Beekeeping equipment is essential to raising honey bees in your backyard. Here’s an overview of what you really need … and what’s nice to have.
As Dr. Seuss wrote, “It’s fun to have fun, but you have to know how.” Knowing how, including what beekeeping equipment you need, can be the key to an enjoyable and rewarding entry
to keeping bees.
The first step is to learn about the area where you will be keeping bees. When do nectar and pollen start to come in? That time, or as soon thereafter as possible, will usually be the best time for you to get your bees. Your local extension service should be able to give you leads as to where you can get pertinent information, which will enable you to plan ahead.
Before the bees come, you’ll have to have hive equipment ready for them. Sources for it can be found online. Often, especially for hive boxes, there is some assembly required; but some suppliers will ship equipment already assembled. For beginners, this latter course is usually best, despite the slightly higher expense. I recommend buying cypress hive bodies, because cypress greatly resists rot. Paint alone will not insure against rot, if only because your hive tool will inevitably scrape paint away from hive body edges and leave them vulnerable to moisture absorption and subsequent rot.
There are several choices to be made as regards sizes of hive bodies. Some are made to take 10 frames, others to take only 8. The latter is not especially common, and I do not recommend them, unless back problems or other considerations mandate minimum weight lifting. Also, there are two primary depths to hive bodies: 9 1/2” and 6 5/8”. Ideally, in my opinion, a colony would consist of three of the deep (9 1/2) bodies as brood chambers and honey storage for winter, plus as many shallows (6 5/8) as needed for surplus honey (extraction supers). Of course, also ideally, we’d all be young and strong; but we’re not; and that is why I (now) use only the shallow boxes for all purposes. 30 years ago I used the deeps as per above.
As for the frames and foundation (these are sized according to the depth of the frames they are to be installed in, which in turn are sized according to the depth of the hive body they are to be used in), I recommend using the rigid white wax-coated plastic foundation, put into a wood frame.
This rigid plastic foundation is also available as a one-piece foundation/frame combination, but beginners absolutely should not use this one-piece plastic unit. I once tried these, and the bees built an extensive maze of honey-filled brace comb between the honey supers. This problem had been reported by others, but I had to learn for myself. I don‘t know why the bees did this. But they did. I later used a table saw to cut the plastic foundation apart from its plastic frame, and then I used this foundation in wood frames. These frames were then the best ones I had.
The advantages of rigid plastic foundation (in wood frames) are significant. When the bees do a bad job of drawing foundation (as they sometimes may do on any foundation), producing areas of drone comb or cross comb, you can simply scrape the mess away and let the bees try again.
You can’t do this with other foundations. Wax moths a problem? Ditto as explained above. Also, if you (eventually) use a reversible extractor to spin out the honey, the rigid plastic won’t ever sag, as other foundations (especially when extracted for the first time) often do. Finally, if you are hiving package bees or a swarm on foundation, hard plastic foundation prevents any sagging, which can occur with other foundations due to the weight and warmth of bees (especially with deep frames). You should be able to find a supplier who will ship these hard plastic foundation/wood frames fully assembled. Bottom boards and covers will also be needed, and are available from suppliers.
Feeders for giving the bees sugar syrup will be needed (I know, I know, the bees are supposed to give you the sweet stuff. But most often you have to prime the pump, to get the bee colony populous and with enough drawn foundation to be ready for the main honey flow.) The traditional entrance feeder, consisting of a special receptacle and special lid for an inverted mason jar containing the syrup, is a good one to start with.
Other essential equipment includes a hive tool, used to pry apart the wooden hive components stuck together with propolis by the bees. A hive tool can also be used on a job as a roofer’s helper when you realize there’s no money to be made in beekeeping.
You’ll need a smoker (make sure it’s stainless steel). Its primary purpose is, when you light it, to remove from the back of your fingers any unsightly hair growing there. A smoker is also useful to calm the bees. Don’t forget a hat and bee veil, unless you want to surprise and astonish your friends. Metal-screened veils are best, but don’t let them get wet or even moist, they’ll rust out where the screen meets the fabric. I suppose you’ll also want to purchase a pair of bee gloves; and I also guess you’ll soon stop using them forever when you find out for yourself how hopelessly clumsy they are for handling frames or anything else. Things will start to get very interesting, at least for onlookers, when you suddenly discover an urgent need to re-tie your veil but are wearing bee gloves. And finally, a full bee suit would be great– for producing roasted beekeeper (you).
Queen excluders should not be used by beginners. Period. So what if the queen puts some brood where you wanted the winter stores or surplus honey to go? You can move the brood frame(s) down to where you want the brood to be, and you can extract just the frames you want to extract. I might mention that among some beekeepers, another (derisive, obviously) name for queen excluder is honey excluder. Yes, opinions differ. The beginner should avoid the whole argument.
You should not buy previously used beehives — there are too many concerns as regards diseases and mites. It is safest to purchase package bees from a reputable source, and hive them up yourself on completely new equipment. Sometimes, you might be able to join other beekeepers buying package bees; or, you can order them yourself for shipment by mail. Generally, you want to receive the bees as early as possible in the spring after the weather becomes suitable for flying (around 65 degrees).
Always start with two hives, not one. If a queen goes missing and there are no queen cells or eggs or young larvae present (for the bees to raise up a new queen themselves), you can add the queenless colony (using a sheet of newspaper to slow introductions) to the good one. Later, if you choose, you can re-divide into two colonies. (I do not recommend giving a long-queenless hive a frame of eggs/young larvae from the good colony to let them try to raise a new queen, because if they didn’t do it while they had eggs, it’s probably too late to expect them to do it now; but you do want to join them to a good hive before they develop laying workers.) Similarly, ordering a new queen might prove fruitless due to too great a time lapse since the colony went queenless.