How to Start Beekeeping: What's All the Buzz About?

A honey bee hive can provide an abundance of honey and beeswax, increased pollination for your garden crops, and hours of entertainment. This roundup of basic beekeeping tells you what to expect when diving into the art of apiary management, including the time, equipment and budget required.

| June/July 2015

Langstroth Hives

These Langstroth hives are tended by a beekeeper in a full, hooded suit. The smoker is used to suppress defensive behavior in bees.

Illustration by Liz Pepperell

No wonder more and more folks are making a beeline for beekeeping — a single hive of these tiny, social pollinators can provide 40 to 60 pounds of golden honey per year, as well as a few pounds of ever-useful beeswax. Plus, many crops need honey bees (Apis mellifera) to achieve good fruit set and high yields. This pollination benefit is becoming increasingly important because of industrial agriculture’s dependency on toxic pesticides, which poison bees’ food supplies and result in lower pollinator populations. For the willing homesteader or backyard gardening enthusiast, dedicating a small amount of time every couple of weeks to maintaining a beehive will render sweet returns indeed.

Like any livestock, bees need care and attention, though the time commitment can be far less than for dairy goats or even chickens. To help you decide whether beekeeping is a good fit for you, we asked Kim Flottum, long-time editor of Bee Culture magazine, to help us outline how to start beekeeping and what to expect in terms of initial start-up needs and costs, along with a basic apiary to-do calendar.

Tools of the Trade

Start with a new hive body and frames. Looking for a bargain on used beekeeping equipment may be tempting, but bees are susceptible to several diseases that can persist in old equipment. Also, you may come across suggestions to foster a wild swarm that someone has captured. The concern here is that a wild swarm (particularly one found in the western or southern United States) may have crossbred with aggressive Africanized honey bees. Buy either a package or a nucleus colony (called a “nuc”) of gentle bees with a queen (see Which Bee Is for Me?).

You’ll choose one of two hive designs. The more common Langstroth hive, named after its inventor, consists of stacked, rectangular boxes that contain removable wooden frames with pre-formed foundations upon which the bees will build their wax comb. The removable frames in the Langstroth system make monitoring the health of the hive easy, and its popularity means tracking down replacement parts is convenient. Expect to pay about $250 for an unassembled cedar Langstroth hive that includes one hive body and two additional boxes called “supers” for honey storage, as well as 30 frames (10 frames per box) and a lid, cover, bottom board, and screws.

The simpler top-bar hive design consists of a trough-shaped, lidded box with wooden bars laid across the top of the interior. The bees establish their own U-shaped combs suspended from the bars. Expect to pay about $180 for an unassembled top-bar kit with plans, or $50 in materials to build your own. Top-bar hives will typically produce about 20 percent less honey than a Langstroth, but the beeswax is easier to harvest. Despite yielding less honey, proponents say the top-bar design results in a gentler, happier hive that’s a viable option for beekeepers more concerned with conservation and plant pollination than with maximum honey production. To dig deeper into top-bar hives, see our article Keeping Bees: Using the Top-Bar Beekeeping Method, which also includes plans for DIY top-bar hives.

In addition to one or two initial hives, you’ll need a few specialized beekeeping tools. A smoker ($20) is used to suppress defensive behavior in bees. A hive tool ($10) looks similar to a crowbar and is used to remove frames from the hive. A feeder ($15) should be filled with sugar water and placed inside your hive to provide food when you first introduce the bees to their new home and during periods when nectar is scarce. Most beekeepers start with a hooded beekeeping suit ($70), which should include gloves. You may opt to later shed some pieces as you become more comfortable around the bees. All in all, you’ll probably spend between $200 and $400 for your first hive and the basic beekeeping equipment (not including bees).

12/31/2015 9:28:25 PM

I started with a Langstroth hive when I captured my first bee swarm and it was definitely the best way to go. I tell more about it at

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