What Equipment do I Need to Keep Bees?

Of all the activities around our household, I consider beekeeping the most rewarding. The encounter with this otherworldly species, the pollination services, the honey and wax are worth the occasional sting. But what do you need to get started? I’ve seen some outrageously priced starter kits, not to mention the Juicero of beekeeping, the Flow Hive. By putting together your own set of equipment you can save a lot of money. Here’s my basic starter kit:

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Bee suit
There’s no reason you need to get stung! Dadant has an inexpensive integrated hat/veil jumpsuit that I’ve used for years. This suit is one piece, meaning that there’s no gap between your veil and suit for bees to climb up in and I like that it covers your whole body. Tuck the pant legs into boots and you’re good to go. Bees can still do a kind of half sting through the material, so I wear long sleeve shirts and long pants if I’m doing something where the bees could get angry, such as a removal job. Dadant sells more substantial and durable suits that which might be a good investment if you’re thinking of running a lot of hives or opening your own removal business. There are also more expensive ventilated suits for hot climates. But for hobbyists such as myself, the inexpensive Dadant suit is good enough. Get a size larger than your normal size. Too big is better than too small.

gloves
Gloves
I’ve gone through a lot of gloves over time. I’ve used both rubber gloves and goat skin gloves. The rubber gloves come in handy where there’s the possibility of dripping honey such as when cutting bees out of a wall or doing a honey harvest. The goat skin gloves make for less finger fumbling. I suggest owning both.

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Smoker
Dadant’s basic smoker has not changed design in a hundred years. It’s one of those objects, like the safety bicycle or the fork, that reached its design apotheosis a long time ago and doesn’t need to be subject to the whims of fashion. I own the cheapest model and have found it perfectly adequate. The more expensive models have a kind of cage around them to prevent you from burning yourself but I’ve never found this feature necessary.

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Hive tool
This is a small and deliberately dull crowbar. Bees stick everything together with propolis, so you need the little crow bar to pry stuff apart. I own the economy model. The end of the tool is dull so you don’t damage your equipment.

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Bee brush
You use a bee brush for flicking the bees away so they don’t get crushed when you put the boxes back together. In addition to being polite, this prevents the bees from setting off their alarm pheromone and causing a stinging frenzy.

Bee housing
Like meany topics in beekeeping this is one that divides families and friends. I’m not going to wade into the controversy here but I’ll just say that you should go with whatever interests you: top bar, Langstroth, Warre etc. I buy medium, unassembled Langstroth boxes and frames (without foundation) from LA Honey. The unassembled boxes are much cheaper than getting a kit. I use only medium boxes so that all my equipment is interchangeable and to reduce the weight you have to heft (a full box of bees is surprisingly heavy). Since I live in a place that never freezes I don’t have to use inner covers or worry about insulating hives in the winter. I’m in the no-treatment, natural beekeeping camp so there’s a bunch of other things that I don’t use such as queen excluders, foundation and mite-related gadgets. For more details on this natural approach I’d suggest taking a look at Michael Bush’s extensive website (he also has tips for beekeeping in cold climates). Without wading into the natural beekeeping fight, let me just say going au natural (so to speak) keeps costs way down. You could get even cheaper by making your own top bar hives but I was taught on Langstroth equipment and I’ve just decided to stick with them out of habit.

Stand for the hives
After a bad experience with the wooden stands that I made myself, I bought some metal stands. But you could save a lot of money by just using cinder blocks. The important thing to note is that bee boxes should be off the ground to prevent flooding and to make it easier to lift the boxes. Your stand must be substantial enough to support several hundred pounds as a hive gets really heavy and you really don’t want it to fall over!

Swarm kit
I also keep a swarm kit containing some of the stuff above and a few other items in a tool box that is in the garage and ready to go at all times. You never know when someone is going to call with a bee situation and you don’t want to run about gathering tools at the last moment. My swarm kit contains:

  • smoker
  • burlap to burn in smoker
  • matches
  • spray bottle with syrup made with a 50/50 combo of water and white sugar
  • pruning sheers for cutting tree branches
  • a roll of caution tape
  • bee suit/gloves/boots (most, but not all swarms are docile)
  • nuc box
  • mesh bag to put the nuc box in (especially important if you don’t own a truck!)
  • knife (for cut-outs)
  • Benadryl for when you get stung!

I strongly suggest having all of the things in this post on hand before you think of getting bees.

So beekeepers, what did I forget to include? Leave a comment!

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16 Comments

    • Great idea. I had to move a hive that was harassed by bees and they were not happy!

    • Hot electric fence baited with bacon strips hanging on it- bear will try bacon first and decide he doesn’t want honey after all,

    • The old beekeeper I learned from in Pennsylvania used to bait his electric fences with bacon. He said he loved seeing bears tear off across his field after getting a mouthful of old sparky. I live in Vermont now and don’t use either an electric fence or bacon. As I see it, EVERYTHING likes bacon and I’m not interested in attracting the coyotes and foxes plus the mink and weasels that will quickly learn that I have other tasty livestock. Plus it’s a waste of good bacon. We have had tremendous luck with pieces of exterior plywood, roughly 2×3 feet in size, with nice, fat, really sharp nails every inch or so. We’ve got about a dozen of these that we lay on the ground around the hives and I can personally attest that it really, really hurts when you step on them. Even with shoes. Does it work? Well, we heard a bear rifling in our trash can one night, but s/he did not get into the hives; next morning we found a big pile of bear scat on the ground just outside of our nail board perimeter. Made us feel really good.

  1. This post is super timely! I’m sending you an email separately with some photos of our new arrivals! (Don’t you love a mystery?)

  2. I would take my EPI pen. I really want bees, but I am afraid. Besides, I would need someone to lift them. Even though chickens are illegal, I got them and no one objects, not even the Animal Control Officer. But, when I mentioned bees, he became stern and wagged a finger at me and told me not to get bees! If he is not the officer anymore, I might find a partner and try this.

    I see a cover above the bees in the picture. Do the bees have to have a cover? It does get to freezing occasionally here, so I suppose I have to do cold weather beekeeping? Does it ever get too hot for bees?

    • If only those epi pens didn’t cost so much! I’ve seen covers in some cold climates such as Germany. But I think this picture might be of some kind of research lab. The caption identifies the man in the photo as a USDA researcher. And I just noticed that the hives are on scales. The roof may be to protect the equipment.

  3. Frames. Either just the top bar or the 4 sided ones for a Langstroth. Also beeing on the natural side of beekeeping the top bar will have a small starter strip. None of this wiring and pressed foundation, which also keeps the cost down and reduces the time spent setting up the hive. And you can just cut out the honey comb and crush it to release the honey without the need for an extractor, heated uncapping knife etc.
    Claire in Melbourne, Australia

  4. Knew I was forgetting something. In the course of an inspecting a hive one usually ends up scraping off a little propolis or cutting away a bit of burr comb. We carry a small jar for each in which to accumulate the wee bits until we have enough to be worth processing.

  5. I would also include a metal bucket to keep the smoker in while it’s in use – so as to reduce risk of fire, and in Australia we tend to use the j-hive tool instead of the one you showed. It is really good for levering frames out, especially when they’re stuck together with propolis. The only other thing I’d mention is a bucket with some detergent and a scrubber so you can thoroughly clean your hive tool before moving on to inspecting a different hive. Helps reduce disease transmission.

  6. Apropos of nothing, old hive tools make the absolute best paint scrapers, too. We bought a new one just to have an old one for cleaning up our wood porch.

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