Potential new beekeepers often ask me what are the essential tools needed to get started in beekeeping? What do I really need? Beekeeping is a big expense up front, and it can be 2 years sometimes before you see a return on that investment. People usually want to know which tools they absolutely have to have, and which ones they could perhaps do without.
#1 Protective Gear
Bees are very sensitive to their beekeeper; they’ll know when you’re nervous or agitated and they’ll respond in kind. New beekeepers are understandably a little fearful of their bees at first─having that protective layer allows you to feel safe while working with the hive. When you feel safe you’ll relax and the bees will too, resulting in fewer stings.
I recommend some kind of veil and gloves at least, to get started in beekeeping. You can get a full suit, or a jacket/veil combos like the one (affiliate link) I recently purchased through Amazon. But you could also make do with a mosquito head-net, a pair of latex gloves, and a long sleeved shirt, which is what I did my first few years as a beekeeper.
Once you become more comfortable with the bees you may not need to use the gear for every trip to the apiary, but you’ll find there will be instances when you will want the added protection of the veil and gloves. Sometimes the bees can be “cranky”─during a nectar dearth for example, or when they suddenly find themselves Queenless, or if a skunk has been pestering them at night. Get some good protective gear and always have it with you when you go to the apiary.
#2 Hive Tool
The hive tool is probably one of my most-used tools─so much so that it fairly lives in my back-pocket during the beekeeping season. I don’t go to the apiary without it, and it’s nearly impossible to work the hives without this tool. Seriously! The bees will put wax and propolis everywhere and you will need some kind of tool to break the seal so that you can manipulate the covers and the frames and the boxes.
I prefer the hive tools with the little hook on one end so that I can get under the lip of the frames to lift them out of the box. The other end has a beveled edge, making it a great scraping tools for clearing away burr-comb or cleaning up boxes after winter losses.
In a pinch you could use a mini pry-bar or a screw driver, but the little hook-thing is such an advantage that I feel it’s worth the $7 investment in this tool. This particular hive tool (affiliate link) is offered by MannLake, and you can get it at an affordable price through Amazon.
#3 Smoker, Smoker-Fuel, and Lighter
Smoke interrupts the chemical pheromone signals that the bees use to communicate with one another. It also distracts the bees, causing an instinctual fear of fire to wash over them and so the bees will go down into the hive to gorge themselves on honey in the event that they should have to abandon the hive to fire. This interruption and distraction is what allows the beekeeper to get into the hive for maintenance.
I prefer the smokers with leather bellows because: a) I’m working to reduce the amount of plastic in my life, and b) the plastic ones have a tendency to crack with use over the span of a few years, and once they can’t hold air the smoker does not function.
The size of the smoker you will need depends upon the number of hives you’re working with. For most backyard beekeepers with 2-4 hives, the smaller smokers are fine. This smoker (affiliate link) is just $12.99 on Amazon and should get you started in your beekeeping adventures.
#4 Frame Grippers
I find I primarily use my frame grippers when I’m first getting into a hive. That first frame can be really difficult to pull up out of the box─fused together with wax and honey and bees, and wedged down between the other frames so that it doesn’t want to give. When used in tandem with the hive tool, the frame grippers make extracting that first frame so much easier on both the beekeeper, and the bees.
There are many different styles of frame grippers available; personally I prefer the straight forward metal ones because they’re durable and easy to clean─these aluminum frame grippers (affiliate link) are available for just under $10 at Amazon.
#5 Bee Brush
You won’t need this tool as frequently as you will the smoker or the hive tool, but when it’s time to harvest honey, or if you want to take a sample to check the mite-pressure in the colony, you’ll want a bee brush.
I have a bee brush like this (affiliate link), which is available on Amazon for $8.60, but my beekeeping mentor liked to use a large turkey feather. Whatever you choose, it should be soft─so that you don’t hurt the bees when you go to brush them off the frame.
You can’t beat Storey Publishing for good reference manuals, and their Storey’s Guide to Keeping Honey Bees is typically the book I include when I offer bee-schools. The Backyard Beekeeper, is another good reference book, with the added bonus of a chapter at the end about using beeswax; it includes some really nice recipes for salves and skin creams.
Once you’ve become acquainted with beekeeping, you’ll naturally start looking for next-level books and Brother Adam’s Beekeeping at Buckfast Abbey is one of the most illuminating manuscripts out there. Brother Adam was in charge of all beekeeping at Buckfast Abbey in England between 1919 and 1992. This is not a how-to book; it’s more of a general account of the beekeeping as it was carried out at Buckfast and passed down through the ages. The book offers insight on techniques for rearing and breeding Queens, bee care, seasonal hive management, honey production and even mead-making.
What you require for you hive will depend on the style and methods you decide to go with. The traditional Langstroth hive is still the most common type of hive used in beekeeping, but many new beekeepers are having good luck with the Top Bar hives, which have the added benefit of being easy to construct from repurposed materials.
If you go with the Langstroth you will need the following for each hive:
- Telescoping Cover
- Inner Cover
- Bottom Board
- Boxes for Hive Bodies*
- Boxes for Honey Supers*
- Entrance Reducer
- Hive Stand
*The number of boxes you’ll need to invest in will be contingent upon how you choose to set up your hives. Standard set up for a Langstroth hive is 2 deeps, and I usually recommend having 4 honey supers on hand. However, more and more beekeepers are choosing to use medium boxes exclusively on their hives because they’re easier to lift. 3 medium boxes are essentially the equivalent of 2 deeps if you decide to go with mediums, but it might be a good idea to keep at least 1 deep box on hand in case you should ever need to buy replacement nucleus colonies, as those tend to come in a deep nuc box. Generally it costs about $200 on average for the hive pieces.
I’m fortunate to live within driving range of Humble Abodes in Windsor, Maine, which allows me to save on shipping. This is a Maine-based company manufacturing woodenware─the hive boxes, tops and bottoms, and frames. They supply large beekeeping operations as well as hobbyists across New England and the East Coast, using Maine’s own Eastern White Pine, which grows in abundance in our state to produce easy to assemble equipment.
I’d recommend searching locally for quality woodenware first, but if you don’t have a good source within driving range, check out Brushy Mountain Bee Farm.
Be wary of buying used equipment. Used equipment may be carrying diseases that killed it’s previous occupants. Residues that are left behind can live for years and you could be slowly or quickly killing your honeybee investment by putting them in dangerous equipment. Unless you know why the equipment is available and how it was used, I would avoid used hive equipment.
Bees, like any other livestock, sometimes need supplemental feed in order to survive. You’ll need a way to be able to offer sugar-syrup to the bees. There are many feeders available commercially, but for the small-scale or backyard beekeeper, I recommend the mason-jar.
Simply take a quart-sized mason jar, which most homesteaders and farmers have around the house anyway, perforate the lid and then fill with sugar-syrup. Place the feeder directly on the inner cover, inside another box and under the telescoping cover.
Voila! A bee-feeder!
Beekeepers should always have extra sugar on-hand for feeding their bees. New packages and nucleus colonies need to be fed in order to grow strong enough to fill their hives and survive the winter. Even after a colony is fully established there are times when they require supplemental feeding, like when there’s a dearth in the nectar flow, or during a poor season.
Avoid raw sugar, which can cause dysentery in the hive. This is one case where the refined granulated sugar is the better option for the health of the colony.
Naturally you’re going to need bees to put in your beehive, lol. Certainly you can save on the cost of the bees if you can catch a swarm to install in your hive, but swarms are not as common today as they were 30 years ago. And with so many new beekeepers all vying for free bees, you might have a hard time filling your hive that way.
I strongly encourage new beekeepers to seek out a local apiary offering nucleus colonies from hardy stock adapted to your specific region. Check with your state’s beekeepers’ association for a list of suppliers near you, and be prepared to order well in advance of the season. Here in Maine, if you haven’t ordered your nucs by the end of February, you’ll have a hard time finding any at all; pricing can range anywhere between $125 to $180 for 4 or 5 frame overwintered nucleus colonies.
It’s a wise idea to prepare in advance of the beekeeping season so that all of your equipment is assembled, painted and ready to go when you need it. Get a tool box for your beekeeping tools. Stow your veil and gloves beside the smoker along with extra fuel, and keep everything at the ready in case of emergency.
Beekeeping (unless you’re managing larger numbers of hives) doesn’t take a whole lot of time, but it is time sensitive. Typically, when you need something you need it immediately and delaying hive manipulations because you need to put a box together or because you have to run to the store for sugar before you can make more syrup, can cause a chain of events which could result in the eventual demise of the colony. Beekeepers should always bee proactive (had to go there lol, sorry-not sorry!) to ensure the survival of their colonies, such is the nature of beekeeping today.
Do you have a beekeeping tool you just couldn’t do without? Share it with us by leaving a comment below!