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By Grace Mehl, EAS Master Beekeeper
One thing leads to another. First, you buy a brew kit. Then you buy more ingredients, source specific ingredients, plant hops, buy barley from the organic farmer, or honey from the local beekeeper.
But, what if you become a beekeeper and could harvest your own, really local honey? What would that entail?
Just like brewing, many beekeepers start by buying a kit. The wise beekeeper begins by going to a class and buying a book. Because, just like brewing, sometimes the kit doesn’t include items you need and has other things that you will never use or is not the best quality. Taking a class first is an excellent way to figure out what you really need. A beekeeping class can be anywhere from $60–$300 and one day to a full year. Joining a local club is another good way to get knowledge. Clubs also provide real-time information and opportunities for additional education and gives you a network of people to ask questions. The Long Island Beekeepers Club has a website that you can visit to get more info on joining and buying everything from honey to queen bees at www.longislandbeekeepers.org.
Once you have been through a beginner course in beekeeping, you need to buy equipment. You need a hive consisting of a bottom board, boxes with frames, an inner cover, an outer cover, and an entrance reducer. You need some tools, namely a smoker and fuel, hive tool, feeder, and bee brush. And, of course, you need personal protective equipment such as a bee suit or jacket with a veil and gloves. This equipment can cost anywhere from about $300 to $500 depending on quality, selection, and source. That’s for one colony of bees! It is recommended to start with two colonies, so you can compare and have resources in case something goes wrong like the queen gets accidentally killed by a not yet proficient beekeeper! So, add on another $200 for the second hive setup. That means about $500-$700 to get started. Going cheap usually doesn’t pay in the end; more equipment will be needed in the second year. So, don’t think you are done! Expect to spend another $300-$500 in the second year for additional boxes and frames.
Then, you need to get bees! That will run $170–$250 per colony. The best time to get your bees is in the Spring. You should order them in January or so, as they do sell out. If you get them later, sometimes it is more expensive, and your bees may not get as good a start as the early ones. This is because they naturally start building up in early Spring on the Spring nectar flow, which is from about April until July on Long Island. Later bees miss part of this, and sometimes they never catch up.
You can buy a package or a nucleus colony of Honey Bees. A package of bees ($150-$200) is usually about 3 pounds of bees in a plastic or wooden box with screen sides, having a queen in a small cage inside of it, and being fed with a can of sugar syrup during transport. A nucleus colony ($200-$250) is a small but complete colony of bees on frames of comb with bee brood (baby bees) and a laying queen that you install in your larger hive. Usually, these are produced a little later than packages and can get off to a running start as they have all stages of bees and some comb already built. These can get away from a new beekeeper as they grow quickly and may swarm before the beekeeper realizes what is happening. This is why package bees are recommended for new beekeepers. They see the whole progression of growth, and swarming is less likely.
By now, you are saying to yourself, “but, what about the honey”? Very few beginner beekeepers get honey the first year. That happens every once in a blue moon when the weather, bees, location, beekeeper, and lots of luck, all line up. If you get your bees through the first winter because you took a class and learned how to take care of them, you should get some honey the second year, with a larger harvest the third year. This is mainly because the bees have to make combs to store the honey. It takes about 7 pounds of honey for the bees to make a pound of wax. The bees produce wax in glands on the underside of their abdomens. All those boxes of frames you bought have to be filled with wax comb so the bees can raise more bees and store honey. They keep the honey for themselves, of course. Not for us. But, if we assist them and take care of them, they can store some “excess” honey by the second year that can be shared (unwillingly) with the beekeeper. You must leave about 60 pounds of honey on each hive for them to eat over winter here on Long Island. Otherwise, they don’t make it through the winter, and you have to buy more bees in Spring. Not really a beekeeper then, are you?
Now, if you are thinking, “this is expensive”! You are right. A wise beekeeper told me once, “the way to make a small fortune keeping bees is to start with a large fortune.” I remember when I harvested the first honey in my second year of beekeeping and looked at the jar of honey on the table and thought to myself, “that is the most expensive honey I have ever seen!” You’ve got to love bees to keep bees. If you don’t, maybe pay the beekeeper that does to get that local honey for your mead.
About the Author
Grace Mehl has been a homebrewer, a wine maker, a mead maker, and became a beekeeper after retiring from the U.S. Navy. She was certified as a Master Beekeeper in 2018 through the Eastern Apicultural Society. Currently the Education Director for the Long Island Beekeepers Club, Grace keeps 12 colonies of honey bees at her home apiary in Smithtown, NY.