The reasons for keeping bees are as widely varied as the people who keep them. Some do it for pollination. Some are fascinated by the insects and the society of bees. Others come lured by the promise of honey. Beekeeping is like a potluck stew - you can't just get one of these. Even the smallest hobby keeper gets a good dose of each in time.
To be clear: I am a hobby beekeeper. A hobby beekeeper puts more into the hobby than he gets out most of the time, and honestly has little expectation otherwise. Sideliners are people who supplement their base income with money from the bees. A sideliner counts the costs and balances the books. A pro makes his living keeping bees and following the bloom. The pros know the operation to the penny and their actions are all about time because it's the one currency they can never make more of. Each set does things differently. I'm a hobby beekeeper, and most of what I say will have to do with keeping bees from that perspective. Many of the things I do are impractical beekeeping on a large scale.
To compound this there are a dozen ways to do most things in beekeeping, and I can already imagine the comments and mail I'll get from beekeepers who say "I don't do it like that" or "That's just wrong." If you actually start keeping bees then after your first season you'll look back and most likely say "I didn't do things that way." Or "That didn't work for me." This is my story, you get to hear how I do it.
What do you need to keep bees?
If you go to Brushy Mountain Bee Farm or Dadant or Betterbee they all have "Beginner's kits." I'll say up front that I'm not convinced that beginner's kits are a good investment. On the up side they contain everything one needs for a hive. On the down side you can get your equipment much cheaper by ordering piecemeal from the cheapest places and building the simplest things (bottom boards and lids) yourself. Shipping, by the way, costs as much as your materials. Later when I recommend that you get with a club it's because many times you can order things together and pay vastly reduced shipping. I've built everything that goes in a hive except the bees and I can say that if your time is worth anything it doesn't pay to build frames and it usually doesn't pay to build the hive boxes. Note I don't mean put together. Most bee equipment comes "knock down" - a fancy term for "not put together". You like it like this, really - it lowers shipping costs and lets you do it right - glue and nails on everything.
- Somewhere to keep the bees: The bees will not normally seek you out to sting you, so you can share some space with them so long as they have a nice clear flight path to the hive. A nice back yard with a six foot fence and some understanding neighbors are all you need space wise. Sunny, southern facing areas are even better.
- Something to keep the bees in: A good way to understand what goes into a hive is to take a look at Rosetta's Guide to Bee Hives, where I have a description and a picture of all the components of a honey bee hive. Not everything there is absolutely necessary - a bottom board, a hive body, ten frames and lid are the absolute bare minimum woodenware one could start with. There are two major varieties of hive - Langstroth hives (the prevailing design) - the square boxes that most people envision and top bar hives - essentially boxes with pieces of wood laid across the top. Top bar hives are considerably cheaper because they don't use frames, don't use foundation and generally use less materials. I've seen top bar hives built from coolers, furniture, water jugs and flower pots. I use Langstroth hives. Two hive bodies, twenty frames, a bottom board and a lid are all the woodenware you have to have to start. You'll need more but you can start with less. Why would you need more? Hint: You want honey, right? That honey has to go somewhere.
- Protective equipment: I finally broke down and bought a bee suit but I spent the first years using a World War II class veil (literally), then upgraded to a jacket and only got the suit because when you do removals a suit is really nice. You can get stung through anything - the protective gear is really to install a false sense of confidence so you can work comfortably with the bees. A veil is the minimum protection but many people wear gloves as well.
- A smoker: Yes, you can make these. Don't. On ebay you'll see "antique smokers". They often sell for around 8 dollars because they aren't really antique, just old and dirty. They will work fine as long as the bellows is intact (and if it isn't just staple cloth over them). Anything that smokes but doesn't produce roaring flames makes good fuel. Wood shavings, cardboard, rotten wood, burlap, etc. Don't buy smoker fuel.
- A knife, screwdriver or hive tool: A hive tool is used to split the hive bodies, pry up frames or scrape off burr comb. I like the hive tool. You can get by without it.
- You do NOT need to buy a several hundred dollar extractor: Extractors fling the honey from the comb but they cost hundreds of dollars and you can build your own honey extractor. You can produce beautiful cut comb honey with just a knife or crush and strain the comb to produce liquid honey. You don't need queen rearing kits, you don't need bee vacuums or other such toys. You might eventually want them but you don't need them to start.
- You need to know something, anything about keeping bees: There used to be a pamphlet called "First lessons in beekeeping" that you got along with bees if you ordered them. This explained basically how to install the package of bees and how to light one's smoker. Check out a beekeeping for dummies book or "The backyard beekeeper" and read up before hand. On the internet we have beesource, whose message boards contain the wisdom of more beekeepers than you can shake a box of agitated bees at.
Join a club and get a mentor to show you the ropes. Beekeeping is easier with friends. I have people I can call and ask for advice, brood, even equipment in case of emergency. Letting a beekeeper place hives on your property is a good way to get a "trial run" with bees and eventually you might just purchase them from him. (you do not have permission to inspect his bees unless he gives it to you!) Learn all you can, go work with a beekeeper to see what it is like, do these things before you buy your equipment and make your decision. If you've decided to go for it then you are going to need some bees. This is as good a point as any to note that you should start with multiple hives. Multiple hives are actually easier as if one goes queenless you can pull eggs from the other. Multiple hives will let you know when pollen is coming in or if you have a problem. It also means more honey. But you don't get any honey if you don't have any bees, so let's move on to:
Ways you can get bees:
- Ordering Packages of Bees: Packages of bees are artificial swarms, where a bee breeder shakes workers into a box and adds a queen to create the basis of a new colony. Packages cost between 65 and 100 dollars this year (2008). They come with no brood - that is, no baby bees, so the package population drops sharply in the first three weeks when there are no new bees hatching each day. The colony in summer can produce around 3 thousand new bees a day (sometimes more!) and honeybees use the Chinese "overbreed and overrun" methodology. That makes three weeks with no new bees a hardship. Advantages of packages; They are the sure thing. You know you will get a queen. You know you will get workers. You know when you will get them. Disadvantages - They are pricey. They have no brood. Also because they were not prepared to leave the home colony the bees in the package are not primed to draw wax - that is, to create the honeycomb that is the basis of the hive. A package must be fed syrup constantly to help them draw out the wax honeycomb.
- Buying a nuc (Nucleus Colony): A nucleus colony is essentially a tiny colony, usually three frames of bees with a frame of honey and a frame of pollen. Advantages: Nucs have brood and therefore don't suffer the package population drop. Nucs are far more likely to give honey due to the increased population. Disadvantages: Nucs cost more, starting at around 90$ and going much higher. Plus Nucs come on drawn comb which may contain diseases. If you can't inspect the nuc first you don't know if the queen is good or not. You might wind up with a box of bees that just dwindles away. Buying a full colony is the same, only more expensive. A full colony will almost certainly produce honey but it's all the problems of a nuc multiplied.
- Collecting Swarms: Bees reproduce by swarming, where roughly half the colony leaves with the old queen to find a new home. If they land on the front porch whoever lives there will not be amused. So people who come and collect swarms get the bees for free (and sometimes get paid to get them!). Swarms are also primed to succeed - unlike packages these bees knew they were leaving and prepared to draw wax. They have nurse bees and foragers ready and a proven laying queen ready to take over. Swarms can and do produce honey on the first year because it's how they'll survive in the wild. Advantages: Free (or better), Ready to draw wax. Disadvantage: Not a sure thing. You may get no swarm calls whatsoever. You may get the call and they may be 200 feet up a tree, or they left while you were driving there. You might collect the swarm and kill the queen by accident. You also have no idea what the temperament of the swarm will be. Most swarms are gentle but when they are not it is amazingly unpleasant. Plus, even Africanized bees are gentle as swarms. In Africanized counties collecting swarms may not even be legal.
- Removing Established Colonies (Cut outs): If a swarm of bees isn't collected by a beekeeper, they'll do what instinct commands. They'll find a home and build a colony. That colony will sometimes be in the wall of a house or inside a shed or a box. The owners of the home will not be amused. At some point (hopefully early) the colony must be removed, the comb and honey taken out and the cavity resealed. This process is a cut out, and a good beekeeper can extract an entire colony, get honey and get paid. Oh yes, cut outs pay good money. 75 an hour, 150 minimum is a common cost and people will pay it. If that tells you something then you are thinking ahead. Why are people willing to pay you to cut out the colony, knowing that a $300 bill is an easy possibility? Because it's hot, hard work. Swarms are gentle. Nucs are too. Established colonies have a home to defend, honey to protect and brood to fight and die for. And they will. I've known of people who did their first cut out without a bee suit then used the money to purchase protective gear and hives. That's like jumping out of a plane to get money that you'll use to buy a parachute. Don't do this. Advantages: You make money and get bees. Disadvantages: You couldn't pick a harder way to get into beekeeping.
So what does all this cost? The answer is "It depends." If you build a top bar hive and catch swarms you can get started for less than 30 dollars for a veil, used smoker and hive tool. If you buy a complete Langstroth starter kit you'll shell out $285 dollars. I suggest you join a club and pick up some equipment used - veil, smoker, hive tool. Boxes you can build if your time is worth little or buy in a bulk buy with the other members of your club. Frames you should buy new. Used ones will be cheap but I don't recommend it. The lure of drawn comb and the advantage it gives your colony is huge but unless you trust the guy who you are buying from let your bees do the work. Draw out your own foundation, let your bees make their own wax. If you really trust someone a comb or two can make a huge difference. What you need to ask yourself is "How would I feel about digging a hole, putting my hive in it, pouring on gasoline and setting them on fire?" That's exactly what you get to do if you get American Foulbrood from used equipment.
Don't go overboard on ordering equipment but a few extra boxes never hurt anyone. Over time you will accumulate equipment to the point where you say "Will I ever use all of this?" Maybe. You can't make up for what you don't have when you need it, so be prepared.You might be surprised. You might find yourself ordering more bees next year. And catching swarms, and doing cut outs. Keeping bees isn't an all or nothing endeavor. You don't need to quit your job and follow the bloom to get honey. You can have a family and still pollinate your garden. And for the wonder, the joy of keeping bees you need only a little time, a little patience, and of course the bees.
Links and Suggested Reading:
Bush Farms - more beekeeping knowledge than I will learn in my entire life.
How to install a package of honeybees - You have the box and the bees, what now?
The Hive and the Honeybee - One of two "definitive guides to beekeeping"
The ABC and XYZ of Beekeeping - The other "definitive guide", as much as one can be definitive about something where almost any method works.
Hive Management by Richard Bonney. Thankyougustad's favorite book on the subject.
First lessons in beekeeping by C P Dadant - classic writing that still applies today.