Other than a sensitive and intuitive feel for the bees, a bit of flexibility, and a good sense of humor, there are few physical necessities to tending a hive of domestic honeybees. But that’s not to say several key pieces of equipment won’t enhance your beekeeping experience: A few well-placed tools can make the interactions with your bees simpler, smoother, more fun and a whole lot safer.
1. Protective Gear
The first equipment that beekeepers should consider purchasing is protective clothing. But for some beekeepers, the barriers of large, billowy bee suits can interfere with their ability to connect with the bees. It all depends on your personality and how you use the equipment.
Thankfully, many available wardrobe choices are available. On one end of the spectrum, full bee suits cover every inch of skin from head to toe. However, they are more costly than smaller items of protective clothing, averaging about $95 for a traditional suit because they often include everything: beekeeper’s veil, jacket and pants, either in separate pieces or in a jumper-style suit. Coveralls, which are protective jumpers that omit the veil, are often less, averaging around $75.
Protective gear is also available in individual pieces: Some beekeepers choose to only wear a veil or, my preference, a veil-and-jacket combo. Jackets are available in ventilated or solid cotton-blend styles and can range from $60 to $80. Pants are available separately from the jacket, and coordinating styles may zipper together or simply have elastic around the hems for a tight, bee-safe fit. These britches cost around $35 and, like the cuffs of their jacket counterparts, have elastic at the ankle. Gloves, which often cost about $25, are often ventilated with long sleeves and have elastic around the cuff for a secure fit.
Many natural beekeepers omit gloves because they prefer the dexterity that bare hands afford them. Some prefer not to use protective clothing at all. If you pass on every other piece of protective gear, at the very least, consider using a veil. Despite our best efforts to be sensitive, gentle and considerate, stings are an inevitable part of keeping bees, and it would be prudent to protect the delicate tissues of the face. Veils range in price between $30 and $60, depending on the style, but are priceless when it comes to safety and comfort.
While clothing options are a personal choice, remember that the bees respond most to the energy you put out during an inspection. If you are at ease around them and feel comfortable, they’ll respond in kind. If you’re feeling clumsy, apprehensive or generally afraid, they’ll pick up on this, as well. So, choose your clothing choices based purely on your needs of safety and comfort—not what other beekeepers say or do.
2. The Smoker
Of all the tools in the beekeeper’s shed, the smoker is the most used and the most iconic. Smoke acts as a buffer to the honeybee’s pheromone alarm system: When smoke is present in a hive of bees, it renders their ability to communicate inactive, temporarily placating the bees. Without messages of danger spreading through the hive, the beekeeper can more easily go about the tasks of hive inspections, frame removals, splits and honey extractions.
The smoker is often made of high-quality stainless steel with a solid chimney, metal guards to protect the beekeeper’s hands and bellows made of wood and leather. Once lit, the smoke gently floats out through a small opening at the top.
There are few variations on the traditional beekeeper’s smoker, and any that you find in a beekeeping catalog will likely be suitable for your needs, big and small. A smoker typically costs between $30 to $40 and is a wise investment.
3. The Hive Tool
While not strictly necessary for inspections, some beekeepers would argue that, without a hive tool, inspecting some hives is nearly impossible. The hive tool is a solid, flat, metal tool, often about 1/4 inch thick, 2 inches wide and 7 inches long. Hive tools have one tapered sharp end and one tapered curved end. They’re often manufactured in bright colors, such as bold red and lemon yellow, so they’re easy to find in the bee yard.
The hive tool’s roles are nearly endless; mainly, they help the beekeeper pry up and remove frames heavy with propolis—a sticky substance made from tree resin, affectionately known by beekeepers as bee glue—that may be literally glued in place. The hive tool can be used to scrape away propolis, cut open honeycomb, squash unwanted intruders, such as hive beetles, and much more. Hive tools are an easy purchase and worth having around, especially at the $7 price tag.
4. The Bee Brush
This tool is a very soft bristled brush used to gently remove bees from frames, honey supers or another area where they may be congregating in the beekeeper’s way. Of course, just how gentle a bee brush actually can be is determined by the force used by the person wielding it.
Some beekeepers have mixed feelings about using a bee brush with frequency; though the bristles are soft, a forceful brush can damage tiny and delicate bee parts, such as legs and wings. It may also anger and frustrate bees, leading to increased alarm pheromones, higher chances of stings, and an overall more stressful beekeeping experience for both the humans and the bees. Other beekeepers feel the brush has its place, especially when it comes to honey extractions. For the $6 cost, it doesn’t hurt to have one in your bee basket to see if it works for you.
5. Extracting Equipment
Whether manual or electric, small-scale or commercial, most extractors work the same way: Within their large, stainless-steel cylindrical bodies are several baskets that hold honey frames. Centrifugal force, either manual or electric, pulls the honey from the frames, where it drips down the inside walls of the extractor toward a spigot at the bottom. From there, honey runs through a food-grade strainer, is allowed to rest in bottling buckets for about 24 hours and is then bottled.
Honey extracting and bottling equipment is by no means a necessity for most beekeepers, even if you plan on harvesting honey several times per year. In fact, in most established beekeeping communities, local clubs will have several honey extractors available for rent by the club. In my local club, the nominal fee to rent all of the extracting equipment for a long weekend is only $25.
With that said, there’s no need to deny yourself the ease and convenience of having your own extracting equipment if it’s important to you. A spontaneous extraction of a certain honey varietal after an especially good honey flow is part of the fun of keeping bees. I’ll never forget the year we managed to pull a beautiful little harvest of pure, coveted sourwood honey and were able to harvest it before the bees included other varietals because we had our own equipment handy.
As with most hobbies, newcomers to beekeeping can invest a pretty penny on all of the gadgets and gizmos that the catalogs have to offer or simply make do with what’s around. Over the years of keeping bees myself, I’ve found it easy to strike a balance with just a few necessary tools. But that’s just me. The truth of the matter is that every beekeeper is different in his or her style and physical needs, be it a bad back, arthritis or poor eyesight, so what might not work for me might be a lifesaver for you, or vice versa.