The Process and Costs of Beekeeping

How to start beekeeping

Beekeeping is a hobby, a passion and – for the very motivated – even a business.

While there can be a steep learning curve to successfully keeping bees, the trick is to minimize your frustration, your costs and your losses with a bit of upfront research. To help, here is a concise guide for beginners on how to start beekeeping.

How a colony of bees is structured

Before you can become a beekeeper, you must first appreciate how bee colonies exist. The vast majority of all bee colonies are kept by beekeepers who, in return for honey, help the colonies to fight off predators like skunks and bears, successfully defend against intruders such as wasps, and live through diseases like mite infestations.

While hive sizes and shapes can vary quite dramatically, the average honeybee colony is usually between 25,000 and 50,000 bees. Each colony will have one queen bee who lays upwards of 1,000 to 1,500 eggs each day. Then the colony will have male bees, who mate with queens from other colonies, and worker bees who do all the work to make the honeycomb, collect the pollen and keep the hive functioning.

To create a colony, you need a queen bee, some drones and worker bees, and a contained space that protects the bees and allows them to create the honeycomb where they lay their eggs and store their food (and eventually their honey).

Start with the beehive

A beehive is a container or vessel that a colony of bees use to make a home and eventually, produce honey. While the beehive is often referred to in the singular, it’s actually made up of a number of different components. Most beehives include:

  • Outer cover: the exterior that protects against the elements.
  • Inner cover: prevents bees from attaching honeycomb to the outer cover and provides an air pocket that helps with insulating the hive.
  • Shallow honey supers: this is where the bees will store the surplus honey that you will eventually harvest.
  • Queen excluder: placed between the brood nest and the honey supers, so the queen doesn’t lay eggs in the honey supers. This is required if there is only one hive box.
  • Brood chamber (aka hive body): large wood box (called a super or honey super) that can hold up to 10 frames of honeycomb, where bees store honey and lay their brood. In colder climates, two hive bodies are best.
  • Bottom board: wooden stand where the hive rests. This bottom board needs to be put on top of bricks or concrete blocks to keep it, and the hive, up off the ground.
  • Hive stand: keeps the hive off the ground and helps keep the hive dry and warm.

Most hive keepers purchase their hives, but for those who are particularly handy, it’s possible to build these bee houses. Keep in mind, however, that all exterior wooden parts should be coated with a good oil or latex paint, to help protect the hive from the elements, while the interior frames should be held together with nontoxic wood glue and nails. For instructions and tips, see Familyhandyman’s great guide.

Add the frames

The frames hang inside the box and allow the bees to create their honeycomb and store their honey while building their brood. The frames hold either a thin sheet of beeswax or plastic so that bees can use this foundation to start building their hive.

Use protective gear

To keep the beehive safe, and to save you from getting stung too often, it’s best to start out with the right equipment.

Start with wearing protective gloves and veil

To minimize being stung by the bees, wear protective gloves and veil — a protective hat made of strong fabric and fine mesh, that prevents bees from stinging your face or neck.

Add a smoker

The smoker is the most used and most iconic tool in the beekeeper shed. The smoker works by disorientating the bees, making it impossible for them to communicate properly. It produces a non-toxic smoke that actually helps to calm and distract the bees while you’re busy making sure the hive is safe and healthy.

Consider a queen catcher

This handy tool allows a beekeeper to catch and safely separate the queen from the hive. This tool is often used by beekeepers when they want to mark their queen or assess the hive health without hurting or damaging the queen.

Additional tools to help

While not mandatory, there are additional tools and equipment that can make your beekeeping hobby run smoothly and successfully. This includes feeders, sugar water, essential oils, and a hive tool (which looks almost like a pry bar but is smaller, lighter and with ends perfectly suited to separating the frames to allow for easy access to the honeycomb and honey).

Estimated time spent on beekeeping

On average, you will spend between 15 to 30 hours each year tending to your beehive; however, you will need to double that time in the first year, as you go through the process of setting up and getting to know your hive.

Estimated start-up budget

While beekeeping costs can vary quite a bit, it’s a good idea to create a realistic budget for start-up and ongoing costs. Most hives range in price from $100 to over $1,000 (for very elaborate, honey-filtering configurations).

You will also need to purchase a starter bee colony package, which costs about $100 to $150. Finally, prepare to spend between $150 and $400 on equipment purchase in the first year.

On average, most beekeepers start with one hive and spend between $300 and $500 in their first year. For accurate pricing guidelines, please speak with your local professionals.

When to start beekeeping

The best time to set up your beehive is between April and June, but to be prepared, you must start your research and your purchasing well before. Most beekeeping supply stores start taking orders for bee starter colonies just after the winter holiday season and start delivering these colonies to their clients as early as March. If you are planning to build some or all of your hive, you’ll need time to prepare. For best results, you’ll want to check and verify that the hive is virtually watertight and can withstand the elements.

Over time, most beekeepers will add more colonies and more hives — helping to increase their honey production and as an assurance that the colonies will survive and thrive, despite predator attacks and inclement weather.