As beekeepers, we are often asked this question. It is said that if you ask 10 beekeepers the same question, you will likely get 12 different answers. What follows is one beekeeper’s opinion. (Please note that several of the links provided here take you to product pages on the Mann Lake Ltd. web site. They are only one of several sources for the items that we mention. Feel free to use any other source that you can find, now that you know what to look for.)
The best advice that we can give you is to take a course in beekeeping. Then watch videos on the web and/or read everything you could find on the topic. Attend as many club meetings as you can (we meet on the fourth Monday of each month). Subscribe to a beekeeping magazine like Bee Culture or The American Bee Journal. If you know a beekeeper and are able to use their services as a mentor, you will find this task much easier. Education is critical so that you are going in to this venture with confidence.
Beyond education, there are a number of items that you will need to assemble before day 1. They fall into 4 general categories – Tools, Safety Equipment, Hive Equipment, and Nutrition. Let’s look at each of these..
First and foremost in this group are a hive tool and smoker. Honey bees are experts at building wax and gluing everything together with a sticky substance called propolis.
A hive tool is a combination scraper and pry bar which will both help you get stuck pieces apart and also help you clean deposits in areas that make tending to your bees difficult. Hive tools come in a number of shapes and styles, and everyone has their favorite. Purchase the one that looks good to you and see how it goes.
You may also consider acquiring a frame gripping tool. This is not a necessary piece of gear, but it can make hive inspections a bit easier for a beginner wearing gloves.
When working with your bees you will want them to be as calm as possible. A smoker is a tool that will help accomplish that goal. Smoke will mask any alarm pheromones and also cause the bees to fill their stomachs with honey in case the colony needs to relocate. With full stomachs the bees will be much less excitable and easier to work with. You will hear beekeepers who claim to never use smoke. You may get to that point as you learn more about your bees. But the best advice we can offer up front is to always use smoke when opening your hive until you find that you don’t need it.
The honey bees natural instinct when they feel that their hive is threatened is to sting their attacker’s eyes, ears, nose and throat. Do not even consider working with your first group of bees without protecting your self with a veil, veiled jacket or full bee suit. You will likely see many beekeepers posting videos of themselves working their hives without any head protection. Remember that these are experienced keepers used to being stung and knowing how to not excite their hives. Many of us started with veiled jackets. We quickly learned not to wear black jeans. Black articles of clothing can make us look like bears visiting the hives.
Another piece of safety gear we recommend is gloves. This is a another topic of great debate among beekeepers. As you get comfortable with your bees you may find that you can handle your bees without gloves. However, its not likely that you will have this level of comfort on day one. Look for soft leather gloves with long cuffs. Many of our members have had success with extra thick vinyl gloves with long cuffs.
The equipment used to house your bees is often referred to as woodenware. The configuration we will discuss is the commonly used Langstroth Hive. At its most basic, a hive consists of a bottom board with entrance reducer, a brood box containing 8 or 10 frames with foundation (the surface upon which the bees build their comb), an inner cover and a telescoping top cover. When you first start beekeeping it is suggested that you purchase or obtain a complete hive set that will take you through your first season. this consists of two brood boxes with frames and foundation and two additional smaller boxes called honey supers. These are not as tall as brood boxes which makes then easier to handle when filled with honey. They also hold 8 or ten frames with foundation and will match the configuration of your brood boxes. Complete kits are available with or without a starter package of tools and safety equipment. Woodenware can be purchased assembled or unassembled, and painted or unpainted. What you purchase will depend on your skills, available time and budget.
It is not recommended that you pace your hive directly on the ground. Elevating it about 16 inches give you a measure of protection from invading skunks and other varmints. Hive stands can be made from scrap lumber, cinder blocks, or you can purchase metal or plastic stands to hold your hive. As a side benefit, elevating your hive makes it much easier to work with.
Once in place, you should secure your hive setup with a ratchet strap, or place a brick or heavy object on top of the top cover. This will prevent raccoons from climbing atop your setup and peeling the top cover off to gain access to a tasty snack. It will also keep your top cover in place during heavy windstorms.
If you live in an area where bears are commonly sighted, you should consider some form of bear fencing. Our members can give you good advice in this area as well.
The last thing to prepare when getting ready to setup a new hive is nutrition for your bees. No matter where your bees come from or how they are packaged, they will be hungry when you first put them into your hive. Giving them adequate supplies of feed will allow them to prosper. We always provide a new hive with a pollen patty, and a solution of 1:1 sugar water (1:1 by weight or volume). The pollen patty is typically placed directly on top of the frames of the brood box. (As a service to our club members, we sell pollen patties at our package pick-up event) The sugar syrup can be supplied to the bees in a number of different ways. Our favorite is to fill a quart ‘Mason’ jar with syrup, cover it with a lid pierced several times with a small finishing nail, and placing it lid down over the oval hole in the inner cover. To protect the jar, you can place your second brood box (with the frames removed) over the inner cover and replace the to cover over that.
We hope that this gives you a good starting point for your adventure into beekeeping. We will try to add more information to our web site, and we are always available to answer you questions through our contact us link and our club email address. Remember, the best thing you can do to prepare for your adventure is to watch videos, read everything you can find, take classes when they are available, and seek out current beekeepers for help and advice.