NC State Extension Publications

Introduction

Beekeeping is a very enjoyable and rewarding pastime that is relatively inexpensive to get started. Moreover, it’s a hobby that can eventually make you money! The following is a primer on how to start your first hive and begin keeping bees.

Beehive Equipment

The minimum amount of equipment you will need to become a beekeepers is one complete ‘starter’ hive, which consists of a bottom board (the hive “floor”), a hive body (the main box) with 10 frames (on which the bees build wax comb), an inner cover (the hive “ceiling”), and a lid (the hive “roof”) (Figure 1). A colony of bees can live very successfully in such a hive and can store enough honey for its own needs. They may quickly out grow this space, however, and produce a swarm (where approximately half of the bees will fly away to start a new colony). To keep the bees from swarming, and to harvest their surplus honey, you will likely need additional hive equipment. But if you don’t want to collect honey, then a starter hive is all the equipment you will ever need.

Most beekeepers are not content with watching half of their bees fly away, and so they will try to prevent this from happening by furnishing more hive space in the form of additional boxes, called ‘supers,’ on top of the original box. This gives the colony more space to grow and the bees more room to store honey. If you wish to remove honey from the hive, adding supers is a necessity.

We recommend that a first-time beekeeper start with two full beehives. That way, you will have a minimal frame of reference to compare your new colonies and to develop your management techniques.

In addition to furnishing a beehive, you will also need some other equipment. There are three items that are required to safely work a beehive: a smoker (to pacify the bees and reduce their defense response), a hive tool (to pry apart hive equipment and frames), and a veil (to protect the head and face). Beginners often feel more comfortable with the extra protection of a full-body beekeeping suit and gloves, but eventually they are not necessary if the bees are handled properly.

Basic hive equipment.

Figure 1. Basic hive equipment.

Getting Started

Equipment is available from any one of several beekeeping supply companies (listed below) and may be purchased in a variety of ways. Most companies have ‘starter kits’, which usually include a complete starter hive (without bees), smoker, hive tool, and veil (Figure 2 and Figure 3). There are also ‘deluxe kits,’ which include the previously mentioned items, as well as additional equipment to add to the hive as the colony population grows. The prices of these kits range from about $125 for the starter hive to about $325 for a deluxe kit. You can also buy the individual (pre-cut) parts of the hive and assemble it yourself (listed in Table 1).

Once a hive is assembled, it is ready to house bees. There are three main ways to acquire a living honey bee colony. First, you may purchase a five-frame ‘nucleus’ colony (or “nuc box”) from a local beekeeper who is registered to sell bees (contact the NC Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services for a current listing; see below). A nuc box usually contains five frames of 10,000 adult bees, wax comb (with honey and pollen), brood (developing young), and an egg-laying queen. Starting a colony this way can cost between $70-100, but it will become a mature hive very rapidly and be less likely to fail. Second, you may purchase a three-pound ‘package’ of bees with a queen. Any number of beekeeping operations nationwide will send through the mail a screened wooden box with live bees, costing $45-65. The bees can then be shaken out of the package, and they will establish themselves in the hive. Third, you can capture a swarm that has escaped from another hive. Although not as common as they once were, wild swarms can be obtained in the early to mid-spring (late March, April, and early May). Local beekeeping clubs often have “swarm-call” lists to assist beekeepers in capturing swarms reported in their area, and beginners usually need help with capturing their first swarm. These latter two approaches are more cost effective (virtually free in the latter case), but the bees will need more time for the colony to develop and become productive.

Of course, honey bees have the potential to sting in defense of their hive. The frequency of being stung, however, is much lower than what is commonly believed. If managed properly—using smoke, a hive tool, protective clothing, and gentle manipulation—stings are quite unlikely. If a beekeeper is stung, localized pain and swelling is a normal reaction and one that should not cause undue concern. Nonetheless, bee venom can be a serious allergen for certain people, with 1 in 200 persons having a true allergic reaction requiring immediate medical attention. Consult with a physician if you have any concerns about being stung.


Table 1. List of individual components of a beehive, with the approximately price and description of each.

Individual Hive Item

Approximate Price (or range of prices)

Description/Purpose

Bottom board

$10.00

Hive body sits on this and acts as the floor of the hive.

Hive body

$8.00-10.00

Standard size is 9 5/8 deep. Holds 10 full-size frames. Also called a deep super.

10 deep frames

$8.50

Full-size frames used by the bees to construct their wax comb.

10 wax sheets

$7.00

Foundation used by the bees for building their honey comb.

Inner cover

$8.00

Thin board between top box and outer cover. Helps with ventilation.

Outer cover

$17.00

Covers the top of the hive. Provides shelter from the elements.

Smoker

$24.00-30.00

Used before opening a hive to help calm the bees and make them less likely to sting.

Hive tool

$4.50

Used to pry apart pieces of the hive that have been stuck together with 'bee glue' or propolis.

Veil

$11.00-25.00

Covers the head and face of beekeeper to prevent stings to these sensitive areas.

TOTAL

$98.00-120.00

Additional Items

Bee suit

$50-150

Complete suits cover whole body to help protect from stings.

Gloves

$10.00-20.00

May be used to prevent stings to the hands, but they can make it more difficult to manipulate the hive.

Entrance reducers

$1.00

Minimizes amount of entrance space the bees need to guard and minimizes the flow of cold air in winter.

Queen excluder

$6.00

Placed below the honey supers to prevent queen from laying eggs in the honey comb.

Feeder

$4.00-17.00

During times of food scarcity, bees may need to be fed sugar water. There are several types of feeders available.

Supers (assembled with frames)

$35.00

Any box placed on top of the hive body to give the colony more room. Honey supers are used for producing honey.


Figure 2. An assembled 'starter' hive.

Figure 2. An assembled 'starter' hive.

Figure 3. Beekeeping gear: hive, tool, smoker, and veil.

Figure 3. Beekeeping gear: hive, tool, smoker, and veil.

Resources

Contact information

North Carolina State Beekeepers Association

North Carolina has approximately 60 county beekeeping associations across the state, which are part of the larger North Carolina State Beekeepers Association (NCSBA). Most of these chapters meet monthly with instructional programs, and many clubs offer new beekeeper classes each year. These local associations serve as valuable resources where experienced beekeepers offer advice and can act as mentors to beginning beekeepers. If you would like some hands-on experience before you start your own hives, offer to help a beekeeper in your area when they are working with their bees.

North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Apiary Inspection

North Carolina is fortunate to have an active Apiary Inspection program, which is part of the N.C. Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services (NCDA&CS). There are six regional inspectors across the state who serve as important resources for beekeepers to keep their hives free of diseases and pests. All new beekeepers should contact their regional inspector so that they may register their hives and have them periodically inspected.

North Carolina State University Apiculture Program

The Apiculture Program at NC State University has been a leader in honey bee research, outreach, and instruction. Part of the program’s mission is to assist beekeepers by helping to develop and disseminate information about new management techniques to improve colony health and productivity. For further information about the program, contact your local N.C. Cooperative Extension agent.

David R. Tarpy
Professor and Extension Apiculturist
Department of Entomology, Campus Box 7613
North Carolina State University
Raleigh, NC 27695-7613
TEL: (919) 515-1660
FAX: (919) 515-7746
EMAIL: david_tarpy@ncsu.edu

Jennifer J. Keller
Apiculture Technician
Department of Entomology, Campus Box 7613
North Carolina State University
Raleigh, NC 27695-7613
TEL: (919) 513-7702
FAX: (919) 515-7746
EMAIL: jennifer_keller@ncsu.edu

Authors

Professor and Extension Specialist (Apiculture)
Entomology & Plant Pathology
Ag. Research Technician II
Entomology & Plant Pathology

Publication date: Feb. 23, 2016

The use of brand names in this publication does not imply endorsement by NC State University or N.C. A&T State University of the products or services named nor discrimination against similar products or services not mentioned.

North Carolina State University and North Carolina A&T State University commit themselves to positive action to secure equal opportunity regardless of race, color, creed, national origin, religion, sex, age, veteran status or disability. In addition, the two Universities welcome all persons without regard to sexual orientation.