Thinking About Keeping Bees? Part 1: Costs, Time & Intangibles
This is part one in a 3-part series in which we look at things to consider when starting to keep bees.
So, you’re thinking about keeping bees. That’s great! We think the world would be better off if practically everyone kept bees! We also think that you should understand, as much as possible, the tangibles of cost and time.
HOW MUCH DOES IT COST?
When we asked nearly a thousand beekeepers what they wish they’d known prior to keeping bees, about 5% mentioned cost as one of the factors (there were often multiple factors listed). A few said this was the best fun-to-cost hobby they’d had yet, but most who cited cost said it was more expensive than they had assumed.
Keep in mind that you could keep bees with no investment, other than hard work and skills for building what you need, and luck in capturing a swarm. Keeping bees with no initial cash outlay can happen, but rarely. For the majority of us, some purchases will be necessary. Here are the assumptions upon which the rest of this article is based:
You will purchase equipment
You’ll use a Langstroth hive. There are other options—top bar and Warre hives are becoming increasingly popular. Langstroth though, because of its standardized approach and widespread use, is our recommendation for beginners
YOU WILL PURCHASE BEES
Three Expense Groups when it comes to beekeeping
- Initial equipment investment: what you need for the housing and care of bees
- Honeybees: the actual bees
- Operating equipment: the equipment that helps you best work with your bees and optimally manage them
1. Initial Equipment Investment
Most of these expenses are an initial investment that will last for years, as would be golf clubs or a fishing boat if you’re going to pursue those interests. What you’ll need to invest in subsequent years will decrease, unless you add more colonies of bees.
Each colony of bees requires its own living structure, called a hive. That investment is about $200/hive. That price varies by hive type, quantity discounts, shipping expenses, and options. This investment typically includes all the needed components of a Langstroth hive, such as a top cover, inner cover, bottom board, frames and foundation, although foundation is considered by some as optional.
Please give careful consideration to 10-frame versus 8-frame equipment, and hive body size. (A hive body is the box into which you put frames and bees.) Opting for medium boxes, versus a combination of deep and shallower boxes, has its advantages. There are pros and cons for the number of frames/box. Research and talk to other beekeepers about their preferences.
Going with all medium equipment means you only have one size to handle for the box, the frames and foundation. Many of our surveyed beekeepers said they wished they’d known about the all-medium option when they started.
Used housing? No. Yes, we sell what you need, but that’s not the reason we say no. Unless you know why the equipment is available and how it was used, you may be slowly or quickly killing your honeybee investment by putting them in dangerous equipment. Used equipment may be carrying diseases that killed its previous occupants and left residues that live for years. The equipment, especially drawn wax, may also contain chemicals or a chemical build-up that will negatively impact your bees.
Beyond the hive, there are costs in hive preparation. The hive requires painting or something to protect it from the elements, and a hive stand and bottom board for bottom ventilation. The hive stand may be as simple as a couple of concrete blocks, to a manufactured hive stand. We’ll estimate $20/hive, although you may already have what you need for preparation.
There may be additional costs in apiary preparation. Some of our surveyed beekeepers said this was where they spent unexpectedly. Once they fell in love with their bees they spent unplanned funds making a friendlier, more bee-supportive area, such as extensive landscaping to include bee-friendly plants, and even including a comfortable sitting area from which to watch the apiary.
Honeybees are typically purchased in one of two ways, a package, or a nuc.
A package is generally three pounds of bees, with a separately caged queen, all in a screened box. The package bees must be moved into a hive.
A nuc is a small nucleus colony, containing typically 3-7 frames, bees already drawing comb and tending to eggs and larva, and a freed queen working to expand the colony, all in a small hive-like box. A nuc can remain in the small box for a bit.
Each has its pros and cons. I’m personally biased toward packages because, to me, being part of the package-to-thriving-hive process was head-over-heels totally fascinating. From going to the Post Office to pick up a wire “shoebox” of insects and the sea of people parting when I carried it out, to hearing that buzz and feeling the warmth of that cluster, to seeing how, in only two short weeks, they’d began to transform sheets of formatted wax into the perfect structures that have hosted them for centuries…witnessing that remains one of my highlights in beekeeping.
I have a beekeeping buddy who only purchases nucs. He wants a proven queen and a colony well underway. He doesn’t want to worry about feeding the package to assist in getting started, and wondering what will happen if it is cold and rainy the first month.
Hopefully you need to buy bees only once. However, honeybees succumb to plenty these days—Varroa mite infestations, small hive beetle (SHB) infestations, hard winters, wet springs, dry summers, Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), and plenty of beekeeper ignorance. I’ve known dozens of beginning beekeepers over the years; I don’t know of any who haven’t lost at least some if not all of their bees on any given year. I also know of only one who hasn’t gotten “right back on the horse”. Once you get caught up in honeybee magic, it is nearly impossible to escape their spell.
3. Operating Equipment
Operating equipment generally includes the following basics. While we suspect most beekeepers would agree with this list, there are beekeepers who say none of this is needed. Please note that a hive kit, such as those offered by Kelley Beekeeping, includes most everything you need from the following list and then some.
The cost of items in this category may vary widely due to individual preferences.
If I’d written this article five years ago, I would’ve listed foundation as a required start-up cost. I, and most beekeepers, still recommend foundation…but it isn’t required, and the wave of letting bees build their own is growing. Foundation also needs to be replaced over time due to residues. It absorbs chemicals from what bees find on plants they visit, the environment itself, and any chemicals you may elect to use in the hive.
If you take advantage of an offering like a beginner kit, and purchase a package of bees, you can get into beekeeping for less than $500. It is strongly recommended that you don’t start with just one hive however—not only by us, but by dozens of beekeepers we surveyed. Don, of Bittersweet Bee Farm in Indiana, shared “I wish I had known when I started that, if money permits, one should really start out with two hives, not just one. With one you have nothing to compare against to know if your hive is healthy and normal or if it is in need of some TLC.”
Does It Cost More?
A thriving colony of bees grows exponentially. Our readers shared that their passion for beekeeping usually does as well. There will be costs associated with that, but most of our surveyed beekeepers said those were investments they willingly make, agreeing with Jeff who said he wished he’d known “How expensive it would become. But the experience has been worth it.”
How Much Time Does It Take?
If that’s the question, most estimates range from 15–30 hours a year to tend one colony of bees. Of course, preparing the equipment the first year takes longer. Also, more hives equals more time, but the time/hive decreases a bit.
A better question is “how much time do you want to give it?” You can play a round of golf in two hours, but doing it well and enjoying the outing may take double that, and learning to do it well takes countless hours, most of which are rewarding as you challenge yourself to become better.
It’s the same with beekeeping. You need to spend 15–30 hours that first year, but to learn to do it well takes time. You’ll need to research, discuss and study both the bees and information on how to best manage them.
So, figure a minimum of 15-30 hours per hive that first year, knowing that as your interest in and desire to do it well grows, that may easily turn into a couple hundred hours a year counting time at bee meetings, talking with others, studying and researching, thinking about bees, and watching them.
Chances are, the more you put into them, the more you’ll get out of them, as survey respondent Joe explains: “I thought bees were self-help animals and was told that they didn’t require much care. The more investment of money, time and care increases my care dramatically. When they produced about 16 pounds of honey this year, I began to care a lot more.”
Dennis from Ohio noted, “I think I found the right activity as I near retirement, one that takes neither too little nor too much time, and carries new learning.”
Perhaps Ernie from Oklahoma summarized it best: “Time spent working hives is like a soul refreshing time.”
Here are some voices of experience:
“I think a lot of people underestimate the time commitment required to be successful. Being a beekeeper instead of a “bee-haver” as they say. Also, the upfront costs of getting set up can rapidly keep piling up, one must understand that there is a significant startup cost to gathering the required equipment and supplies. Some of the best advice I got was to start with two hives instead of one; they all progress at a different rate and experience different issues AND you can easily rescue a failing hive with help from its neighbor!” Luke, Missouri
[I was surprised at] “How much money you can spend on a hobby! Just glad I don’t own a boat, too.” Jeff, Texas
“I’m glad I didn’t know some things when I started beekeeping. If I had known how much money it would cost me to get started, I would probably not have done it! I went to the beekeeping school at KSU and read lots before I started but I wish I had worked with someone with their bees before I began. But I keep bees because I like honey (a lot!). My husband and I started keeping bees after our kids were grown…It has been a great way to reconnect with each other, appreciate each other’s strengths and enjoy each other’s company.” Peggy, Kentucky
“For me the thing I wished I had understood is that you don’t have to invest a lot of money at once to work with bees, you can start with one hive and work up to as many as you want. You can purchase the items that you need slowly as you learn.” Pam, Missouri
“We wish we had known how much it would cost in start-up fees and ongoing expenses. On the other hand, we never dreamed that there is a never-ending depth of things to learn from our bees and from other beekeepers!” Diane and Rich, North Carolina
[I wish I’d understood in the beginning] “the costs involved if you want to do it right. Yet it’s my only true hobby. I really like getting others involved. In the last two years I have gotten seven friends into beekeeping. Our wives think we are all nuts but love the honey when we bring it home.” David, Indiana
Stay tuned next month for Part 2 in the series when we look into varieties of bees, where to get them and where to put them.