Beekeeping for Beginners

The Equipment

beekeeping for beginners starter kit
Beginning Starter Kit

There are many types of bee hives available for you to start with. In Beekeeping for Beginners I recommend stating with the traditional Langstroth hive.  Not that one hive style is better than the next, but being the most common it's much easier to find parts and gives you more choices for extracting the honey. Another type of bee hive is the top bar hive and is gaining popularity. Its simple design allows for natural combs and has made it popular among natural beekeepers.  But if natural is your goal this can be preformed inside of a Langstroth hive as well. Just leave out the plastic foundation and let the bees draw natural comb. The advantage of the Langstroth hive is its frames system that makes for a straighter comb and more stable comb.

Some people point out the full weight of a super (the honey box) as the reason for not wanting to go with a traditional hive box and point out that in a top bar hive each comb can be lifted out separately, I remind them that this time consuming method can also be done with the Langstroth hive if you wanted to, but the advantage of the Langstroth hive is that the whole honey super can be lifted off and taken away very quickly. As for the honey bees they are very adaptive and have been known to build comb in every thing from old tires and mail boxes to the walls of houses.

I use full size, 10 frame boxes, for the brood chamber to give the honey bees the most room to work with.  I add a second brood box when 8 of the 10 frames have been drawn out. The first year I do not plan on ever getting any honey supers added as the bees are putting a lot of their work into building 20 frames of comb, raising brood and trying to store pollen and nectar to convert into honey.

beekeeping for beginners bee hive partsThere have been new hives and old hives brought back into design over the years, such as the Warren hive and the Flow hives. But I still suggest the Langstroth hive and you can get it in the 10 frame or the 8 frame. Unless you are starting with a 3 pound box of bees, most apiaries selling starter colonies (nucs) are selling them in frames only compatible with Langstroth hives. And most beekeeping for beginners books are written from the perspective of Langstroth beekeepers.


Beekeeping for Beginners Cost

Can I save cost as a beginning beekeeper if I purchase used equipment?  The fast answer is "NO"!  

Never purchase old used equipment thinking it will save money. The risks of also purchasing someone else diseased equipment is very high. As a new beekeeper you will have enough to take care of without worrying about loosing a couple hundred dollars of honey bees.

Each colony of bees requires its own living structure, called a hive. That investment is about $200/hive. That price varies by hive type, quantity discounts, shipping expenses, and options. This investment typically includes all the needed components of a Langstroth hive, such as a top cover, inner cover, bottom board, frames and foundation, although foundation is considered by some as optional.

Please give careful consideration to 10-frame versus 8-frame equipment, and hive body size. Opting for medium boxes, versus a combination of deep and shallower boxes, has its advantages. There are pros and cons for the number of frames/box. Research and talk to other beekeepers about their preferences. Going with all medium equipment means you only have one size to handle for the box, the frames and foundation. Many of beekeepers said they wished they’d known about the all-medium option when they started. As stated before I use all deeps on my brood box to give the queen the most room to raise brood. But this also means I have to purchase two different sizes of frames to go into the boxes also. One size for the deep brood and one size for the medium honey supers.

Cost of becoming a beginning beekeeper can vary depending on if you purchase factory seconds pine boxes, or want the top of the line red cedar boxes with fancy copper roofs. 

Now Why did I use a heading of "beekeeping for beginners cost"?  Because once you have made this investment, as a beginner, all the years following your first will no longer have this cost for this colony and you will no longer be a beginner. 

Hive Preparation

beekeeping for beginners un-assembled bee hive parts laying sorted out by type
Un-assembled Bee Hive Parts

Beyond the hive, there are costs in hive preparation. When you receive your hive it is usually shipped in a box unassembled. The hive requires painting or something to protect it from the elements, and a hive stand and bottom board for bottom ventilation. The hive stand may be as simple as a couple of concrete blocks, to a manufactured hive stand. We’ll estimate $25/hive, although you may already have what you need for preparation. I use concrete blocks and a pallet for my stand. I can place up to 4 hives on one pallet and when the pallet wears out I can pick one up for free.

Don't forget the time it will take to assemble all the frames. each frame is made up from 4 sticks and will have about 10 nails and glue holding them together. 20 frames for 2 brood boxes. That's 80 pieces of wood and 200 nails that need carefully driven into thin soft pine.  Consider making a frame jig if you are doing multiple hives.

Other Equipment

There is an array of key tools that will make your hive checks safer, easier and more effective; From sting protection to smokers. Bees have CO2 receptors on their antennae, which allow them to detect our exhalations, and respond aggressively if threatened. People think that bees sense fear, but really they are sensing fear behavior. If one is nervous around bees, they may breathe more heavily, which can lead to stings. We at Honey Barrel recommends beginning beekeepers use at least a veil, and a smoker, for the basic minimum. Many experienced beekeepers do not wear any gear, and have become so comfortable around their bees, they do not get stung. Smoke also masks the alarm pheromone given off by guard bees, minimizing the defensive reactions of the colony.

Cost of a veil is around $20 and a smoker can vary from $35 to $50

hive tools
Hive Tools

One other main item you will need is a hive tool. Your hive tool is one of your most critical pieces of equipment. Bees glue everything in the hive together with their resin-like propolis. This requires the beekeeper to pry the seal open with a hive tool.   A hive tool allows you to detach comb from hive sides, cut and scrape propolis, and pry frames. Hive tools come in different styles. Find one you like and spray paint its handle a bright color. This will make it easy to find in tall grass.

Hive tools start around $8

There are other items you may want depending on your level of comfort. Bee suits, goat skin gloves, frame holders and the list can go on and on. I have never owned a bee suit. I have an old light tan jacket I used to use and I would place rubber bands around the sleeve cuffs to keep the honey bees from crawling up my sleeves. Now I go out with just a long sleeve white shirt and no gloves. I found that with the gloves I was better protected, but I would end up smashing a bee or two as I worked the frames of comb. This of course would trigger the alarm pheromone and they would be aggressive as I worked the rest of the hives. Yes, with out gloves I do get a sting or two, but on the whole the honey bees are a lot calmer. 

As your hive grows you may have the added cost of additional hives and honey supers. There are a number of  other items that you can ad to your list. One that I would hold off on is a honey extractor unless you are getting a large number of hives. A lot of bee clubs have a club honey extractor that their members can use. As you get more hives you may want to ad one. Also other items such as solar wax melter and pollen collector can be added as time goes on.

Purchasing Honey Bees

You can obtain Honey bees in a number of ways. Besides the luck of capturing a feral swarm of bees, Honey bees can be purchased in a couple of ways. 

  • Purchase a box of bees
    screened boxes of honey bees
    A Couple 3Lb Boxes of Honey Bees

A package is generally three pounds of bees, with a separately caged queen, all in a screened box. The package bees must be moved or dumped into a hive. 

  • Purchase a nuc hives
    five frame nuc with lid open showing bees
    A Five Frame Nuc

A nuc is a small nucleus colony, containing typically 3-5 frames, bees already drawing comb and tending to eggs and larva, and a young queen working to expand the colony, all in a small hive-like box.

Each has it's pros and cons. Package of bees can be sent through the mail and are less expensive than a nuc. A package will take longer to take off and grow. Once the bees have been added to the hive box the bees have to draw out the comb, the queen needs to start laying and the brood will then take 21 days for emergence. A nuc on the other hand is already growing, it has a laying queen and bees are emerging from day one. A nuc has to be picked up, it can not be mailed. And a nuc will cost more.

3# packages of bees for spring 2017 are running about $125 plus shipping cost.  Beware of sellers who do not give some type of guarantee on the queen arriving alive. 10,000 bees with no queen is worthless. Some shippers put the whole package as yours, dead or alive, and will not refund money.  Be aware that you are asking someone to ship live product and you have a responsibility yourself to make sure they are cared for the minute you get them. Pay attention to the shipping dates as well. You want your bees as early as you can. If you get a date in mid May will the bees have any honey flow going on in your area in June? each area vary so pay attention or ask members in the local bee clubs.

Nucs with bees and laying queen and drawn frames are running around $180 this spring. Most nucs are guaranteed that the queen is healthy and laying up to the time you pick the nuc up. Nucs can not be shipped. Get all detail before you arrive to pick up your nuc.  Some places sell you a travel cardboard nuc box or they may charge you a rental or deposit fee for the nuc box till you return it. This is becoming less standard and box and frames are included in the cost of the nuc now days. Your frames may be all natural wax or they may be plastic with comb drawn onto them.  Ask if your unsure or if you have a preference. The added cost your paying for the nuc is not really for the box or the wooden frames, it's for the drawn comb and the larva and eggs in that comb. Five drawn combs will fill half of your ten frame hive and save your bees a lot of extra work. And the eggs and larva and capped pupa will be hatching with-in days with out waiting for the queen to start laying.

Getting Back on the Horse

Hopefully you need to buy bees only once. However, honeybees are a domestic insect and with out our help most hives would not last two years. Honey bees die from varroa mite infestations, Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), small hive beetle (SHB) infestations, hard winters, starvation, and beekeeper ignorance. I’ve known dozens of beginning beekeepers over the years and I don’t know of any who haven’t lost at least some if not all of their bees at one time or another. Many get “right back on the horse”, after all they already have all the equipment paid for.

When I first started my beekeeping adventure forty years ago the main way to get bees was to purchase a screened box. There is something amazing about carrying 10,000 honey bees is a box in your hands and having people flock around you to see these little wonders. That being said, the last time I purchased a box was just a few years back, and all I wanted to do was to get that queen into a hive and hope they would grow fast and strong enough to survive winter. I had placed an order for a couple boxes of bees with Minnesota hygienic queens, but I had placed the order late. By the time I had the boxes most of the main spring honey flow was over. I now had two hives that had only drawn comb on half the frames. That three week delay in the brood being born, and having the bees in the box slowly dieing out as they worked them self's to death, took its tool on the colony. I had feed them during the dearth (no nectar period in summer) but they were only one deep brood box. They did NOT make it through the winter.  I wish I had purchase a couple nucs as they would have been growing from day one.

Now It's Up To You.

Why do you want to raise honey bees? Is it for a few jars of honey? You can pick that up a lot cheaper at the grocery store. Don't get me wrong, I want you to take the plunge and dive right in becoming a beekeeper. But know why!  Is it to help out nature? Do you want to increase your fruit and vegetable yield?  Or is it the challenge of harvesting something with your own hands that you help these wonderful little ladies make? Maybe it is for that sweet honey after all!  

I look forward to being able to help you if you have questions about getting started in honey bees.