While the sight of dollar signs adding up can leave your head spinning and even cause you to abandon your beekeeping foray altogether, there are alternatives that can enable beginning beekeepers to start for less. From building your own hive to purchasing used beekeeping gear, you can shave significant money off of that initial price tag.
1. DIY Hives
A beekeeper with good woodworking skills can build his or her own Langstroth or box hives, says Kim Flottum, beekeeper and editor in chief of Bee Culture Magazine. However, with the cost of materials today, building three or four boxes using new lumber plus purchasing new frames and beekeeping equipment can still run about the same as purchasing everything in a beginner’s kit. Even for the ambitious and experienced woodworker, Flottum recommends purchasing pre-fabricated frames. The detailed elements of snugly fitting frames and how they come together inside the hive for the bees require special skill and equipment.
Dean Cook, a Houston, Texas beekeeper regularly builds top-bar hives. The construction requirements for this style of hive are different from Langstroth hives in that the bees build comb without a wax foundation, hanging it from bars across the top of the hive body. Cook’s cost-effective approach includes repurposing old shelves into top-bar hives. However, top-bar beekeeping requires a different approach in terms of care, attention and honey harvesting, which should be kept in mind when getting started.
2. Beekeeping Equipment
There are risks with purchasing used beekeeping equipment, so do so with caution. Used hives can house the spores of American foul brood, a fatal bee disease, impacting the overall health of the hive.
“If it is possible, find an experienced beekeeper or county or state inspector to look over the equipment with you before you buy it,” Flottum says. “They can help determine if the equipment is too dirty. Even if the selling beekeeper has been treating the hive for symptoms of American foul brood, the hive itself will still harbor spores.”
After purchasing brood boxes or honey supers, Flottum recommends scorching the inside of each box with a propane torch. It only takes a few seconds to scorch the wood but it will help you sterilize the box before installing new bees. It will also help eliminate old wax and propolis, which can be another source of infection.
New and experienced beekeepers wishing to expand with used equipment should also skip the used frames and begin with fresh, Flottum says. Cleaning frames of old debris can be tedious and time consuming. There are too many places in frames for spores to remain even after a good cleaning, so overall, new frames are a good investment.
Smokers and hive tools are gear that should be washed with hot soapy water when purchased used. Some beekeepers keep a bucket of hot soapy water with them as they move from hive to hive, cleaning the tool between each inspection. At a minimum, hive tools should be cleaned after each beekeeping session. Smokers, for example, can get clogged with old smoking material and sticky from propolis and honey, so they should be cleaned inside and out with a hose.
3. Beekeeper Clothing
Bee suits and jackets can be purchased used, too, or obtained for free from a beekeeper who no longer needs them. Beekeeper clothing is designed to be machine washable and should be thoroughly washed before using. Suits with zip-on veils can be unzipped and veils can be washed by hand in hot soapy water. Flottum said bee suits should be washed four or five times a season—separately from family laundry because many family members develop allergies to bee venom through exposure to the beekeeper’s gear, including in the laundry.
4. Honey Harvesting Equipment
You can also wait to purchase harvesting equipment to save money in your first year as a beekeeper. A hive may need a year or more before you can harvest honey. Weather conditions and hive health play a role in honey production, and in the first year, most beekeepers leave honey in the hive as the winter store needed for survival.
That said, as you become ready to harvest, seek out extraction alternatives that will ease up on your pocketbook. A mentor is not only a great resource for information, strategy and encouragement, but also might have extraction equipment they can share or allow you to rent (for money or honey and wax). Beekeeping clubs also offer organized extraction events in commercial kitchens, which is a great way to get the job done on the cheap while meeting more experienced beekeepers.
Overall, beekeeping is a slow man’s sport, Flottum says. Start slow and don’t spend too much money, especially in the beginning. Getting greedy and moving too fast can lead to problems, both with your bees and your wallet.