Like many other hobbies and pastimes, the start-up costs to get kitted out in beekeeping are a bit steep. But once you have the gear, much of it will last a lifetime, and only certain parts need occasional replacement and repair. The real danger is beekeeping's addictive nature. It starts with one hive, and then a few more. Before you know it you have a couple dozen hives in three locations and a very sticky pickup truck. If that happens to you, know that you are in good company. But for anyone looking to start with just one hive, here are the basic pieces of equipment.
Note: As always, there are many different opinions on the correct way to set up a hive, what to wear, what is essential, what is superfluous, etc. These are my own opinions based on my own experiences in northern New England using traditional equipment. I encourage anyone with an interest to read a few books and, most importantly, talk to a local beekeeper about what works in your area.
• Hive Bodies and Covers: These are the boxes that the bees live in and where they store honey. There are three different sizes: deep, medium and shallow. I like to use two deeps for the living quarters (where the bees lay their eggs and store the pollen and nectar that will get them through the winter), and shallows for the honey supers. I used mediums as honey supers once and they were ridiculously heavy when full, so I switched to shallows. There are two covers needed, a wooden inner cover and a weatherproof outer cover.
• Frames: These are the structures where the bees create the honeycomb, which they then fill with eggs, nectar, or pollen. There are many different types. I use a few plastic frames I inherited but mostly more traditional wooden ones. These have a delicate beeswax wafer in the center, called foundation, which the bees draw out into full honeycomb. There are nine or ten frames per hive, depending on your methods.
• Bottom Boards: A bottom board is basically what it sounds like, a board that goes below all of the other hive components. There are screened bottom boards, solid ones, and some with built-in entrance reducers.
• Protective Clothing: Everyone has an opinion on how much protective gear you should wear when tending your bees. Almost everyone wears a veil, which is the netted headgear that protects your face. After that it comes down to comfort level. You can buy a full set of coveralls, just a jacket, long leather gloves, and even white rubber boots. I go with jeans, sneakers and a jacket with attached veil. And while I did not always wear gloves, after a few stings on my hand that made my fingers swell up like sausages, I am now a glove man.
• Smoker: Your best friend and worst enemy. You will love it because nothing calms down an agitated hive of bees like a few puffs of cool white smoke. You will hate it because it will never stay lit in your early beekeeping days and inevitably go out when you are elbow deep in the second hive body. Practice lighting and maintaining your smoker, often. Trust me on this one, it is time well spent. Of course, whether your smoker stays lit depends largely on your smoker fuel, which is another hotly contested topic. I have found that nothing beats pine shavings, which are readily available as hamster bedding in pet stores.
• Hive Tool: This is sort of a sharp pry-bar, useful for many tasks but mainly used for separating and removing frames from a hive body.
• Feeder: Supplemental feeding of bees in spring and fall is a common practice. The usual food is a sugar syrup you make yourself, using different ratios of sugar to water depending on the season.
• Uncapping Knife: This implement removes the wax covering that the bees deposit over the honey to keep it from absorbing water. This is done right before the honey is extracted. This can be as simple as a long flat knife dipped in hot water to a heated one you plug in.
• Extractor and Containers: Extractors are expensive pieces of equipment that no novice with one hive should purchase for their own use. It is much more economical for a number of beekeepers to share one extractor. The extractor itself is sort of a centrifuge, which spins uncapped frames of honey at a high speed until all of the honey clings to the sides of the extractor and is dripped to the bottom, which has a spout for easy removal of the honey into a bucket or jars. Jars and containers come in as many shapes and sizes as you can imagine; you'll need some for your harvest.
• Electric Fence: If you live in bear country, you need a fence. Otherwise you will end up buying a lot of equipment a second time.
• Bees (of course!): Bees are shipped in what is called a 'package', which usually consists of three pounds of bees and a mated queen. Three pounds equals about 10,000 bees, and they come in a shoebox sized wooden box with screened sides. These used to be shipped directly to individuals by mail, but now it is much more common to have them delivered to a central location for pick-up, usually a beekeeping supply store.
That covers the basics. There are a bunch of other things, from beekeeping books to honey jar labels, that you will no doubt find useful and end up spending some money on. Remember, beekeepers love to share, be it information or equipment, so ask around before you dive in. But be wary of purchasing used hive bodies and frames — deadly mites can live on old gear, so be sure to know who you are buying from.
(Image 1 by Flickr member tracywoolery licensed for use under Creative Commons. Image 2: Williams-Sonoma. Image 3: Richard Popovic)