Assembled hive boxes

Beekeeping On A Budget
(Money Saving Tips)

As I mentioned in our article 2019 Cost Start Beekeeping, depending on some choices you make, it will run between $600 and $1,000 to get through your first year of beekeeping.

That doesn’t include costs of harvesting honey which will also depend on some options you select. If you grow your apiary, you’ll continue to incur some high costs as bees and hive bodies aren’t cheap.

We recommend startup cost numbers designed to make your beginning beekeeping experience as simple as possible. However, you don’t have to buy pre-assembled, pre-painted hive bodies.

There are ways to lower your costs, especially once you’ve gained some experience and are more comfortable managing the colonies. The trade-off for some cost-cutting options is an increased investment of time.

Here are some suggestions for lowering costs.

Hive Components

Hives are one of your most significant cost items but provide some budget saving options

Unassembled Hives

You can buy unassembled hives and put them together yourself if you have space to work. It’s straightforward and requires little skill.

All you need are:

  • Unassembled parts
  • Hammer
  • 7d nails
  • Exterior wood glue
  • Speed square

The sides of the hive usually have finger joint construction for increased strength. We use nails and glue to assemble our hives. You can also use screws and a drill.

A speed square is an inexpensive tool. Use it to quickly check that your body is “square” meaning that each corner forms a 90 angle which assures that the boxes will stack evenly.

You can buy unassembled hive boxes made with different grades of wood. For added cost savings, buy budget grade. The first time we assembled hives, we got the middle quality. Ever since then, it’s been only budget grade, and we’ve never had a problem.

If you have mad carpentry skills and tools, you can build hives from scratch. I think this is a daunting undertaking. But if you’ve got what it takes, go for it.

Unassembled Frames

Like the hive bodies, you can assemble frames to save some money. What you need depends on what tools are available and how you choose to assemble them.

If you don’t have a lot of room and tools, hammer and nails will do the trick. We use a pneumatic (air) stapler to assemble frames.

Just like with hive bodies, you want your frames square so they align correctly in the box.

To speed the assembly process if you’re doing a lot of frames, a framing jig is a good idea. You can buy one (like this one on supplier Mann Lake’s website) or, keeping with the DIY theme, build one (like this one on Beesource.com).

Using recent prices on Mann Lake’s website, here’s an example of savings achieved by assembling some components yourself:

Fully assembled 8 frame super$47.95
Unassembled 8 frame super (per box based on purchase of 5)$10.95
8 unassembled frames$13.95
Plastic foundation for 8 frames$11.96
Miscellaneous (nails, glue, etc.)$ 1.00
Total cost of unassembled 8 frame super$37.86
Savings$10.09

This is a savings of about 21%.

We use all 8 frame supers now. Our largest colony recently required 7 boxes for brood and honey harvesting. That’s over $70 in savings from assembling things ourselves.

You can see how this adds up as your bee yard grows.

Foundationless Frames

Let’s say you start with two colonies. If each of them consists of five 10-frame boxes (after adding supers), you need 100 sheets of foundations costing $100 – $125.

If you use a small starter strip of foundation in a foundationless frame, you’ll spend a lot less. We use a strip from a wooden paint stirrer.

Foundationless beekeeping comes with its drawbacks, but if you want to save money you should consider it.

See our article Frames With Foundation (Or Foundationless?) for more information.

Top Bar Hives

While we recommend Langstroth hives for a variety of reasons, a lower cost option is the top bar hive.  Top bar hives (discussed in detail in our article 3 Main Beehive Types (Which To Choose) can cost less than a Langstroth hive with all its components.

Top bar hives are simple in design and can be made with inexpensive materials. These hives have their pros and cons, but if costs are an overriding issue, building a top bar hive is an option to consider. Here’s some plans available online:

These hives have their pros and cons, but if costs are an overriding issue, building a top bar hive is an option to consider. Here’s some plans available online:

Bees

Buying a bee package can set you back about $150. A nuc will be around $180. You can save some money buying bees locally to avoid shipping costs.

Once you’re into your second or third year of beekeeping, you can start expanding your apiary without buying new bees. Free bees! What’s better than that?!?

Split A Colony

Expand your apiary by splitting a strong colony in two.

Splits are best done very early in the spring, giving the colonies ample time to ramp up their populations.

You can split hive several ways.

Walk-Away Split

A walk-away split is just what it sounds like.

Move of everything from one hive to another: bees, stores, brood, eggs, and larva. No need to worry about which one has the queen. Just walk away. The queenless colony will raise their own queen, which should take about four weeks.

Bees in the new location may find their way back to the original hive after foraging. To reorient the bees, I’d suggest closing up the new hive for three days and create some obstacles at the opening (grass or maybe a robbing screen) when you open it up. These changes should get the bees used to the new spot.

If after five weeks there’s no sign of eggs or brood in one of the boxes, it means they failed to raise a new queen. In this case, I’d buy a new queen for that colony. A queen alone is still less expensive than a full package.

Split

You can also split a hive by moving several frames of brood, bees, and stores to a new box taking care NOT to move the queen. In this case, you’ll need to buy and introduce a queen into the new hive.

The nurse bees will stay with the brood; some of the other bees may find their way back to the original hive. Once the new queen is accepted, you’ll have your new colony.

Trap A Swarm

Honey bees expand the species by swarming. In effect, the bees themselves perform a split.

If the population starts to crowd the hive, the queen will leave with a lot of the other bees. This swarm will find a new location to call home. Swarms occur naturally in beekeeper’s yards and the wild.

The cost of catching a swarm is so low it’s like getting free bees.

Some sites suggest swarm trapping as a cost-effective way to start beekeeping. Personally, I think this is really bad and misleading advice. If you’ve never been a beekeeper, buying all your equipment and hoping to catch a swarm is not a good way to get started.

However, after you’re up and running with an apiary, catching a swarm is an excellent way to expand at little expense.

How To Catch A Swarm

If you look around the internet, you’ll see a load of suggestions on how to catch a swarm. While the specifics vary, the basic steps are the same:

  1. Create a swarm trap (i.e., some kind of hive body for the swarm to inhabit. Use a nuc box, a deep hive body, or any of a variety of possible containers.
  2. With a traditional type of hive body, put some frames in the trap. If you can, include some frames with comb.
  3. Swab some lemongrass oil inside the trap. The scent of the oil mimics a queen’s pheromones. You can also use a specialty product like Swarm Commander, which has other additives.
  4. Secure the trap to a tree in an area likely to be visited by bees. Higher is better, but 12 – 15 feet should be good enough.
  5. Check the hive periodically to see if some girls have moved in.

If a swarm moves in, take the trap down, take it to your bee yard and transfer the bees to a permanent hive. Free bees!

Be extremely careful taking down a trap. It’s a good idea to wear protective clothing. Lowering a box 15 feet can be awkward. Getting stung while doing it increases the odds of a mishap. Have a helper if possible.

Provide Bee Removal Services

Bee swarms can be a nuisance to many homeowners. They settle in backyards, in attics and crawl spaces and even inside walls.

If you’re up to it, you can offer your services in bee removal. You’re catching a swarm, but it’s not in a trap.

Be prepared before you attempt this. You’ll need extra equipment like ladders, a vacuum to gather up some colonies and tools to access some spots. You also need the ability to transport everything.

Bee removal is not for everyone, but if you’re up for it, you may even get paid to take away some bees.

Keep Your Colonies Alive

Helping your honey bees survive may be the number one way to save money. Getting new bees every spring is an expensive way to maintain and grow your apiary.

Winterize Hives

Winter losses can be enormous. To help avoid them:

  • Combine weak colonies with stronger ones in the fall
  • Make sure they have enough stores to get through the winter
  • Supplement their food stores with sugar or fondant (make you own fondant to save money or make sugar bricks)
  • Insulate or wrap the hives in colder climates
  • Take steps to prevent moisture build-up in the colony

Instead of buying candy boards for winter feeding, you can make your own.

See our article How To Winterize Your Hives for more details.

Winterized hives

Treat For Varroa Mites

Many beekeepers cite varroa mites as the number one cause of colony loss. Some people consider “treatment-free” beekeeping to be more natural. You can go that route, but it’s unlikely to be very effective against varroa.

See our article Varroa Mites: A Complete Treatment Guide for in-depth information.

Protect Your Hives From Animals

A bear can destroy your apiary in one night. They can cost you bees AND equipment.

The best protection against bears is an electric fence. Yes, that’s an additional cost. However, it will probably be cheaper in the long run than the loss of your entire bee yard.

Ratchet straps are an inexpensive way of keeping your hives from being toppled by pesky critters like raccoons.

Harvesting Honey

One of the higher cost items for beekeeping is an extractor.

Uncapped frames of honey are placed in the extractor and spun at high speed. The centrifugal force forces honey out of the comb. Honey is then drained from the extractor, strained and collected in containers.

Extractors come in various sizes and can be manual or electric. A small 2-frame extractor can be had for less than $200. Larger, electric ones can cost thousands of dollars. The right extractor for you depends on how many frames you plan to harvest and the speed you feel is needed.

You can save on the cost of an extractor by sharing one with other beekeepers. Your local bee club may have such an arrangement.

Check Craigslist.org and other sources for used extractors.

As a beginner with just a few hives, you don’t need an extractor to harvest honey.

If you have foundationless frames, you can simply cut the comb out of the frame and place it in a container — many people like honey in this form. Browse the honey shelves in your area, and you may see honeycomb sells at a premium to jar honey.

Whether or not you use foundation, you can still get jar honey without an extractor. Scrape the honey off the frame (or cut it out like as honeycomb). Crush everything and drain it through a strainer into a food-grade container.

The crush and strain method is not efficient for an abundant harvest, but it’s hugely cost-effective for a beginner with only a few colonies.

Other Equipment

We don’t recommend buying used equipment when it comes to hive components. You may be getting more problems than you bargained for.

Other equipment like hive tools and smokers are fine if you clean them thoroughly before using near your bees. But these things are relatively inexpensive new, and I don’t expect you can save much here.

Protective Clothing

A good veil to protect your face and eyes shouldn’t be optional. After that, you can save money on your choice of protective clothing by shopping around.

A bee jacket is less expensive than a full suit. We’re over five years into beekeeping and still using our “economy” jackets with attached hoods. (Although in the heat of summer I keep dreaming of trying a ventilated jacket. Maybe next year.)

You’ll see a lot of beekeepers on YouTube wearing little in the way of protective clothing. While it works for some, it’s not for everyone. (it’s definitely not for me!) We recommend beginners opt on the side of caution (dollar-wise) until you learn what’s comfortable for you.

Wikihow.com has an article on how to make a beekeeping suit. (Again, not for me, but hey…give it a go if you want!)

Feeders

You can buy all kinds of feeders. Or you can make your own.

We’ve used plastic bags full of syrup to feed. Mason jars or plastic containers that seal tightly work fine. Using a 1/16th inch bit, put holes in the top with a drill.

We also made feeder stands out of scrap wood. Like hive tools, feeders aren’t overly expensive, but you might save a few bucks here.

Buy In Bulk

Buying in bulk usually gets you lower unit costs. It’s the driving force behind the success of Walmart, Costco, and others.

While you may not be ready to buy 100 unassembled hive bodies, buying as few as five can lower the cost a little. It applies to frames, foundations…just about anything you’ll need more than one of.

At feeding time, one 25-pound bag of sugar will be cheaper than five 5-pound bags.

Bulk buying also helps get free shipping from many suppliers.

About Us

Melanie and Jim

I’m Melanie Howard. My husband, Jim, and I want to share with you everything we’ve learned about beekeeping since we were newbies 6 years ago. Maybe the the ups and downs we’ve experienced can help you along the way.

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