The beekeeping pastime is taking flight as hobbyists, amateurs, and professionals alike delve into preserving and protecting the endangered bee population. Honey bees are kept by farmers and homesteaders who want a supply of honey for home use or taking to market. As a hobby, it requires patience, dedication, and knowledge of bee colony organization and bee behavior. But beekeeping requires one more thing: beekeeping equipment. Beekeepers need to purchase or build their equipment, and for beginners, this can be a daunting task. New beekeepers will choose to buy beekeeping equipment, usually in a starter kit.
In this brief article, we cover basic beekeeping equipment and products available, and we will also provide a general explanation of why and how people keep bees.
Just as it sounds, beekeeping is about raising a colony of bees. There are practical reasons for this, the chief one being the production of honey, but also because bees are tremendous pollinators and are instrumental in the growth of vegetables, fruits, and flowers. Bees are an insect in the group known as pollinators, who create a distribution system for the all-important pollen that leads to plant propagation. Some people keep bees because they are fascinating to watch, like ants, with their complex social structure within the colony, but most do it for honey.
Prior to modern honey production, getting honey was no easy task. The honey lives in a honeycomb, deep inside the bees’ colony and is guarded. To get to the honey, the motivated harvester – whether it be a bear or human – must steal the honeycomb or destroy the bee colony. By stealing it, destruction of the colony is almost assured, but this was typically how honey was harvested in the wild. Over centuries, farmers learned how to cultivate bees much as they cultivate vegetables or raise livestock. Methods for caring for the colony and extracting the honeycomb cut down on the danger and produced a steady flow of honey.
Farmers like to have bees around because they ensure a good crop production, particularly with crops dependent on pollen. Despite the phenomenal technological accomplishment of humans, we still do not have an artificial method for pollination. Without bees, the human food chain would collapse. Farmers and homesteaders need not raise bee colonies but do routinely protect and cultivate bees to ensure healthy crops. Farmers maintain respect for bees since these pollinators are essential to their livelihoods.
Honeybees are currently endangered due to overuse of pesticides and other factors that are not entirely clear. Climate change may play a part, and so may destruction of remote and wild places. Like butterflies, bees are sensitive to lack of habitat and need the right environment and territory to survive. Some beekeepers have gotten into the hobby as a way to help the honeybee population. Many of these hobbyists stick with it and produce honey, which can only come from a healthy, thriving colony.
Although bees produce honey and this makes them highly useful, some people keep ants and even termites. Why? Partly, it’s because all of these insects are highly social creatures. They have much in common with humans, with specific roles within their society such as soldiers, workers, and a queen. Humans are fascinated by watching a productive society on a small scale and gain much satisfaction from observing the colony grow from a single queen. In this respect, bees are almost like pets.
Like any hobby, there are dangers lurking for the inexperienced. The two biggest dangers in beekeeping are being stung and killing the colony. While bee stings may seem to be far more dangerous, in fact, a colony takes time to raise and failure means starting over from scratch. Beekeeping is safe for most people, but not recommended for individuals who have severe reactions to bee stings – for obvious reasons. Beekeeping equipment always includes protective gear and clothing, and most beekeepers use at least a hat or fencing veil, and gloves. A rare bee sting is likely, but being swarmed is preventable.
Photos of beekeepers usually show the keeper bedecked in a bright white costume looking somewhat like a Hazmat suit, with full head, hand, and foot protection. This is essential for all beekeepers, but it’s especially important if you have a bad reaction to bee stings or if you lack experience. With a high-quality beekeeping protective suit, stings are not a worry, but you will also need a smoker for extra protection. Bee stings come with the territory, but they are a rare occurrence for beekeepers who use common sense and precautions.
Beekeeping equipment always includes a smoker which is a device that gently puffs smoke into the hive. Using the smoker to distribute smoke as you work around the hive keeps the bees focused on consuming their stored (old) honey because they’ve learned to associate smoke with forest fires. In danger, they go for the old honey which makes getting to the fresh honey (the honeycomb) an easier process. Smoke also focuses them on honey, not you.
To get started in beekeeping, hobbyists buy small colonies and grow them over time. Bee reproduction happens with a single queen who lays eggs over a lifetime and can easily produce tens of thousands of workers. When purchasing a colony, the larger it is the more honey is likely to be available. But, for new beekeepers, a smaller colony is recommended. When a colony reaches a certain size in the tens of thousands, the queen senses she needs more space and takes about half the workers to a new location. Healthy colonies reproduce easily, but bees without proper care may flounder, so start small.
The beekeeping hobby isn’t for everyone, but for those entranced by these creatures, it is a relaxing way to interact with the natural world, and, as a bonus, it produces delicious food! More than most hobbies, specific beekeeping equipment is essential. Those concerned about safety find reassurance in proper beekeeping equipment such as clothing, smokers, and specific tools. Dealing with the bees is foreign and takes time to master, so proper beekeeping equipment also helps inspire confidence and makes success more likely.
Below, we describe the basic equipment needed to get started and what is included in a typical starter kit.
Beekeeping equipment is available individually, but a starter kit is how almost all newbies get into the hobby. The starter kit includes bees, so this piece of beekeeping equipment really is all you need to become a beekeeper. Besides a small colony, starter kits include a hive kit (typically eight to ten frames), a hive tool, a smoker, feeders, a hive cover, an informational book or guide, and safety gear. This will get any beekeeping novice started, and can easily be expanded upon as the colony grows. It takes time to get honey, so honey extraction beekeeping equipment can be purchased later.
Bees, like other animals, need a good diet. If you have a colony, they should be fed a steady diet. Bees will leave the colony and forage, but if they cannot get enough food in their wild habitat, it will affect their health. This is where a handy, simple piece of beekeeping equipment comes in: the feeder. This little device contains nectar and is used as a backup source to make sure the bees have enough high-quality food in times of scarcity. The feeder can be placed on top of the colony in summer, and inside the colony in winter.
This is a hand-held tool that resembles a putty knife, but it is fashioned specifically to take care of multiple hive upkeep tasks. The hive tool is used to pry wax away from the frame, to separate hive bodies, and to pry apart the frames when necessary. This tool is not optional although other tools could do in a pinch. This hive tool is specifically designed for all hive functions and has the added benefits of being a multi-use tool for cutting tape, dealing with corrosion, or even cleaning off field boots if the hive is in a muddy or dirty area.
This piece of gear is more familiar to curious or novice beekeepers because most of us have seen a bee handler covered entirely in a white suit. The beekeeper should always don protection (at a minimum, gloves and a hat), and it is equally important to wash beekeeping gear after every use. Bees, like ants, lay down chemical pheromone trails that lead other bees down the same path which is why once a single sting occurs, others are likely. A good wash keeps the suit clean and free of pheromones.
Later, when the colony is well-established, the beekeeping equipment will expand into a whole array of honey harvesting devices. It takes time to get to the honey harvesting stage, however, and we don’t recommend buying beekeeping equipment you don’t yet need.
Beekeeping can be a little intimidating as hobbies go, but is accessible to anyone with an interest and a small outdoor space. Starter kits do just as they advertise, get an inexperienced enthusiast off the ground from an interested observer to an active beekeeper. It is also a hobby that the novice can master in stages, so there is plenty of room for discovery and growth. Starter kits are affordable and readily available online and come with all you need to pursue your beekeeping passion.