As I talk to people who are contemplating whether or not to keep bees, I realize how many misconceptions there are out there about getting started in beekeeping. The purpose of this post is to clarify some of those concepts if you are considering going on the beekeeping journey.
Everyone who is interested in keeping bees is familiar with stacks of white boxes, a beekeeper in full garb, a dark cloud of smoke billowing as bees swarm up in the air around them. They are familiar with the rich honey that comes from the large centrifuges and stings. What most people do not realize is that this is only one way to keep bees: there are many other methods.
The traditional equipment of the Langstroth Hive (the aforementioned white boxes) is what we are used to seeing due to its high productivity in honey and ease of transport for large-scale operations. Lorenzo Langstroth was a brilliant man who wanted a beekeeping system that would be easier to inspect/handle. He had identified the necessary “bee space” width as ⅜ inch. He knew that if he could keep the bees from filling the empty space with comb or propolis, the hive would be easier to handle. He patented it and then began to find further ways to move beekeeping into a more industrialized world.
For many years, this was also the easiest and cheapest type of hive to produce, as it is made up of square frames. This design made it easy to manufacture with basic equipment and allowed for people to use whatever materials they could find. The design of commercial hives is useful in maximizing honey production over the course of time, but new studies and observations have shown that this equipment may not be best suited in raising healthy honey bee colonies.
Another way to keep bees is a hybrid design between the Langstroth style hive and the top bar hive. This hybrid design is known by most as a Warre Hive. This design tries to leverage the benefits of square boxes with the sustainable nature of top bar hives. By combining the simple manufacturing process of square boxes with the sustainable nature of the top bar hive, beekeepers now have a piece of equipment that is more helpful in raising healthy bees – but not completely. One major downfall of this style of equipment is that it is hard to manage and the bees struggle to grow as prolifically as they do in a top bar hive, and it is not easy to handle or manage the equipment. You actually have to add boxes on the bottom of the stack, rather than on top like you would in a Langstroth hive.
Although the Warre hive shows significant improvements in raising healthy bees due to the stacked top bar style of the hive, nothing compares to raising sustainable colonies like a top bar hive. A top bar hive is based on the ancient styles of hives used to keep bees by African tribes, the Greek philosophers, and many other cultures. The top bar hive is suitable in making it easy for people to keep bees with little physical exertion while creating a home for the bees that is as close to nature as what one would find if they found a feral honey bee colony. This style of hive is great for someone looking to enjoy bees for pollination and produce a combination of products like wax, honey and propolis instead of just honey, as in a Langstroth.
Overall, it is important to make sure that your intentions and goals of keeping bees are clear in your mind before making a decision on the style of equipment you will be purchasing. No matter what, beekeeping costs add up quickly and if you have the wrong style of equipment for your purposes, you may be stuck learning and practicing that philosophy until you are able to afford a different setup.
Honey bees are one of the most written about and studied creatures on the planet. Everyone from sustainability experts to journalists, politicians to scientists have an opinion and a story about honey bees and beekeeping. In fact, the joke about understanding bees is that if you are facing a challenge with your colony, go ask 10 beekeepers what to do and you will receive 13 different solutions, and they will all be absolutely correct.
Instead of trying to learn everything to know about beekeeping from the Internet, most people will attend a local beekeepers’ meeting. This can be a valuable activity, but I suggest not getting too caught up in the advice and discussion at these meetings. Sometimes the advice does not align with the your beekeeping philosophy. In fact, often it is best to work within the confines of the strategies and ideas you have initially learned. Test them, discuss with other like minded beekeepers and learn by keeping track of what works and what does not work.
Historically, beekeepers have been mostly men, but there is a shift happening in beekeeping, and more women are getting involved. However, women who attend beekeepers’ meetings often describe them as a “good old boys’ club.” That being said, go to them. Many times you can identify a mentor in traditional beekeeping or other like minded beekeepers who you can discuss beekeeping philosophies with outside of the meetings.
For many beekeepers, honey production is the most important reason they get into beekeeping. I suggest understanding exactly why you want to get into beekeeping before making any decisions. I have met people who want to get into beekeeping for any of the reasons below:
The list goes on and on.
Take some time and think about why you want to start keeping bees. This is important to better understand the type of investment you will be making. As stated earlier, there are many different styles of equipment. Each style of equipment is usually accompanied by a recommended philosophy that may dictate how you interact with your bees based on best practices for your geography and climate. Often the easiest thing to do is follow what everyone else is doing, but it may not be what you are looking for, so take some time and speak to a beekeeper who is open to discussing why they are keeping bees and could refer you to others who are keeping bees for a different reason.
Purchase the correct equipment for YOU.
I cannot state this enough. Sooo many people get caught in the trap of going with traditional hives because everyone shared their negative thoughts about every other beekeeping system. If I had a nickel for every time someone comes back to me a year later and says, “I should have listened to you about which type of equipment to buy,” I’d be rich. The traditional Langstroth Hive has its purpose. In its current design, it is used to maximize honey production. This is very important and has a place in the beekeeping ecosystem. Yet, there are individuals who are not interested in harvesting honey and just interested in pollination or education. So again, think about why you want to keep bees and purchase your equipment based on why.
Most people are unfamiliar with other concepts of hives that have their purpose, as well.
If you do purchase the incorrect equipment for your needs. That is ok. It is how you learn. I have seen beekeepers swap equipment or add to their equipment supply over time. Often beekeepers may have a combination of styles of equipment. In the Southeast USA, there are a number of beekeepers who will use Langstroths to produce honey and will use a compatible Top Bar Hive to produce bees. So your equipment may still come in handy down the road.
A rule of thumb we share with everyone interested in keeping bees: plan on spending somewhere between $1000 and $2000 in the first year (and this is on what I would consider the low end of things). When all the math adds up, consider what you will be paying for in both money, time and energy. Just the equipment to keep bees can range from really cheap, but low quality, to considerably more depending on what system or setup you are trying. Then purchasing protective equipment is always an adventure, as most veils and protective gear are never what works all the time through the season. It ends up not fitting correctly or being extremely uncomfortable because it is a thick cotton jumpsuit for the summer. These first two items alone can cost upwards of $1500.
Beyond just the equipment and tools, you now have to find education somewhere that makes sense. So the time determining which is the best way to keep bees for you can be difficult, expensive and time consuming. Then paying for association dues and dealing with all of the things that come up throughout the season. Each hiccup may call for a special widget, treatment or remedy.
For those people interested in producing honey as their reason for getting into beekeeping, in year one you will not produce the amount of honey you might be imagining. In year two and beyond, there will need to be funds available for purchasing honey extracting equipment and containers. All of which are well worth it, but can create a pretty big hole in your pocketbook.
All of these are things to consider – not to scare you away from beekeeping, but to make sure to think about what it takes. At Beepods, part of the process we take with prospective customers and clients is understanding their needs, so we can best help them determine answers to questions like these. We are also very open to the fact that we are not a good fit for everyone. Our systematic approach is great for many people, but some people are determined to go through discovering answers to these questions on their own and sorting through all of the information available out there.
We had someone in our local area call us up in 2015 because he had heard about our system. His daughter had shown up to one of our open apiary events and had really enjoyed working with the docile bees in the yard. Unfortunately, he was strongly questioning the financial resources necessary to invest in a Beepods Beekeeping System. We even offered to trade him for his system along with a fee in order to make sure everyone came out the other side with what they wanted. He still said that it would not work this year.
Well, 2016 rolls around and he called before spring even hit. He wanted our system because he said that he spent just as much and wasted a lot of time trying to figure out how to do things incorrectly, and he wanted help with becoming a successful beekeeper. So we set him up with a system in 2016.
This is not the only story like this. In fact, we get calls every year like this. It makes me smile because I know as a customer of some things I’m not always open to an alternate solution because I have already made up my mind. For the man in the story, it was the same thought process. “Let’s try out what we already have. It doesn’t work. I am eating my decision, but let’s try something better.”
One of the most challenging things I hear from people wanting to get into beekeeping is how they are trying to do everything on the cheap. For some, this is ok, but again, it really goes back to why understanding the purpose of getting into beekeeping is important. Just because you can build a box and throw some wooden sticks across the top does not mean that keeping bees is easy or cheap.
It all goes back to understanding why you want to get into beekeeping. If you take the time to figure out why you really want to get into beekeeping, the rest of the process will be a whole lot easier.