What you need depends on your goal in keeping bees. Do you want a backyard hive or two for fun, for your own honey, and to pollinate your garden? In that case I’d recommend a “top bar” hive. This is the simplest way to keep bees and requires no special equipment for extracting the honey. You simply remove one of the bars of comb and honey when the bees have produced a surplus (usually not until the second year). You can cut the comb up and have chunk comb honey or squeeze it out of the comb for liquid honey.
If you want to start an apiary and eventually have honey to sell, you’ll want to purchase standard hives with removable frames that will fit into an extractor (a machine that spins the honey out of the cells). This is the way I keep bees because I sell honey. With the expense of hardware, extractor, hot knives, protective gear, bees, etc., I didn’t even break even until the 6th year of beekeeping.
Whichever direction you choose, now is the time to educate yourself, buy and assemble your hives and protective clothing, and to find a source for ordering your bees. In this blog, I’m going to assume you’ve chosen the top bar method. This hive is basically a box with bars placed horizontally over the top. The bees draw comb out in hanging circles from the bars. The hive space can be expanded or contracted by removing or adding bars. For more detailed instruction on keeping bees this way, I love P.J. Chandler’s book, The Barefoot Beekeeper. It even includes plans and instructions for building your own hive (first picture).
You can see that the first pictured hive has a very simple design and could be hand built if you have woodworking skills. Or you can search online to purchase kits or fully assembled hives. They range in price from $99 to $500 or more. The hive in the picture has no cover so you would need to cover it with a flat piece of wood or tin. I really do recommend buying at least 2 hives to get started with. If you run into trouble with a queen dying or not performing, it’s easier to help the bees make a new queen if you have another hive to get eggs from.
For protective gear, you will need a minimum of a veil and gloves. For protective clothing, you can get by with a heavy, long sleeve cotton shirt and denim pants tucked into boots. Or you can buy a bee suit. I’ve used both cotton and nylon bee suits and prefer nylon. When you get hot and sweaty, the cotton will stick to your skin and if your bees are being disagreeable, they can easily you sting through the wet cotton. You can order catalogs or shop online from companies such as Walter T Kelley, Dadant, Betterbee and a host of others. Keep in mind, they are in the business of selling you a bunch of stuff you may or may not need. But look through them now and compare and price your gear. You’ll pay between $20 and $30 for a good pair of gloves and about the same price for a hat and veil.
Instead of buying a smoker, all you'll need to get started is a spray bottle filled with sugar water. Spraying the bees with this will distract them while you install them into your hive (more on installing bees in a future blog).
Now for the bees! You’ll be looking for a package with a bred queen and about 3 pounds of bees. They will be shipped in the spring, most likely by US mail. It’s very important to find a source as local as possible. I know my Southern neighbors won’t want to hear this, but I don’t recommend buying bees from any state south of Tennessee. You run the risk of getting bees with Africanized genetics.
The only other things you might need would be what’s called a hive tool--something to pry the bars apart and lift them with, which costs about $8, and some honey to get them started on (see my blog on feeding bees). So now you have your fall and winter homework: read everything you can, comb through the catalogs, order your hives and protective clothing, assemble your hives and order your bees!