Materials
- 12” x 40” fine plastic screen (preferably black)
- 36” x 72” tight weave fabric (so bees can’t sting through it) - white is preferable
- 48” of foam backed cotton fabric
- 30” thin rope
- 18” open/jacket zipper
- Measuring tape
- Needle and thread
- Pins, de-seamer, etc.
- Sewing machine
Step 2: Cutting Jacket Panels
I used a shirt that is a size or two bigger than what Leo is wearing right now as a guide. You want the jacket to be big, so that it doesn’t press against the child’s body, making them vulnerable to bee stings; a little big will also make it fit for a couple of years before being passed on to the little brother. When making a new pattern, I usually tack things together and try them out on the subject, which is something I advise anyone to do.
Use a fabric that is a little stiff and of a tight weave. Again, this is as protection against bee stings. It’s also preferable to make the jacket cream or white, as beekeeping can get a little hot at times and the paler colors are cooler. I didn’t have enough of the thick cream fabric I used for the hat, so I made the jacket part out of denim.
Also, the arms include mittens on the ends of the wrists. You can make them into gloves if you wish, but mittens are easier to sew. Besides, our six year old isn’t going to be doing highly dextrous work while helping with the bees, he’ll be mainly watching and passing his dad tools.
For the following descriptions, it helps to look at the photos, to see the shapes involved.
- Cut the back panel a little larger than that of a shirt one or two sizes too big; the extra allows for a hem all the way around. I made mine 16.5” along the bottom, 12” from the bottom to the armpit, a curved line for each armpit that goes 1” in and 7” up, and the top part between shoulders is 14.5”.
- Cut two panels, as mirror images to each other, for the chest. The right-hand one is as follows: 9.5” along the bottom, 16” up the left-hand side to the collar, angle diagonally up to the top going 3” up and 4” over, go 3.5” horizontally, and then curve down across the armpit 1” over and 7” down, then 12” down to the bottom. The left-hand panel is the same except that you switch the armpit to the opposite side.
- Place your kid’s hand on a piece of paper or fabric, with his thumb sticking out, but the fingers together. Draw around the shape, with about 3/4” extra all the way around from wrist to wrist (I did a little too much, but it worked fine when I tested it, so I left it).
- Cut out half the shape: from the wrist, around the thumb, then over the top of the fingers and down a little on the other side (do not go past the fingernail on the little finger). Fold the part you’ve cut out along the line of the other side of the wrist and draw the thumb and top of fingers shape onto the rest of the fabric or paper. When it’s all cut out, you should have an “M” shape with thumbs sticking out on the side (or, if you’re six, looking down on someone sticking out their butt). This is the template you’ll use for the bottom of the jacket arm, so it might be a good idea to tack it together and try it on your baby bee-keeper.
- The arms of the jacket want to have this mitten shape on one end and the armpits on the other. I made the arms too long, again so that the suit would last a while. On the piece of fabric you will be using as the arm, place your mitten shape (folded in half). The thumb should be on the same side as the top of your shoulder.
- Look at the photos of the arm pieces, as they’re tricky. Trace around the wrist, then thumb and top of fingers to the fold in the template. From the fold, measure 18” along the length of the arm. From the base of the thumb, measure down to this line (4” in my case). Then measure, from the other end of the line, up 6”. Draw a line between this last point (A) and the base of the thumb and then extend the line towards the shoulder until it is 18” long. Draw an outside curved line from the end of the thumb line to point “A” (from shoulder to armpit).
- Now cut out this shape on the outside only - do not cut out the folded line part as this is a shared seam. Fold it onto the unmarked part of the fabric and draw its shape. Cut that out too and you should have the whole arm piece.
- Turn this arm piece over and draw it onto another piece of fabric. This should produce a mirror image (for left and right arms).
NOTE: After testing the suit, we discovered that there was a flaw. Where the wrist rope is tied, Leo was stung (see what happened in the last step, "Testing"). There are two solutions. 1) Cut the wrist and mittens part out of a much thicker fabric, like leather. 2) Use the template you cut out in above step 4 to double up the fabric, so that you effectively have two mittens on each hand.
Step 3: Sewing Jacket
- If you are going to use the mitten template as an extra layer on each hand (see the note at the end of the previous step), sew each of them to its corresponding arm panel now. If you decided to use a thicker material like leather instead, then skip this first step.
- Put the back panel on your work surface, with the “good side” of the fabric facing up. Place the left chest panel, good side down, on top of the back piece. Then place the left arm, folded in half with the good side on the inside and the thumb facing up, to the left of the other two panels.
- Sew the armpit curve of the arm piece that’s on top to the chest piece, and the one that’s underneath to the back piece.
- Sew along the length of the arm, around the thumb and fingers, until the arm piece is closed off.
- Sew the back piece to the chest piece at the shoulder and also on the side (waist).
- Repeat steps 1 through 4 for the right side.
- If you’re using a machine, pull the thread from one side of the fabric through to the other side and tie the two threads together in a knot. Do this at every start and finish of a line of sewing. By hand, put in a couple of extra stitches in the shoulder and armpit if needed - you don’t want there to be any holes that a bee can get into.
- Turn the jacket inside out, so that all the good side is facing out.
- Cut two pieces of thin rope, each 15” long.
- Make a mark that is on the other side of each mitten from the base of the thumbs.
- Fold one bit of rope in half and sew that middle point to the mark you just made. This can be tied when the jacket is on the child, to keep the hand from slipping out of the mitten.
Step 4: Hat
- On a piece of paper draw an equilateral triangle with 5.5” long sides. Then make each side curve out from the triangle. Cut out this shape and use it to make 4 such curved triangles out of fabric.
- Arrange the four shapes on your work surface so that one corner of each meets in the middle. Sew each triangle to its neighbors. Do not sew all the way to the end where they will all meet, but instead leave about an 1/8” un-sewn.
- Make a loop of fabric, and inch or so long, and push it into the hole where the four pieces meet. Sew this loop in place, while stitching up the hole. This is the cap part, with a loop for hanging the jacket up (you can also fold it if you prefer).
- Put the foam backed fabric on your work surface. Draw a 14.5” diameter circle and cut it out.
- Draw a line through the center of the circle, from edge to edge. Mark this line at 8.25” from one edge. Draw a 7.5” diameter circle, with the point you just marked as its center. Cut out this circle. You should now have a ring of foam backed fabric, whereby the front is 4.5” wide and the back is 2.5” wide.
- Around the edge of the 7.5” diameter circle, make 8 small cuts into the fabric, each about 1/8” to 1/4” deep. Fold back the little flaps, so that their foam part touches the foam of the ring and sew them in place.
- Repeat steps 4 through 6, so that you have two rings with the centers folded inwards a little.
- Place one of the rings on your work surface, with the foam facing up. Place the cap on top of it, so that its rim sits on top of the folded back flaps. Then place the second ring on top, with the foam facing down. Sew the three panels together (cap sandwiched by the two rings).
Step 5: Veil
- Cut a piece of plastic screen, 40” by 12”. Mark the 40” length at 14.5” from each end. In between these two marks (10”), you want to keep the screen the full 12” long. However from each mark to the edge, you want to reduce it to 10” long.
- Cut a piece of fabric, 8” wide by 10” tall. Sew one end of the 10” side to the one edge of the screen, and the other side to the other edge of screen. You should now have a tube of screen (with fabric for the back of the neck).
- Cut a strip of fabric that is 46” long and 1.5” wide when hemmed (so about 2.5” to start off with).
- Place the veil tube around the rim of the hat and pin it down on top of the foam backed fabric. Make sure that the fabric part of the tube is at the back (the thinnest part of the hat rim).
- Place the strip of fabric around the hat rim, so that half of it is on top of the rim (and veil) and the other half is underneath. Sew the strip together (with veil and hat rim sandwiched inside it) all the way around the rim of the hat.
Step 6: Assembly
- Hem up the bottom end of the screen and fabric tube.
- Sew the fabric part of the tube to the neck part of the jacket’s back panel.
- On the left side of the fabric part of the veil tube, sew the screen to the jacket’s left shoulder seam and along 1.5” of the jacket’s front arm seam.
- Do the same on the right side of the fabric part of the veil tube.
- Make a mark on the right-hand side of the jacket’s left chest panel, 11” up from the bottom.
- Place the left-hand corner of the 12” part of the veil (remember that the middle 10” of the veil is 12” tall instead of 10” tall) on this mark, and then sew the veil to the chest in between where it is already sewn and this mark.
- Do the same on the right side of the veil and chest panel. You should now have the screen sewn across both sides of the chest, with a 10” part of the veil that isn’t sewn to anything.
- Sew one half of your 18” (or 17” if you can get it) jacket zipper to the left side of the jacket’s front. It should start 1/4” up from the bottom of the left chest panel, go up the jacket to meet the screen and then go along half of the piece of screen that isn’t sewn to anything (5”).
- Sew the other half of the zipper to the left-hand side of the right chest panel, as above.
- Where the two parts of the zipper meet in the screen part, cut off any excess and sew the two bits together.
- Sew up the bottom hem of the jacket.
[Please note that I only had a closed zipper, and seeing as we weren’t due for a city trip for another three weeks I decided to use it. I opened it up, sewed it in place, and then closed up one side having put the zipper on it. I then left the other side loose instead of sewing it into the bottom hem.]
Step 7: Put It On
There’s a trick to putting this thing on, which will make it an easy and stress-free experience for the kid.
- Put one arm all the way into the jacket and tie the wrist rope in place.
- Lift both arms above the head and lower the rest of the jacket over the other arm and head.
- Once the other arm and head are both in place, you can zip up the jacket and tie the other wrist rope.
- Tuck the jacket into a pair of good jeans. Make sure the child has socks and shoes on, and off you go to open up a bee hive.
Step 8: Testing
When you first use the jacket, we recommend a test session. Don’t open the hive up all the way, just enough to get a few bees out to buzz you, to see how the child reacts.
We did this, thinking Leo might be freaked out with bees on him, but he was totally calm. In fact, he was fascinated by the bees and kept asking to see the queen (which wasn’t allowed on the first session). However, as the budding new beekeeper was leaving, he squished a bee by mistake (he was climbing through the fence and as he put his hand on the ground there was a bee on his glove). The smell of squished bee enraged those that were out and they went for him. It looked like he was about to lose it, but his dad calmed him down and he listened to instructions.
They came back to the house, and went into the entranceway. The door to the rest of the house was closed, so they could brush any bees off in the entranceway and then come into the kitchen and take the suit off. This double door precaution is always a good idea when handling bees, as you never know what might happen.
Leo had been stung on the hand where the string brought the suit tight against his skin. For this reason, we decided to double up the fabric in the mittens area. Everywhere else, he has an added layer of clothing under the jacket, plus the jacket is loose around him, so no bees can touch him.
At first, he was mad at the bees, and the sting hurt. However, as he calmed down and the toothpaste took effect (rubbed onto the sting, toothpaste helps with the pain), he started to talk it all through. We explained that the bees weren’t being mean, but were just trying to protect their home and friends. And we also explained that no matter who you are, if you are going to keep bees, you will be stung sooner or later. The two good things about being stung is that each sting becomes less painful and that we found out he’s not allergic. He’s now ready to go out again.