Bees: Choosing and Buying Equipment

I consider and order my first hive and related equipment.

I started my beekeeping hobby in June 2013 and have been blogging about it periodically. If you’re interested in reading the other posts in this series, follow the Adventures in Beekeeping tag. Keep in mind that the most recent posts always appear first on this blog.

Once I’d decided to move forward with beekeeping, it was time to buy equipment. Unfortunately, there were many options to choose from. Without going into an in-depth discussion of how bees live and thrive — I’ll let you read up in the books like I did — I’ll go through my equipment choices and explain why making decisions isn’t so straightforward.

Deep vs. Medium Hive Bodies

My Hive
This simple beehive consists of five parts (top to bottom): telescoping cover (with aluminum roof), inner cover (not visible), medium hive body, deep hive body, hive base (with entrance for bees).

A hive body is the box that contains the bees. A bee hive consists of one or more hive bodies, each filled with vertically hung frames.

In general, beekeepers — and I hesitate to say “most beekeepers” because I really don’t know — use so-called deep hive bodies at the bottom of the hive and medium hive bodies at the top. A deep hive body holds frames that are 9-5/8 inches tall; a medium hive body holds frames that are 6-5/8 inches tall.

From my research, I learned that the benefit of medium hive body over deep hive body is weight; consult the table for details. It’s for this reason that medium hive bodies are usually used at the top of the hive for “honey supers.”

Hive Body Weights

This table, created with data from “Beehives, A Guide to Choosing the Right Size Boxes,” shows the difference in weight for a hive body full of honey at each standard size.

  10-frame 8-frame
Deep 80 lbs 64 lbs
Medium 50 lbs 40 lbs

Seems like a no-brainer, right? Get all medium hive bodies so I can more easily lift them when necessary. The trouble is, the queen bee seems to prefer laying eggs in deep hive bodies. So there’s a possibility that a hive consisting of just medium hive bodies might not be as productive as one with deep hive bodies.

I consulted my friend in Vermont, who has been doing this for years. He recommended deep hive bodies at the bottom and medium hive bodies at the top. The “traditional” way.

10-Frame vs. 8-Frame Hive Bodies

Hive bodies can also hold either 10 frames (the traditional size) or 8 frames. Again, the main difference between these sizes is weight; consult the table.

Another no-brainer, right? Well, the way I saw it, the larger boxes would give the hive more room to grow so I’d have to add hive bodies less often to prevent swarming. Giving the bees more horizontal space would also eliminate the need to give them more vertical space — I wouldn’t be building bee towers. That’s the way I saw it, anyway.

Wood vs. Plastic

Hive boxes and frames are available in wood or plastic. The plastic boxes seemed to have more insulating properties for the winter, but all the beekeepers I talked to scoffed at the idea of using anything but wood.

Assembled vs. Unassembled

Hive bodies and frames come assembled or unassembled. They also come painted or unpainted. Frames come assembled or unassembled. Coated or uncoated. With foundation or without foundation. You can save money by buying hive components unassembled and putting them together yourself and then painting them or coating them with wax (as necessary). (You can also build your own bee hives from scratch, but I certainly didn’t want to go there.)

This was definitely a no-brainer for me. I’d buy them fully assembled and painted/coated.

Other Hive Parts

I’d also need some additional parts to each hive:

  • Frames. This is where the bees build their honeycombs, rear their brood, and store honey and pollen. They hang vertically in the hive bodies and usually include a wax-coated foundation on which the bees can build. There are a lot of frame foundation choices, but I think it’s best to start with whatever is standard.
  • Inner and outer covers. This protects the bees from the elements. Because each hive body is open on top and bottom, the top one must be covered.
  • Bottom board. This provides a base for the hive and an entrance for the bees. A reducer enables you to adjust the size of the opening.
  • Hive stand. This is a platform to keep the beehive off the ground. Most people build makeshift hive stands out of cinderblocks and scrap wood, although you can buy fancier ones.
  • Queen excluder. This keeps the queen from moving up into the part of the hive that’s reserved for honey storage.
  • Mite screen. This helps control varroa mites. (That’s a whole discussion in itself.)
  • Feeder. When you first get your bees, you have to feed them a 1:1 sugar water solution to keep them going until they can find their own source of food. You do this with a feeder. My vermont friend recommended an entrance feeder, although I’ll likely need to switch to a top feeder in the winter time.

The Importance of Sticking to Standards

Over and over, in every beekeeping information resource I consulted, the importance of standards was stressed. It’s pretty simple: you want your equipment to follow standards because you will be mixing and matching pieces down the road.

Some of the books also mentioned that standards aren’t always followed to the letter. They suggested finding one source of equipment and sticking to it. This would ensure uniformity so all the pieces fit together properly.

Sure, there are lots of pretty beehives out there, designed for gardens or patios or even inside an urban home. They’re more for show than for actual bee rearing. They usually don’t have standard parts so they’re not very practical if you’re serious about beekeeping.

Other Equipment

The hives are the homes for the bees. But other equipment is also necessary to keep bees. I had to get that, too.

  • Bee suit, gloves, hat, and veil. These items protect me from the bees themselves. I don’t think I’m allergic to bee stings, but who wants to take chances?
  • Smoker. Beekeepers use cool smoke to calm bees. I’d need a smoker for each time I opened the hive and manipulated the frames.
  • Hive tool. This is a specialized metal tool used to pry frames apart, scrape away accumulated propolis and wax, and work with the hive components.

Placing My Order

Although my Vermont friend had suggested Betterbee as an online source of beekeeping equipment, the local beekeeping group I joined suggested Mann Lake. They said Mann Lake had quick turnaround time and free shipping for orders over $100. I went with Mann Lake.

I had a choice of placing my order piecemeal (a la carte, so to speak) or ordering a kit. If I ordered a kit, I could order a complete beekeeping kit, which included everything I needed (other than the bees), or just a hive kit, which included a complete hive and still required me to order the other things I needed.

The Bee Kit
This is the bee kit I ordered. (No, it didn’t come with the guy.)

With so many choices to make, I decided to keep it super simple and order the Deluxe Traditional Starter Kit, which included four 10-frame hive bodies (two deep and two medium), 4 frames (in appropriate sizes, inner and outer cover, bottom board with reducer, bee suit with zip-on veil, hat, gloves, queen excluder, smoker, smoker fuel, hive tool, bee brush, and a book titled The Backyard Beekeeper. I also ordered an entrance feeder and a drawer-style varroa screen.

Now that I’d finally made the plunge into this new hobby, I couldn’t wait to get started. More on that in another post.

What do you think?