Many devoted gardeners are ready to take the next step and find themselves wondering how to start beekeeping. The good news is, if you’ve already established flower and vegetable beds, you’ll discover that getting started in keeping bees forms a natural and easy extension of your current skills. And as all garden enthusiasts know, we need bees to pollinate our veggies and fruits, too. Adding a hive or two will promote better production in your garden as well as providing honey and beeswax.
Because so much bad news about bees has hit the newswires, beekeeping has become popular again. Many of those concerned about the environment have added hives and pollinator plants even in urban spaces. But many wrongly think that getting set up with hives and bees means investing a lot of time and money. Every beginning beekeeper should take the time to learn how to start beekeeping properly, whether as a hobby or a side gig.
After all, bees are living beings that deserve our care and respect. But it certainly doesn’t take much money. You’ll find a number of free beekeeping classes in your area and how-to videos online. And setting up doesn’t have to cost a lot of money, either. Looking for tips on how to start beekeeping for very little money? We’ll give you low-cost ways to get everything you need, from hives, supplies, and even bees, on a budget.
Why You Should Keep Bees
Bees have proven their worth over many centuries of agriculture. They’re vital pollinators for our crops, which means we’d be pretty hungry if there were no bees. Their honey is also one of the few completely natural sweeteners around, and many experts say it helps treat allergies, inflammation, and other health conditions. Even if it weren’t healthful, honey packs a lot of nutritional punch. Other animals have learned to raid beehives for the rich, sweet calorific taste of honey.
Essential Things for Aspiring Beekeepers to Consider
Before you start building your first hive, you need to ask yourself a few questions. Are you up to the job of beekeeping? Do you have the space and time it deserves? Are you or anyone else in your house allergic to bee stings? These are some important questions to ask.
Although anyone in reasonably good health can tend a hive or two, you should be somewhat fit or at least have help and accommodation to care for your beehives. There is some heavy lifting, and you may be outside in all types of weather. Although they won’t take up all your time, you’ll still need to check on them monthly, provide food and water daily, as well as repair hives and collect honey as required. Another critical consideration is allergies. For those allergic to them, bee stings can be fatal. So be sure that no one in your household, and even in neighboring homes, will suffer.
Before learning how to start beekeeping, make sure your back lawn has enough space to accommodate them. A typical suburban plot of one-tenth to a quarter acre is usually large enough for one or two hives. If you also use your lawn for recreation and entertaining, keep that in mind. Your vegetable and flower gardens won’t impact your hive at all, of course, but space taken up with swing sets, barbecues, and pools will.
Particularly if you plan to use anything to discourage insects in your yard. Although that fogger is meant for mosquitoes, your bees will be negatively impacted as well. So, keep that in mind. You’ll also probably need a shed to keep your beekeeping equipment dry and safe. If you don’t have one, or your current shed seems too small, you’ll need to consider extra space for your tools.
Nearby food and water sources
Of course, if you’re wondering how to start beekeeping, you’re already planning their food sources. If you haven’t set up a dedicated flower and vegetable garden, you’ll need to make sure that there are plenty of food sources in nearby yards, fields, and farms. Honeybees, in particular, like to draw all their pollen from the same species during their hunting forays, so make sure that plenty of one kind of flower grows nearby to feed that urge.
Laws and zoning
Make sure your local zoning board approves beekeeping where you live. Check before doing anything, because there may be rules or ordinances where you live that prevent them. This is also a concern if you live in a neighborhood with a Homeowners Association.
Check with neighbors
No one wants to be responsible for sending the neighbor kid to the hospital. So before setting up your beehives, make sure that nearby neighbors and any children that frequently enter your property are aware of them and can precautions. Especially if you reside in a neighborhood where many children roam free and cut through yards, make sure that your beehives aren’t an “attractive menace.” Camouflage them from curious children behind bush screens or paint them in earth tones that keep your hives safe and well hidden.
How to Start Beekeeping with Basic Equipment
Choosing just the bare minimum equipment without fancy gadgets is how to start beekeeping for cheap. And thankfully, you can make much of it yourself. In other cases, buying secondhand equipment also saves money on your new venture. To get started, you’ll need:
- Beehive with stand
- Frames and foundation
- Feeders and water Source
- Veil, gloves, and long sleeve white shirt for protection
- Smoker with smoker fuel
- Hive tool for handling frames
- Brush for removing bees from frames
Save Money When Buying Beekeeping Equipment
The best way how to start beekeeping for cheap is to not spend it on things you don’t need. Not only will you save money on buying it, you’ll save money on storing it. The less equipment you have, the less likely you’ll need to add another shed to your yard.
Saving on Beehives
Once you’ve determined how many hives you and your land can support, you’ll need to choose which kind of beehive you want. Bees create beeswax sheets that hang vertically inside man-made beehives, which you support from a bar placed at the top. Some beehives use frames inside the hive so that the bees can build their beeswax cells enclosed in the frame to keep it stable. This supports the wax, which can bend when handled while harvesting the honey. Using wooden or plastic frames allows the beekeeper to remove comb and honey by removing just a frame or two. The three most common beehive types are:
- Top bar hive
- Langstroth hive
- Warre hive
If you’re going to purchase a beehive, rather than build one, you can purchase kits that require assembly. You can save a few dollars in this way. For even greater savings, find an apiary supplier nearby to pick up your kit rather than having it shipped. Wood quality is often one place where you can save money. Most manufacturers of beehives use red cedar because of its durability. However, you can also use pine if necessary. And especially if you’re just starting out, opt for medium sized bee boxes rather than going straight for the biggest beehive you can find.
Build Your Own Beehives
In nature, bees find hollows in trees to nest and develop their honeycombs. They store honey at the top and along the sides of a natural hive to protect the brood within. The brood nest and queen are housed below the honey, at the lowest and deepest level of their hive.
To channel their natural inclinations, your built hive should allow them to follow their instincts. If you have relatively decent carpentry skills, you can make your own hive from scrap lumber. This will save you the most significant portion of your start-up budget, too. You’ll find a wealth of DIY building plans for a variety of hive types for free. For building a Langstroth or Warre type beehive, visit Self Sufficient Living to download 10 free building plans.
Top bar hives - the ultimate budget beehive
If you’re trying to start beekeeping on a budget, choose the simplest and least expensive hive type you can. The top bar hive is not only the easiest for a beginner to use, it also requires fewer materials to make. Top bar hives are simply wooden boxes elevated on wooden legs. Inside the hive, sticks laid across the top allow the bees to build their combs with beeswax.
These don’t include any extra bells and whistles like frames or queen excluders. This provides the perfect setup for someone who has just learned how to start beekeeping. Even those with physical limitations find it easier than more expensive and complex models. You’re basically providing a home for the bees to furnish as they prefer. When it’s ready to harvest, you can remove the top and remove the honey by removing a chunk of honeycomb.
Then, return the roof and let the bees get on with their business. This model provides less disturbance for the bees and less work for the humans. Everyone wins. You can build a top bar hive with hand tools and recycled or leftover wood. Avoid treated wood, like decking, for the sake of your bees’ and your own health. But, If you’re handy or know someone else who is, building your own top bar hive is inexpensive and straightforward. And the instructions are free online.
Save on hive stands
Bees like their hives up off the cold, damp ground, and you'll need a stand for your hive. The good news is that bees aren’t particularly fussy about the way their stands look. They’re more concerned with interior construction. You can build a stand out of scrap wood or use cheap concrete blocks or leftover bricks. You can use bark mulch (about $3 a bag) around the stand to reduce puddles and mud.
If you're using a hive with frames, you can save money by purchasing used ones from a local beekeeper. But do keep in mind that this is one place you may want to splurge. Unless you’re absolutely sure of the former tenants’ health, you may be better off buying new. If you decide to purchase used ones, you’ll need a frame cleaning tool to remove all the beeswax from the frames, plus some elbow grease to remove it from all the nooks and crannies. You can also make your own hive frames with leftover lumber from other projects. If you’re handy, watch the following video to learn how.
Save on foundation
For beehives using frames, many keepers add sheets of foundation wax to give the bees a head start in their wax making. This ensures the bees build within the frame instead of wherever it suits them. Using frames helps you remove the honey you want later. It takes a bit more time and attention, but you can also use a 1-inch strip of foundation wax on the end of the starter bar instead of using the whole sheet.
Foundation sheets cost a few dollars a piece, so this helps you cut down on costs when setting up your hive. You can allow nature to do its thing and use frames without foundations. However, you’ll need to add a strip of starter wax to the top bar. This video will show you how.
Painting your beehives
Another significant source of savings is in painting. If you want to camouflage your hives to hide them, you may want to paint your bee boxes. And if you live in a hot climate where temperatures regularly exceed 90 degrees Fahrenheit, a coat of white or light-colored paint will help keep your bees cool in the hot sun.
Remember, your bees are more interested in the interior décor, so look for rejected paints at your local hardware store. These are often called “oops” paint, as in “Oops, this is the wrong color,” and you’ll find them in the paint department as returns you can purchase for pennies on the dollar of the original cost. Besides, painting your hives and their entrances different colors may help bees find the right ones.
So, Where to Find These Bees
Unfortunately, you can’t adopt a bee colony from the local animal shelter, even in the most rural counties. When finding out how to start beekeeping for cheap, it naturally follows that you’ll realize the absolutely cheapest way is to capture wild bees. Who can turn down free bees?
Capturing a swarm
When bees start to feel crowded, they’ll swarm and migrate to find a new hive. The queen takes off with about 60 percent of her worker force to look for new lodgings. If you’re really intent on saving money, you can capture hundreds, even thousands of bees.
There are some pros and cons to this method, however. First of all, capturing a wild swarm of bees is not an activity for the faint-hearted. The swarm could also have some health problems, including an older queen who isn’t up to snuff for staring a new colony. On the other hand, you’ll be sure to find bees that know the region and where to find food.
Trapping Honey Bees
Although you could capture a beehive by climbing a ladder and knocking an existing colony into a container, you may find this too extreme. You could get injured and badly stung, and there are simply better ways. To capture a nearby swarm without knocking them out of a tree, set out a prepared trap. Place a large cardboard box, about 10 to 15 gallons large, about 15 feet off the ground.
The trap should have a small opening of about 2 inches near the bottom, with the entrance facing south. Place an empty or “drawn” honeycomb on a frame or use a pheromone attractant. Lemongrass also attracts bee swarms. Check the trap every day for bees, and if you’re lucky, some scouts will find it pretty quickly. Give the swarm about a week to move in. The following video offers more complete details:
Call an exterminator
Some people don’t appreciate bees, or simply don’t like where they’re nesting on their property. In this case, a bee removal expert may be able to help you out. Check with your local exterminator or hive remover to find out if he or she can hook you up with some local honeybees.
You can purchase packaged bees, which includes bees from a selection of colonies along with one queen. You’ll receive the queen in an isolated container after shipping, but the accompanying worker bees will adopt her within a day. They do this by eating the candy-coated plug that keeps her in isolation. You won’t get as many with a package as you would if you capture a swarm, but that may be for the best if you’re still a little nervous about beekeeping.
The bees have received their health certificate as well, so you can be sure of health bees with a known history. On the downside, bees can find the trip a bit nerve-wracking, and they’re only available for purchase during certain times of the year. If you purchase a “nuc” (nucleus) hive package, your bees will all come from the same hive and already be accustomed to their queen.
This can be less stressful for the bees, and also provides a wider age-range of bees. They’re quicker to get settled in, too. However, you may need to source a nuc package from a local seller, and again, you may find the queen Is older than you'd hoped. Wherever you source your bees, remember that spring is bee season and the best time to establish your hive.
However, you may want to start shopping in the fall to ensure you get bees the following year. However, keep in mind that shipping is the highest cost factor when purchasing bees. If you’re beekeeping on a budget, try buying from a local beekeeper before looking at online stores. Not only will you save money on shipping, but you’re also more likely to receive bees that have acclimatized to your climate and local food supply.
Saving on Safety Equipment
You want to keep yourself and your bees safe at all times, but there’s no reason to spend a fortune on beekeeping equipment. You’ll need protective gear, but purchasing a wide-brimmed hat with mosquito netting will win you half the battle. The biggest danger is when bees get tangle in your hair, annoying both you and the bee. A white, lightweight, long-sleeved shirt will protect your arms in the summer.
Choose a dark colored jacket for the winter. Disposable surgical gloves will protect your hands, and you can find them inexpensively online. In fact, many people prefer them to special beekeeper gloves because they offer better dexterity and greater precision when handling tools. You probably won’t need a bee suit, but if you think you’ll feel more confident with the extra protection, choose an inexpensive painter's coverall from your local hardware store.
A Tyvek suit costs a couple of dollars since they’re meant to be disposable. However, with careful use, they’ll last for several wearings and offer great protection. Besides, most bees don’t want to sting you, and won’t make the extra effort to work through your clothing regardless of the material.
Saving on your smoker
A beekeeper’s smoker helps calm the hive when major work is required. The smoke interrupts the messages they send to each other as well as causing them to lie low and avoid the hive. This keeps them out of your way when you’re repairing frames or removing combs.
A beekeeping smoker can cost from about $12 to as much as $35, so they aren’t a real drain on your resources. You can save money by purchasing a secondhand smoker from your local farm swap group. But the most expensive part of the smoker is the fuel, which you need to replace constantly. Luckily, you can find smoker fuel for free if you keep your eyes open. Pine needles, pine cones, rotted wood, old burlap, or dried leaves work just as well as any commercially prepared smoker fuel.
Bee Care Equipment
You’ll need to invest a little money in keeping your bees fat and happy, and some in extracting the honey. Your bees will overwinter better with an extra feeder, and you should provide clean drinking water for them at all times. You’ll also want to invest in blooming perennial plants for your bees. Contact your state department of agriculture for a list of native plants for bees for year-long nectar production.
Even though they have access to honey, bees really prefer nectar. Honey, after all, is meant for the larvae. When flower nectar isn’t in season, a simple 1:1 sugar and water mixture is sufficient. And after mixing it up, you’ll need an efficient delivery system.
Although you can purchase a bee feeder for about $10, you can make one for next to nothing. Fill a Ziploc bag with sugar water and cut small slits for the food to seep out. Place it on top of the beehive and watch as your bees gorge themselves.
If you don’t have a nearby source of water for your bees, set up some bee watering stations near your hive and near your garden beds. A small, low dish of water with several stones for the bees to balance on will fit the bill. If you don’t have excess crockery in the kitchen, try your local Goodwill or Salvation Army store. Candy and nut dishes, saucers with no cups, or even an old ashtray will do the job.
Saving on Honey Extractors
One of the biggest expenses in beekeeping is a honey extractor. Even hand-cranked manual models can run you a couple of hundred dollars. This seems like a lot of money if you've just learned how to start beekeeping and only have one or two hives. There are a few ways to cut down the cost of harvesting your honey, however.
Consider joining a local beekeeping group. Many of these groups pitch in to purchase an expensive electric extractor for the members to share. Alternatively, you can also borrow one from another member. Check local farm swap groups to find a used extractor. You can find garden and farm swap groups on Facebook.
You can also rent an extractor, although you may need to research where to find a rental unit from local bee clubs in your local area. If you've built your own beehive, you may also want to build your own honey extractor from a new, clean 20-gallon trashcan to save money.
Lastly, consider harvesting and storing cut honeycomb instead of extracting the liquid honey. If your honey is intended just for home use, you should get plenty by straining the comb as needed for sweetening your tea or coffee. The leftover honeycomb is edible, and quite delicious as long as some honey remains to line the cells.
Financing Your Bee Operation
Some of the news for bees has been pretty bad: colony collapse disorder, die-offs from pesticides, and endangered habitats. But this can be good news for you since some organizations provide grants to beekeepers. These pollinators are so vital to our ecological balance, and particularly for crops, you may be able to find financial help once you learn how to start beekeeping well enough to open a commercial operation. For some people, beekeeping is more than a hobby; it’s a calling. If you decide to step up your beekeeping operation, consider the following resources.
USDA's Farmers Market Promotion Program
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) sponsors the Farmers Market Promotion Program to support locally and regionally grown and produced food items for producer-to-consumer sales. If you’re considering beekeeping to sell your honey, check their website for grant opportunities.
USDA Rural Business Enterprise Grant Program
The USDA also supports small agricultural businesses in rural areas. If you’re adding honey production to your small farm, consider a USDA grant to help your operations. Thes grants range from $10,000 to $500,000, so if you qualify, you’ll need to know how to start beekeeping on a large scale. You’ll also need to learn to extract it efficiently and how to process and manufacture the results.
Last of all, check with your state department of agriculture to identify any local programs that support beekeepers. Many states, including Florida, Missouri, and Texas, offer programs to help you get started or expand.
Nonprofit and educational resources
For those who are learning to keep bees to support community gardens or part of a school or non-profit organization, check out the Honeybee Conservancy for assistance.
Time to Get Started on Your Apiary
Beekeeping will connect you to nature in one of the few truly symbiotic relationships humankind can find with the natural world. While helping to nurture our precious bees by providing them with homes and a steady food supply, they in turn help keep us fed by pollinating our food crops and making enough honey to share. You may want to take your beekeeping endeavors to the next level.
However, a small beehive often proves to be enough for most people with standard-sized urban and suburban plots. They also provide a fascinating and sweetly rewarding hobby for families. Unlike some hobbies, keeping bees doesn’t need to be time-consuming or costly.
It just requires that you think and plan ahead and fit the hobby to your current resources. We hope these tips have shown you how to start beekeeping for cheap so that anyone can enjoy the meditative and life-affirming art of keeping bees. If you have any other tips for saving money on your apiary journey, please let us know in the comments. We love to share tips that help more become involved in helping our bee populations.