Saturday, July 5, 2014

Beekeeping on a Small Homestead

Beekeeping can be very expensive to get into. Just to get started you have to buy a hive, a package of bees, a smoker, a bee suit, and then you have to decide if you are going to feed your bees. If you feed your bees you have to decide for how long. Think you are done?

Not even close. Now you have to decide if you are going to include any treatments for your new bee hive. There are treatments for varroa mites, tracheal mites, small hive beetle, foulbrood, and nosema. Don't worry, we will cover them all and their treatments as well as cost in another linked post.

Now that I have you worried about getting started with bees I am going to slowly cover as much as I can and tell you about costs and how you can reduce those costs.

The Hive

I am going to cover two types of hives, because they are the two I know most about. The Langstroth and the Top Bar aka Kenyan hive.

The Langstroth

The langstroth is what nearly everyone thinks of when you talk about a bee hive. Several rectangular boxes stacked on top of each other. There is an entrance at the bottom. For the Langstroth you will need at least one brood box. I prefer two.

Most people use a queen excluder. A queen excluder keeps the queen from going too high in the hive. This helps insures that everything above the excluder is honey and pollen, no eggs or brood.

Above the brood boxes go the supers. This is where the worker bees make and store all the honey and pollen. There are 3  types of supers; deep, medium, and shallow. A deep super filled with honey can weigh as much ad 90 pounds about 60 of which is honey. A medium as much as 60 pounds (about 40 pounds of honey) and a shallow up to 40 pounds (about 26 pounds of honey). That is a lot of honey.
Seeing 3 supers on top of 2 hive bodies or brood boxes is not uncommon.

Even though the Langstroth is the traditional hive seen all over the United States,  it is the expensive way to get into beekeeping. Unless you have a nearly complete wood workshop you cannot make a Langstroth yourself like you would buy at a beekeeping supply.

If this is the type of hive you want I strongly suggest you buy at least the first hive body, base, inner cover, telescoping top, plus the frames. I will show you how to use some "Make Do Engineering" for the rest of the boxes that you will need. But using make do engineering will actually nullify the Langstroth's primary edge over other hives. More honey production.

The reason you can get more honey from a Langstroth hive than a top bar is because of the comb foundation that is placed is the frames of the rack. These foundations mean your bees do not have to make as much wax so they are able to use their energy in wax production. Not providing this foundation effectively turns your Langstroth into a traditional looking top bar.

Without this foundation the method of extraction is the same for both. With the foundation you will want to rent, borrow, buy, or make a honey extractor.

Notice the brood chamber above does not have the wax foundation. The bees will have to work harder to build wax and fill with honey and pollen. They will actually create a more natural comb. This box will not be removed or robbed. This box will remain to provide winter food storage.

The Top Bar Hive

The top bar hive is just as expensive as the Langstroth if you buy them already made. But the top bar is a more simple design and if you are handy at all you can build a top bar complete for right around a hundred dollars.

There are several places that have plans that you can just search for. Some have far better drawings than I could provide. 

The reasons I like the top bar are several. 
1. I can make them without a complete workshop.
2. The top bar is really a more natural hive for honey bees. As a result the bees tend to be a lot more docile.
3. Less need for smoking. We will talk more about smoking bees a little later in this post.
4. A more complete harvest. If you are only into bees for the honey and you have the money to invest a Langstroth might be the style for you. If however you are wanting to be able to harvest wax as well, the top bar might be your choice.
5. I just like the looks of them better.


This is a small list of necessary equipment that every beekeeper should have. A bee suit, smoker, hive tool, and some way of extracting the honey. The method of extraction can be as simple as good quality cheese cloth or as fancy as an extractor. We will go over each.

The bee suit. The bee suit just helps insure that you do not get stung while working the hive. I have known people and you can see videos of people on YouTube that not only work their hives without a suit, but some without a shirt. That is all well and good for them, for me I prefer to wear a suit. I am just not real keen on the thought of getting stung multiple times. I made my own suit with a pair of coveralls, pruning gloves, and a bee hood. The hood I bought you can see below the others are just like my equipment. The hood took a little while to get here because it had to be shipped from Hong Kong, but it works great. 

I use duct tape to seal any possible holes. Grand total putting together my own bee suit $49.09 and I can use the gloves and coveralls for other things. I am all about multi function. You may already have a set of long sleeve coveralls or many times you can find them at thrift stores. That will save you even more money.

Using my make do Bee suit and doing just fine.

The Smoker: A bee smoker for some reason calms the bees. They are not near as aggressive after they have been smoked. For simple manipulation of the hive many times I will not smoke at all, but when it is time to harvest honey the smoker is a necessary tool.

The Hive Tool: The hive tool is basically a small, very flat pry bar. I picked mine up locally and again multi function because guess what? I use mine as a pry bar as well. The hive tool is used to remove the inner cover, separate boxes, and remove frames. You will use this tool several times a year per hive so look at the quality and consider your own strength in the selection.

Honey extractors can be very expensive, but if you have the money to spend on them they are very nice. I have seen a 10 frame electric extractor in use. After you have uncapped the comb you just put the frames in the extractor, turn it on and honey comes out the bottom ready to strain and bottle. The one I listed above is a two frame and for my small operation would be perfect, but maybe next year. This year we have to extract the old fashioned way.

The old fashioned way is simple, but labor intensive. Cut the comb into chunks. Squeeze as much honey out into cheese cloth. The cheese cloth acts as a filter to remove any wax remnants. After you have filtered all of the easy honey, you can either feed the wax and any left over honey back to the bees or you can keep going.

Feeding back to the bees is easy. Just place near the hive and watch them work cleaning it all back up. Doing this will reduce your harvest, but it will save your bees some work. It is up to you. If you want to keep a harvest of wax as well,  you must keep going.

Place the wax inside the cheese cloth and squeeze really hard. More honey will come out and you will make a ball of what looks like pure wax, but it is not yet. Cut the ball up in several pieces and repeat. Even more honey will come out. After the second time I normally stop trying to get anymore honey.

Wax Harvest. Once you have gotten to this point you should have a couple of balls of what appear to be just beeswax. You should also have several jars of honey sitting on your counter looking absolutely delicious.

Things you will need or need to make are a double boiler and a mold. Beeswax cannot handle direct heat hence the double boiler. If you are creative you can create a "make do" one with two different size pots. The slightly larger on the bottom and the smaller on the top. I am including a link to a double boiler.

Slowly melt the wax in the double boiler either purchased or made. As the wax melts impurities will rise to the top. Just remove all the impurities with a slotted spoon, after you get all of the larger impurities out you may have to use a regular spoon for some. At this point you can choose to filter the wax. A paint strainer works great and can be obtained from anywhere automotive paint is sold. 

Now you will need a mold. You can build a mold out of wood and line it with wax paper, you can buy a mold, or you can even use the cheap travel soap dishes that you can buy at any department store. If you use the soap dishes you will want to spray it with cooking spray. Then just let the wax cool.

There you go. Probably way more than you ever cared to know about honeybees unless of course you are thinking about adding them to your homestead. I wish you all honey sweetened.

Rural Dreams and Homestead Wishes

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