As animal husbandry costs go, the prices of bees and beekeeping supplies are quite a bargain, but setting up an apiary still runs into money if you have many colonies. My husband, Dwayne, and I got into a home honey operation a couple of years ago (it sort of sneaked up on us), and from the start we've tried to hold down on cash outlay by making some of our equipment.
We've found, for example, that we can save substantially by building our own bee housing. We bought our first hive and super and Dwayne made the rest, using the commercial products for patterns so that the parts of all units are interchangeable. Since we have quite a bit of scrap lumber handy, the only investment was the time spent in construction. (Click here for a diagram of a bee hive.)
We've also learned to economize by finding substitutes for some conventional equipment. If you camp and have mosquito nets, for instance, they'll work fine as bee veils. If you carpenter and own a small prybar, it will do the job of a hive tool.
How to Build a Homemade Honey Extractor
One recommended item — the honey extractor, which removes honey from the comb — looked like a pretty demanding do-it-yourself project and had no obvious counterparts lying around the house. So, at first, we thought we'd just do without it. Our initial attempt at harvesting honey, however, showed us our mistake. There just isn't any other practical way to separate a large amount of honey from the wax in which it's stored. The thick fluid can be squeezed out of the cells, but that takes forever and destroys the structure of the comb. An extractor preserves those neat little hexagons, which saves work for the bees (and, in the long run, time and money for their keeper).
It's particularly essential that you have an extractor if you intend to sell honey. Anyone who has a surplus to market has too much to separate by hand ... and in our experience there's a limited market for cut comb honey. Most people prefer the product free of wax.
Well, we gave in, checked the prices of extractors in the current catalog from Dadant & Sons ... and found the rates higher than we cared to pay: $75.00 to $85.00 for a hand-operated machine and $165 and up for electric models. (Such equipment comes in various sizes and the prices vary accordingly. In A.I. Root's December 1974 catalog, a two-frame hand powered extractor is quoted at $86.90, an electric version of the same item at $135.80, and a three-frame electric machine at $163.95. — MOTHER.) After a bit of thought, Dwayne decided he could build a similar device himself at much less cost. When he got through, he'd invested about $30.00 and came up with an electrically operated honey separator that works like a charm ... put together from materials that were on hand or easily obtainable from a local hardware store.
Dwayne started the project by choosing a 20-gallon garbage can to serve as a drum, and cutting a hole in the bottom near the outer edge. The opening is about an inch in diameter — to let the thick honey run out freely — and is fitted with a valve to cut off the flow.
The rectangular inner basket, which holds the frames of the honey extractor, is 8-1/4 inches x 11-1/4 inches x 16 inches — the largest size that will fit in the garbage can with spinning room left over. Its maximum load is four small frames (5-3/8 inches x 17-5/8 inches), or four medium (6-1/4 inches X 17-5/8 inches), or two deep (9-1/8 inches x 17-5/8 inches) plus any other two smaller frames.
The basket's framework is made of welded angle iron with a center rod on which the container spins. The bottom is perforated sheet metal from the back of an old TV set. This panel is sturdy enough to support the weight of four frames full of honey, and the openings are large enough to allow the honey to run into the can. The container's sides are of welded wire mesh which we had on hand. Any similar material could be used just as well.
The basket works on the same principle as the spinning tub of a washing machine: It turns with enough speed to force the honey out of the comb and fling it against the side of the garbage can, where it runs down the wall and out the bottom drain. We've found that the necessary rate of spin is about 175 to 200 rpm, depending on the thickness of the liquid.
Across the top of the can, Dwayne built a base for the motor from hardwood crating boards we happened to have around. (Almost any TV or appliance dealer has sturdy packing materials to throw away.) The motor itself — a 1/4-hp, 1,750-rpm, 110-volt electric type — was also scrounged up "for free." Such units are very common and can often be found at auctions for a couple of dollars.
The biggest expense in the construction of our honey extractor was the 10-to-1 gear reduction, a worm drive gear train purchased for $7.95. A pulley-and-belt arrangement is used to drive the gears, and the pulley size can be changed if necessary to vary the speed of rotation. (The parts can be assembled in almost any workable combination. It's best, however, to keep the device as simple as possible.)
Dwayne's final step was to build a heavy-duty stand from more crating boards. The whole works is fastened firmly to this base so the honey extractor won't scoot across the room and run us down when it starts spinning.
We're still novices at this beekeeping business ... but we've already discovered this much: With some handyman ability and a little extra work, it's possible to run such an operation without having to invest a lot of money. If you're seriously considering a start with bees but have no experience and little cash, don't let that deter you. We began the same way, and we know it can be done.