The Art of BEEing – startup economics

When I first began thinking about keeping bees I figured the costs would be fairly minimal – a couple of wood boxes, some bees, a smoker, a bee suit, and that was about it. When I made the beehouse, mainly out of scraps, my total investment was under $25, which reinforced the idea. Unfortunately, I’m now finding that there is a pretty significant startup cost for what I will call “classical” beekeeping, particularly when the start wasn’t so much a leap as a meander.

As mentioned in an earlier post, my decision to get into beekeeping was more of an impulse than a carefully considered move. Granted, I was already interested and inclined to do so, but I entered the store having no concept that I would be walking out of it with a beehive. That said, I did evaluate the relative costs of buying a starter kit or the individual pieces, and based on the information I had made what seemed to be the most economical decision at the time, which was to buy the individual components for a screened bottom single brood box hive and then buy the tools and supplies elsewhere.

Having seen one hive body in person, I realized that it was certainly within my skill base to make more, so I decided that rather than buying a medium super I’d make one. The box itself was pretty straightforward, but after looking at the frames I decided that while they certainly could be made with the tools I have available they would require so many tooling changes and setups it didn’t make sense to do so for a small quantity, particularly given that I would still need to buy foundation for them. By the time I had bought a 1 x 8 board and the frames, I had saved about $5 relative to what the store I bought the initial hive at was charging for an assembled and painted one. In addition, the quality of lumber in my local area is abysmal – in the 5 closest suppliers, most 1x boards are stored on end and leaning against walls, with the result that most every board has a bow and usually some warpage or cupping – I had picked the best board out of the entire selection of 3 stores and it still was barely usable for the box.

I was fairly happy with the prices I paid for the various tools I bought at a mix of local stores and online, likewise the bee suit and gloves. A 3 pound package of bees was more expensive than I had assumed, but the supplier I chose was on a similar price point to other suppliers and had the advantage that I only had a 150 mile round trip to pick them up (which also included a few stops for errands on the way) instead of adding a significant delivery charge or 700 mile round trip to the closest of the others… but without bees there wasn’t any point to the rest of the supplies.

Now that the bees are settled in, my attention has turned to eventully having honey to extract, and I’m looking into the variations of commercially available and self-built extractors- which will hopefully be the last of the major items to acquire… And on that one item there is quite a range to consider as well, particularly in the area of capacity / cost trade.

All told, getting setup from scratch with a 1 brood box, 1 medium super hive, bees, and the associated equipment (smoker, hive tool, beesuit, gloves, …) has run me just under $750, which is quite a bit more than I would have budgeted had I done so.

That said, there are savings to be had if you do a bit more homework than I did. Some of the beekeeping suppliers run incredible specials – for example, about 6 weeks after I bought my hive one of the big suppliers ran a special with an unassembled 2 brood box, 3 super hive kit with frames and foundations for less than I paid for my one brood box hive. Likewise another supplier is currently offering a 2 frame extractor, 2 medium supers with foundation and frames, and a full complement of equipment for less than the regular price of the extractor and a single medium super box only. I recently decided to get a lightweight “bee jacket” for the times when I am only going to be sliding the cover off enough to top off the feeder in the early morning before the bees are active, and for $3 more than the cost of the jacket bought a combo which included the jacket, a pair of gloves, a bee brush, and a hive tool.

Can beekeeping be done on a less expensive level? Certainly. If you are a woodworker with a reasonable scrap pile and some time you could probably build a hive for the cost of the foundation. If you have a good lumber yard or sawyer nearby it may well make sense to build your own boxes. You could have the good fortune to have a swarm settle in. You may already have suitable protective clothing. You may have friends or a local group who have equipment you can borrow to get started.

But if these don’t apply – give yourself a $1000 budget to cover the costs for the first year or two, and the do your homework. Watch the supplier sites to get a feel for what they tend to put on specials, and be ready to jump on them at the time.

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One Response to The Art of BEEing – startup economics

  1. BeeNuts says:

    Good advice. Beekeeping is not cheap, especially as a small-scale hobbyist. If you have a good bee club in the locale you can sometimes get economies of scale by sharing a bulk purchase and also hiring out a club extractor rather than each buying one.

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