How many people dream of having a few bustling beehives in their backyard? But here’s a typical scenario: You go to a beekeeping class for beginners and do everything the instructors suggest. You buy equipment and protective gear, order packages of bees, install them in the hives, feed them sugar, and treat them against parasites and disease. Then, they don’t survive the first winter. You buy more bees the following spring, and the cycle repeats itself.
Faced with high bee mortality, mounting costs, and modest returns, even expert beekeepers sometimes hang up their veils. There are half as many bee colonies in the United States today as there were in the 1940s, and the majority of those that remain are treated with chemicals and trucked around the country to pollinate almonds and other commercial monoculture crops. This stresses the colonies, spreads disease, and leads to honey laced with pesticides.
Fortunately, there’s another option: natural beekeeping. Its principles haven’t changed in a thousand years: Observe how bees live in the wild, and mimic the same conditions in your apiary. Georges de Layens, one of Europe’s leading beekeepers from the 19th century, offered three keys to sustainable apiculture. First, use local bees that are disease-resistant and adapted to your local climate and flowering patterns. Second, keep bees in appropriate hives that imitate a natural tree nest and match the climate of your region. Finally, practice sensible management in tune with bees’ biological needs, and disturb them as little as possible.
Follow these simple rules, and beekeeping will become what it used to be — a joyful and productive occupation that requires relatively little effort and brings great rewards. Whether you aspire to have a few hives for pleasure and honey, or to make your living through natural beekeeping, you can keep bees successfully and with minimal cost. Let’s get you off to a good start.
Build Your Own Beekeeping Equipment
“Keeping bees requires little effort, and barely any capital to get started,” wrote de Layens in Keeping Bees in Horizontal Hives: A Complete Guide to Apiculture. But the experience of many beekeepers is actually quite different.
Beekeeping has become a costly undertaking because of the prevailing habit of buying equipment and bees. After investing hundreds or thousands of dollars into your setup, you’re under pressure to produce more honey to recover your costs. Pushing bees for maximum honey production creates more problems, which are costly to fix, and you’re caught up in a vicious cycle.
“Make no mistake,” wrote the Ukrainian beekeeper Illarion Kullanda in 1882, “build the kind of hive you can craft yourself with the cheapest materials available in your country.” Following his sound advice, I discovered that you can obtain almost everything you need for your project, free of charge.
Use Free or Cheap Building Materials
Free lumber. I needed to build a couple dozen swarm traps and hives for my apiary. On my way to the building supply store, I stopped at a small rural recycling center in southern Missouri. I never made it to the store after that. The recycling center had everything on my shopping list except screws. There was a staggering quantity of lumber of all imaginable dimensions, plywood, and even pieces of metal roofing. There were even ready-made hive stands galore, such as large wooden spools used for electric wire. The recycling center was transforming all this bounty into mountains of wood mulch. I could have as much as I wanted at no cost.
Other sources of free lumber are plentiful. Just make sure the boards you get are untreated. Most stores will have large plywood boxes, crates, pallets, and wood containers they need to dispose of. Construction and remodeling sites often have a pile of lumber cutoffs you can help yourself to. Students at the art studio at our local school use sheets of 1/4-inch plywood for painting projects, which they discard after class.
If you don’t have any inclination or time to salvage lumber, consider using rough-sawn lumber from a local mill (make sure it’s thoroughly air-dried) instead of dimensional lumber from big-box stores. Rough-sawn lumber may be four times less expensive. Plus, the rough surface is beneficial for bees because it’s easier for them to walk on, and they’ll instinctively coat it with propolis, which will create an antibacterial envelope around their nest.
Free insulation. In my opinion, the best material for insulating a hive is natural wool. You can place it between walls (in double-wall construction) and under the roof. In many rural areas, you can obtain free wool from sheep breeders who keep their animals for meat and shear them for hygienic reasons. You can also use cardboard or sawdust instead. In many climates, a plank that’s 1-1/2 inches thick will provide all the insulation you’ll need.
Cheap and durable roofing. Cover the hive top with steel or aluminum for durability. A local newspaper near me sells large sheets of aluminum (enough for two swarm traps) for $1 a piece — employees use it once in their printing shop and then scrap it.
Even with a pile of free materials, the prospect of building a hive may be daunting if you’ve never built one. Let’s demystify it: A hive is just a rectangular box with a cover. You can build one with a handsaw, a hammer, and a chisel. For higher productivity, you can use a table saw and an electric drill. A small router and an air compressor with a narrow-crown staple gun will further speed things up. A Layens hive is a one-day project, and you can build several swarm traps (small, scented hives used to attract and capture wild honeybee swarms) in a day.
You can even construct hives without your own tools, workshop space, or woodworking skills. We organized a hive-building party for 17 people who brought their own tools and built 33 hives and swarm traps in a day. Even those without prior woodworking experience picked up useful skills and went home with their own equipment.
For a step-by-step explanation (with plenty of photos) on how to build your own Layens hive, refer to my article, “How to Build a Better Bee Hive for Less.”For more hive plans, and information about natural beekeeping, visit my website.
Be safe, have fun, and let’s go make some sawdust!