Field Guide to Beekeeping

March 2015

The Basic Start-up Costs Associated with Keeping Bees

by Jamie Ellis

(excerpt)

Beekeeping is not a free endeavor. Very few people inherit bees and all of the equipment needed to keep them. There are costs associated with becoming a beekeeper, and these costs can be unpredictable to, and perhaps unanticipated by, the new beekeeper. I sympathize with new beekeepers. They often jump right into an endeavor that is hard to understand and, worse still, hard to know where to start.

A good first step when getting into beekeeping is to contact an equipment manufacturer/provider to request a copy of their equipment catalog. Most equipment supply companies have online catalogs that can be browsed easily. Though these catalogs provide a useful way to learn the terms associated with beekeeping (they are, after all, a visual dictionary of all of the parts of our craft), they can be impossible for the new beekeeper to navigate. They are full of equipment, supplies, and choices. They are a veritable smorgasbord of confusion for the person who knows little about the craft they are beginning to embrace.

So, how does one know what equipment is needed to become a beekeeper and what are the startup costs associated with becoming a beekeeper? I get this two-part question a lot. Thus, I decided to write an article that can be used by new and seasoned beekeepers alike to understand what the basic costs are associated with getting started in beekeeping. I hope this article will provide the new beekeeper a blueprint for deciding how to move forward. I also hope that seasoned beekeepers can use this article when training/mentoring new beekeepers.

How many colonies should the beginner purchase?
It is important to know that I wrote this article with the true beginner in mind. The article does not reflect startup costs from bees, to honey house, to a full-size pollination business. Instead, I focus on the new beekeeper who wants to acquire one to three colonies. For the record, I tell all new beekeepers to begin with three colonies, this up from the two colonies I recommended for years.

Why start with more than one colony? First, starting with a single colony is a gamble because you never really know if the colony is doing well or if it is failing. This occurs because you have no other colonies to which you can compare the one. Is the colony succeeding or floundering? Is it producing a normal amount of honey for the area or under producing? Should it be bringing in pollen, raising brood, or shrinking in population? These questions are easier to answer if you have multiple colonies that you can compare to one another.

A second reason to start with multiple colonies concerns having the biological material needed to remedy a weak colony. What do I mean by this? Well, a known reality of beekeeping is that colonies falter, stumble, and otherwise succumb to stressors throughout the year. Knowing that this is happening is one thing, but being able to remedy the situation is another. Imagine that your one colony becomes hopelessly queenless and failed to make viable queen cells (something that happens enough that it cannot be considered an anomaly). What are you going to do? Order a queen? Sure. That might work during spring or early summer, but what about if it happens in fall? Having a second, or third, colony allows you to give the queenless colony frames of eggs taken from otherwise healthy colonies. Beekeepers find themselves needing to exchange frames of bees, brood, pollen, and honey between colonies for a number of reasons. This cannot be done if you only have one colony.

Third: colonies die. This can be extremely upsetting to the new beekeeper, so-much-so that they become too discouraged to begin anew. Starting with two-to-three colonies makes a new beekeeper more likely to remain a beekeeper since they must continue to keep their remaining colonies alive. New beekeepers already are making a significant investment in the craft so they might as well set themselves up for success.

Finally, starting with more than one colony allows the new beekeeper to grow his or her operation, if so desired, because of this simple truth: bees make bees. Having a few colonies allows you to make a few more the next year, and a few more the next year still.
I understand that starting with three or more colonies can be cost prohibitive for many new beekeepers. However, I would not recommend starting with only one unless there simply are no other options.

Table of the startup costs associated with beekeeping
Having been asked the question “what is this going to cost me” over and over, I decided to develop a table that outlines the startup costs associated with keeping bees. In Table 1, I list only the costs associated with acquiring essential personal protective equipment, some basic tools, the “complete” hive, and some miscellaneous components, including bees. I do not include any costs associated with extracting and processing honey, running a pollination business, or becoming a nuc, queen, or package bee producer. I consider these costs to be outside the ordinary realm of costs necessary to become a beekeeper. Sure, the average beginning beekeeper will need access to honey extraction and processing equipment. However, this specialty equipment often can be accessed via one’s beekeeping mentor, through one’s local beekeeping club, or even through a beekeeper who lives nearby but to whom you otherwise have no tie. This type of equipment is not needed on the front end.

I am sure that there are items I inadvertently left out of the table. Hopefully these overlooked items will not otherwise prove necessary. It is important that new beekeepers shop around when considering what equipment to purchase. This ensures that they will get the most out of their investment. It also behooves the beginning beekeeper to work with their beekeeping mentor to identify reputable equipment manufacturers who sell quality items and stand by their workmanship.

Below, I provide a key for understanding ...