Get the Right Gear

Get the Right Gear

Is it expensive to keep bees? 

Beekeeping can seem daunting at first, partly on account of the number of gadgets, hive components, and tools associated with the craft. This leads to a number of questions I get when a customer is buying my bees for the first time. If this is you, take a deep breath and let it out. the good news is you don't need that much stuff for the first season to be successful. You need

  • a hive with frames,
  • a bee suit, veil and gloves,
  • a smoker and hive tool,
  • and some organic treatments for mites in the fall.

That's it. This can mean some up-front expense, but most of what you purchase is also re-usable for next season. Where you source your equipment is also entirely up to your own preference and budget, which means you can comparison shop, and used gear is occasionally a good option.  At the end of this post I will attempt to break down the cost of getting started with two hives, as if everything were purchased new.

Honey extraction has its own set of tools, but there's no requirement to harvest honey the first year. You can always leave extra honey for the bees. If you know someone who has bees, or ask around, sometimes you can borrow a honey extractor for your first fall harvest.

A quick note here for the beginner: I would always recommend starting with two colonies, if possible. Two hives don't require much more work than one, and if one hive fails, you still have bees. Comparing two hives side-by-side will also teach you much more than observing just one hive. In some cases, you can even use resources from one hive to save the other. But that's a topic for another day. Here's my list of necessary equipment for a successful first season:

Hive: For each colony you will need a bottom board, a cover, two deep hive boxes, one medium-depth honey super, and frames for the boxes with foundation in them. This is a standard "Langstroth" hive configuration. 8-frame and 10-frame hives are both good for beginners. A queen excluder is optional in my opinion. Hive kits online are a good way to visualize how the parts go together, but take the time to comparison shop. The quality of the wood, whether or not to paint, and such are entirely up to your own taste: I guarantee the bees do not care as much as you do! Even a spare piece of plywood works as a cover for one season, and the bees will not complain. Just avoid painting the inside surfaces of the hive. Used hives are sometimes a good deal if you know the beekeeper, and the reason the former colony died out; most things that kill bees today do not transfer with the equipment. For safety, the inside of used boxes can be toasted with a small propane torch until the wood changes color and remaining propolis bubbles. replace the frames and use new foundation if the history of the equipment is a question.

Suit, Veil, and Gloves: The quality of your first bee suit is less important than the fact that you get one in time to pick up your bees. Despite beekeepers showing off in social media posts working bees and swarms without protective equipment, this purchase is an essential one. The nicest bees can act aggressive on a cloudy day, or become irritable if something happens to their queen. It is pleasant to work a gentile hive on a sunny day with just a smoker, but sometimes the good of the hive requires working them in inclement weather, or moving the colony to a new location. Real beekeepers wear suits. Don't stress much about how you look in the suit, a baggy fit is good!

Smoker and Hive Tool: Your smoker is your best friend when working hives, so for this one I would  recommend spending a little more up front. A good quality smoker is easier to keep lit, but the taller designs are not. My favorite by far is this one from Mann Lake. Smoker fuel need not be expensive, however. Pine needles work well. So does burlap cloth and sisal baling twine, as long as they are untreated. Cotton, rolled up cardboard, and dry grass all work in a pinch.  A hive tool is simply a small, flat crowbar to help with removing frames and for scraping wax and propolis. It's essentially the same as a carpenter's trim tool with a slightly thinner taper at one end for prying the boxes apart.

Treatments for Varroa Mites: Varroa Destructor is a parasitic mite that feeds on the larval stage of the honeybee, and spreads viruses throughout the colony. Managing varroa levels is essential to avoid disappointment. Spend some time researching this pest. Starting with mite-free bees from a trusted beekeeper is important, as is learning to recognize signs and symptoms of mites in your hive. Even with mite-resistant strains of bee, it is absolutely essential to treat for mites in the late summer or early fall for overwintering success. I recommend  two organic treatment options: FormicPro and Apiguard, both brands available from most beekeeping suppliers online. These are made with naturally occurring compounds which will not leave harmful residues in the hive. Follow application instructions carefully.

Here is a quick estimate of what first year beekeeping expenses might look like starting with two hives, based on new, good quality, but not necessarily the most expensive equipment out there.

Basic Hive Kit x two: - $400.00

Beekeeping Suit, Veil, and Gloves:  - $100

Smoker and Hive Tool: - $60

FormicPro for Two Hives: - $24

Two Nucs from Bickerstaff Bees: - $370

Knowledge From Reading This Blog: Priceless

Grand Total: - $954

Is the first year of beekeeping expensive? Perhaps expensive enough to plan ahead and read a book on the subject. However, the grand total above is based on purchasing all new equipment, and prices vary. You can find a bee suit online for $30, for example, and a smoker for $20, which will serve their intended purpose for a year or two. As a kid, I started keeping bees in some hive boxes I built myself out of scrap lumber. I inherited a smoker, hive tools, and gloves from a kind beekeeper in the area for free, after posting an inquiry for used equipment in the local agricultural bulletin. If there is a beekeeper in your circle of family and friends, don't hesitate to reach out to them. With some smart shopping, expense should not be much of a barrier to a determined beekeeper. 


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