Beginner Beekeeper: What To Buy?

Cedar National hives in a garden
Cedar National Type Hives

First Time Purchases For New Beekeepers

Once you have decided that you really do want to become a beekeeper, you have some buying choices to make. It can get very frustrating listening to the conflicting advice from different beekeepers. You will make decisions now that may determine the course of your whole journey with bees, but you don’t yet have the experience to know what’s right for you. It’s a tough one.

It may help you to know that, in my opinion, the bees don’t care what type of hive you buy or what suit you wear. In fact, of all the things that you buy, the bees themselves are probably the most important. Even they can be changed later, by replacing the queen. The big decision, the one that sets out a pathway that is hard to reverse, is the type of hive that you choose.

A Bee Hive Is For Life

I know people who still use hives that are over forty years old. If you look after them, they last. A bee hive is not a single entity, but it’s made of several parts; sometimes we add boxes, and other times we remove them. The idea is that the beekeeper can vary the space available to the bees, as their needs change throughout the season.

Many people in the UK use National hives, for no reason than that’s what everyone else uses. It makes sense; if you buy a nucleus colony to get started, chances are it’s on National frames because that is the standard here. Whichever size of hive you go for, once you have invested your hard-earned money into it, it’s very awkward and expensive to change to different hives later on.

National Hives May Be Too Small

The majority of beekeepers, including some very successful bee farmers, use National hives. However, many of those that I have spoken to say that, if they were to start again, they might choose a larger hive, such as a Langstroth or Commercial.

In most parts of the UK and Ireland, the local bee is a hybrid; a mixture of different subspecies. The black bee (Apis mellifera mellifera) used to be our main type of bee. They are hardy creatures, perhaps not the most gentle nor the best honey producers, but certainly thrifty. They are perfectly suited to the National sized hives. Nowadays, the typical bee in much of these islands is a mixture of this black bee with the Italian bee, Carniolans and others.

The hybrids are more prolific than the blacks, so they may do better with a larger sized brood area, such as provided by the Langstroth hive. Some parts of Scotland, Wales, Ireland and northern England have bees that are similar to black bees, or even the real thing. I’m in a heavily hybridised area, so my experience won’t be the same as somebody in Galway, for example.

Getting Your Bees Into The Hive

Enough people are successful with all manner of hive types that I don’t think it’s necessarily something to get too hung up on. If you choose National hives, you will need to be quite a skilful beekeeper to manage bees in single brood boxes. Some queens will fill up a National box with brood, leaving little space for pollen or honey. If you add space, in the form of supers, at the right time you can do very well, but beginners are likely to find swarming a problem.

On the other hand, as your new nucleus hive will probably be on National frames, you can just pop them into your hive if it’s a National. To get bees into other hive types, you may have to buy package bees or use a collected swarm. These can then be shaken into your hive of any size, fed, and hopefully, they’ll draw comb and establish their nest.

The Hive Parts To Buy

Once you’ve figured out what hive to buy, it is time to part with your cash. You can save money if you buy second hand equipment, but you need to be careful with hygiene. Wooden boxes can be scorched with a blow torch and poly can be bleached. Don’t accept second hand frames; it’s too risky.

If you are getting one colony of bees, this is what I would suggest you buy:

  • Hive Stand
  • Floor
  • Brood Box
  • Queen Excluder
  • Three supers
  • Cover board
  • Roof
  • Some form of syrup feeder
  • A nucleus hive
  • Frames and foundation for all boxes

That lot will set you back a pretty penny. I make my own floors and stands because I don’t like the types being sold. It’s also easy enough to make cover boards, and if you do, they only need one hole in the centre for feeding, rather than the two often seen. You can even get clear cover boards so that you can watch your bees without opening them up. Three supers should be enough to start with, and the nuc is for swarm control.

Protective Clothing

The most important place to protect from stings is your face, so you want something with a veil. Most bee suits are simply a veil attached to a cotton boiler suit or jacket. I have suits by all different manufacturers. I like Sherriff and BB Wear suits, but my favourite is the Swienty Breeze suit. It doesn’t matter too much as long as you have a something. The quickest way to ruin your veil is by lighting a smoker when your veil is up; be warned!

beekeeper wearing swienty breeze bee suit
The Mole in a Swienty Breeze suit

Those big leather gloves that many beginners buy are good for dealing with bad-tempered bees, or if you are moving boxes and not really going through the frames. For most beekeeping I find nitriles are great. I used to inspect hives without gloves but didn’t like the propolis stains which made it look like I’m a heavy cigarette smoker. I have found a type of nitrile gloves that have a long cuff and are quite thick. If I get hammered with stings, I change into the leather ones.

Many people use wellington boots to protect their feet and ankles. Bees don’t often attack there anyway, but horrible ones do. We use V12 rigger boots. They are more comfortable and hardwearing, plus I can pull my suit trousers over them to create a bee-proof seal. It gets very sweaty in hot weather, so we wear shorts under the suit and drink plenty of fluids.

Other Essentials

Before I was a beekeeper I could not understand what hive tools are all about. It turns out, you can’t do beekeeping without them. I like the J-type, and I have loads of them because they get mucky, and I lose them. You can clean them with a solution of soda crystals and bleach, plus a wire brush.

We also carry a little box which contains the things needed to clip and mark queens. It’s handy to have such things all together. Our smoker is rarely used, but we have one. We started off this season using smoke as usual, but at some point we just stopped using it and didn’t notice much difference. There have been occasions, with evil bees, when smoke may have helped. I think the best smoker is made by Dadant, but they are also the most expensive; funny how that often happens.

One thought on “Beginner Beekeeper: What To Buy?

  1. Propolis stains on hands? Gone in seconds with any alcohol based hand gel (cheap ones with 70% alcoholdare ideal)

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