What are the bare necessities to getting started in beekeeping? What suit should you get? What tools do you need? How much equipment?? We answer this, and more….
Beekeeping can be an expensive venture. There are so many tools, parts, and ideas swirling in honey bee land. If you are just starting out, it can get overwhelming so try to remember a few things:
- All Beekeeping is local; i.e. what works in Texas may not work in Minnesota
- Try the “conventional wisdom” first – then modify to suit your style/values once you have a little experience
- Get as much information as possible so you can make the best decisions
- Keep your equipment as simple as possible; meaning, do not mix equipment sizes/types if you can help it. Buy all 8 frame or all 10 frame but not both. Buy all Warre or Langstroth but not both.
Read as much as you can about the honey bee life cycle, the pests you may encounter, and the routines performed by beekeepers in your area. If you can find a mentor or take a class, do so.
That being said, we recommend you buy as little as possible until you are actively keeping bees. You may find that much of the equipment is redundant or unnecessary.
Here are the bare minimums to get started:
Bees are the most important purchase in your apiary. Best advice for new beekeepers – buy a nucleus colony. We are usually sold out but you can look at our NUC page to see what to expect when you purchase a colony.
Nucleus colonies are easier to establish because they come with comb and the queen is already laying. Seek out a colony of bees raised (and overwintered!) in your area. Many bees make the pollinator circuit and even though they may currently live in your state – they may have spent the winter/spring/fall somewhere else. Survivor bees will be your best chance at having an easy/successful first year.
Hive tools, smokers, frame holders, escape boards, bee brushes, queen excluders, feeding shims, bucket feeders, mouse guards…. The list really goes on an on.
Smoker: When it comes to managing your bees, you may not want to use smoke. Over time, you can get there if it’s really what you want to do, but start out with a cheap smoker. Over time, they all wear out so you can upgrade to a better one (or get rid of it all together) when you have more experience.
Use a smoker the first few weeks, then work your bees with a spray bottle of 2:1 sugar syrup. Try them both. Decide what works for you. Or decide to use nothing at all. But start with the smoker. It’s a standard for a reason and will make your first few months of learning easier.
Smoker Material: What do you need to fill the smoker? We use dried sumac flowers and pine needles because it’s what we have on our farm. They both burn nice and clean, and are free! You can use old burlap bags too. Or you can buy the commercial pellets. This should be one of the simpler aspects of beekeeping, don’t let it become challenging.
Hive tool: This is a little more subjective. Some people love the J hooks for lifting frames; some love the versatility (and scrapability) of the traditional tool. If you buy these on ebay, they are usually less than $5 a piece, so maybe you try both. We prefer the J hook.
Queen Excluders: You don’t need this, but it can be useful. We have both plastic and metal excluders. We use them to separate queen right hives when we are making splits, to provide a base to our ventilation boxes, to trap propolis, and to keep queens from the supers. They are inexpensive and easy to store. Try one of each (plastic or metal) but only buy a couple until you know how you plan to use them.
Bee escapes: You don’t need one of these. You can easily shake (or brush) the bees from the frames, but it will make your life simpler if you have at least one escape board. Buy one of the triangle/wood combinations. You only need one when you have just a few hives.
Feeders: You do not need fancy feeders. Just starting out, a mason jar with pin holes in the top works great! Put on top of the inner cover (upside down so holes can “leak” sugar syrup) and cover with a super box (frames out). When you have more bees, you can upgrade to an empty ice cream bucket or paint can. Easy stuff. UPDATE: For the past few years we have been using this FREE DIY feeder and it is the BEST – no dead bees and it’s so simple.
If you need to feed in the winter, just mix some sugar and water until it is paste-like and press into a sheet pan. Let that dry until hard and easy to handle. Put a few sheets of paper (newspaper, coffee filter, napkin) over the top frames and put your hard sugar on top. Put the inner cover and lid back on and everything is set. No shims, extra boxes or extra work needed.
Mouse guards: Mice are the real deal! Keep them out of your hives! But once again, you don’t need fancy stuff. Buy a roll of #4 (1/4″ holes) metal mesh and cut it to cover your entrances in the fall/winter. This also makes great robbing screen. Secure with push pins and shrews/mice/rodents will not gain entrance. SEE OURS IN ACTION HERE
That is all you need for tools. You don’t need frame holders – just place an empty deep box on the ground and put your frames directly into the box. Easy. You don’t need a bee brush, feeding shims, or any of the other stuff. There is almost always a way to achieve the same results with the equipment you already have.
Bee Suits: The world is full of fancy beekeepers that never use protective gear. Bravo to them. Wearing a bee suit is the pits. Beekeeping happens during the hottest months and nobody wants to be sweating to death with thousands of insects buzzing. But I suggest you start out with protection. Get a vented suit. They provide protection while allowing you to breathe underneath! And hang up your suit to dry if you sweat it out – or it will mold!! We use the PROVENT suit and it has stood up to years of abuse. We have never been stung through the suit.
Veils: The suit/jacket may have a hood or not, but you will want to get a screened hood if it is hoodless. Buying the two separately gives you more options and lets you choose the veil you prefer.
Gloves: Most suits come with leather gloves or you will see them as part of a kit. These are a NO! Yes, they protect you from bee stings, but they are horrible for dexterity and comfort. Sweaty hands! Instead, wear nitrile gloves – the same easy, tight fitting gloves your dentist, nurse, or doctor wears. They offer fantastic dexterity and protection from stings. You may still get sweaty hands, but they will not be clumsy, bulky, sweaty hands. And they are inexpensive. You won’t be doing surgery out there, so wear the same pair a few times. We buy these ones.
Eventually, you may become suave enough to go into your hives without a suit or gloves, but always wear a netted veil. Stings to the eyes and face are no joke. Beekeeping should be fun – not dangerous. You will have to experiment with what works best for you (personally I find a baseball cap with a 99c netted “fishing” cover to be my favorite.)
Buy new equipment for your first few hives. Then, when you have more experience you can accurately evaluate the value/condition of used boxes. Buy all the same size/type of equipment. It is easiest to start out with a Langstroth hive. Using this equipment will make your experience comparable to other beekeepers in your area and your equipment will be compatibile with nuc frames and other important tools.
8 frame vs 10 frame: Which ever you decide, buy all your equipment in the same size. You don’t want a bunch of unused stuff lying around – collecting mold/moths/mice/dirt/dust. 8 Frame does weigh less, but both size boxes are extraordinarily heavy when full and most lightweight beekeepers would have trouble moving full boxes of either size. Instead, unload the boxes partially whenever you have to move them and either will become easy for you.
10 frame is standard equipment. It can easily be divided to make two 5 frame side-by-side nuc cavities, it provides larger brood and honey space without building up too tall vertically, and it is standard for overwintering. Either choice will be okay, but 10 frame also has the advantage of being somewhat compatible with other hiving systems and is less likely to blow over in windy areas.
Frames: Buy enough frames to fill your boxes. We have had a lot of success with the plastic foundation on wooden frames. But… we have better luck when we paint them with melted beeswax first. Yes, they come sprayed with wax but bees do faster work and take to the foundation better if there is more wax.
For each hive, get at least 2 brood boxes and 2 supers. Have one bottom board (solid or screened, your choice – we use solid), one inner cover and one top. You don’t need an entrance reducer but they often come free with brood boxes. They are easy enough to make. If you live in an area with a lot of blooming flowers, then you may eventually need more supers, or you will need more super frames so you can pull them often. Keep the nuc box that you get with your bees. It will make a great swarm catching box and/or home for a new nucleus colony.
You will need a shed or dedicated shelving space. And possibly some large plastic bins to store your equipment. It’s very important to protect open equipment from moths, rodents, and other insects.
None! Do not buy extraction equipment your first year. You may or may not get any honey and having the equipment on hand is a temptation to use it! Using it may come to the detriment of your hives. Plus, if you only have a few frames of honey, you can easily cut the comb out, crush and strain, or uncap with a bent fork and let it drain in a sealed container for a day or so. No expensive extraction equipment needed!
Decide in advance how you will treat various pests and diseases. In Minnesota, we have a long brood break over the winter so our mite treatments occur mid summer and late fall. Currently we treat with Formic acid in the summer; Oxalic acid in the fall. Just two simple powdered acids. We use recycled cardboard to apply the formic acid and a spray bottle to apply the oxalic acid/sugar solution. Easy stuff.
If you want to go treatment free, then you may not need to buy anything in this category. Or you can use something as simple as powdered sugar, which you probably already have in your kitchen.
This is variable by location but in Minnesota – it’s recommended to wrap with black tar paper in the winter, secured with push pins. They go into the wood easily and come out without leaving big holes. They also do not disrupt the bees as much as staple guns! Use a #4 mesh to cover your entrances; excluding rodents. Cut a sheet of 2″ pink insulation to place on top of your inner cover, under the lid. Cut a small notch (3/8″) into the inner cover to allow ventilation and cleansing flights during snowing weather.
The insulation should be reusable every year and a roll of tar paper or mesh will last for years.
UPDATE: See our complete winter routine here. Our bees survived some of the coldest Minnesota winters with this method.
If your hives are in a windy area, provide some sort of windbreak. Hay bales, straw, trees/shrubs, and buildings all work well.The equipment doesn’t have to be that bad! You can start out pretty simply and run a successful apiary. While you are planning for your bees – try to pay attention to the forage in your area. Do you have adequate pollinator plants? Are there major pesticide users nearby? Do you have a water source? See…. we went and made beekeeping complicated again. Lots to learn, lots to do, lots to enjoy. Have fun with your experience!