beekeepers

Getting started: the cost of beekeeping

Some things should never be calculated. I learned this basic lesson many years ago from a skating coach. After I won my first gold medal — okay, it was some kind of yellow metal medal — I tried to tally the money I spent on skates, lessons, rink fees, travel, competitions, practice clothes, sequined costumes, motels, and meals out. The amount was staggering. When I mentioned this to my coach, he said, “Never add it together. It ruins the joy.”

This article first appeared in American Bee Journal, Volume 161 No. 5, May 2021, pp. 495-499.

You could view his advice as self-serving, after all, I was a substantial part of his meal ticket. But emotionally, he was absolutely correct. Why ruin a good thing by fulminating over the cost?

Years later, however, I reassessed those expenses. At the time I was skating, I didn’t give much thought to the opportunity costs of spending so many hours at the rink, hours spent waking at 4 a.m. six days a week to get sufficient practice time, tracing thousands of repetitious figures, and crashing on my bum till it was purple. I failed to include the cost of the double compound fracture of my leg that put me in the hospital twice, the titanium rod that I still carry around inside, and the rehab that was both painful and boring.

But even so, skating was one of the best parts of my life. I glided to music for years, and the tunes I skated to back then still fill me with adrenaline and nostalgia. It was pricey, forced me to survive on peanut butter and jelly, and set me back career-wise. But would I do it all again? No question.

I tried every technique known to man to make comb honey, including these mason jars with starter strips. In the end, nothing beats a simple shallow frame.
I tried every technique known to man to make comb honey, including these mason jars with starter strips. In the end, nothing beats a simple shallow frame. All photos by Rusty Burlew, except as noted.

A convenient home money pit

Backyard beekeeping is not much different. Just like skating, the beginning costs are manageable, but as your interest escalates, so do your costs.

You soon realize the beginner kit you were so excited about doesn’t begin to cover your needs, so you acquire one more thing and then another. It doesn’t take long before you’re spending hundreds, if not thousands, more than you anticipated. And the new pickup you need to haul it all around? We’ll get to that in a moment.

Starting with the basics

So what do the basics cost now in 2021? Well, I just happen to have a stack of new catalogs piled on my desk, so let’s make a list.

Beekeepers argue about everything, so what a beginner needs is a point of contention. Anyway, I had to start somewhere, so here’s a list based on a typical beginner’s kit:

  • 2 ten-frame brood boxes, including frames and plastic foundation
  • 2 ten-frame medium supers, including frames and plastic foundation
  • outer telescoping cover
  • inner cover
  • bottom board, including entrance reducer
  • queen excluder
  • bee brush
  • bee suit
  • gloves
  • hive tool
  • smoker
  • beginner’s book

According to the catalogs, that abbreviated list will cost you plus-or-minus $550, depending on the quality of items such as the bee suit, the smoker, and gloves. Of course, the beginner kit doesn’t include the bees.

These days, a package is around $200, depending on shipping. A nuc, which is often a better choice for a beginner, will run around the same amount, but you will need to go get it. With any luck, your pick-up point will be within 500 miles — or maybe not. If you’re not so fortunate, you may need to spring for a night’s lodging and meals.

However, if you actually read the bee book, it will most likely advise you to start with at least two hives and two colonies, so you can double the cost of the woodenware and the bees. If you decide to take the two-hive advice, you’re well into four digits on your first day of beekeeping.

Cost of beekeeping: Most beekeepers want to extract their honey, but it’s easy to forget the equipment cost and the storage hassle.
Most beekeepers want to extract their honey, but it’s easy to forget the equipment cost and the storage hassle. Pixabay photo.

Never enough equipment

The problem is you still don’t have enough equipment. On day one, you’ll need some kind of feeder for each hive and something to put in the feeder. You will probably need to treat your bees for mites soon after they arrive — or at least be ready to, just in case. These days everyone seems to be fond of oxalic acid vapor, which requires oxalic acid ($45), at least a half-face respirator with cartridges ($60-90), a vaporizer (ranging from $130 to $500, give-or-take), and usually a 12-volt battery or portable generator ($?).

Yes, alternatives exist. You can buy many types of mite treatment, each coming with a list of pros and cons. But in any case, you should be counting your mite load, an activity that may require a sticky board or some type of test kit. You will probably spend more money per year on mites than bees, so don’t overlook extermination during your financial reckoning.

Overlooked necessities

The original deal I brokered with my husband, Rich, was that he didn’t need to do anything with bees — they were strictly my thing. But I soon realized that I couldn’t lift full boxes, and I needed serious help.

So added to my expense list was a bee suit for him, and gloves, a veil, a helmet, and an EpiPen. The EpiPen required a doctor visit and a prescription — all expenses I hadn’t seen coming. Later, when I kept an outyard at a friend’s place, I had to provide protective wear for him too, so he could mow his lawn without fear.

 Hauling one-man rocks up the rutted hillside on a hand truck was a killer, but the project justified a pickup.
Hauling one-man rocks up the rutted hillside on a hand truck was a killer, but the project justified a pickup.

Hive stands and rock walls

Often, it’s not the beekeeping equipment itself that’s so expensive, but the related projects. After Rich built my first permanent hive stand, concreted into the ground, we realized it needed a roof. Where we live, rain happens for nine months on end, so we retrofitted a roof that keeps out most of the rain and retards some kinds of mold.

After the second hive stand was built — this time with a preconceived roof — the ground behind it began sloughing away. After half a season, I could no longer stand behind the hives to work, but had to stand beside or in front. We finally decided we needed a rock retaining wall.

We purchased a bunch of individually selected one-man rocks, each of which took two men to move. Since everything here is on a hillside — except the swampy part that’s under black muck the consistency of whipped potatoes — we hauled each one individually along the root-encrusted path in a hand truck, which just about killed both of us.

The rock wall did the job, and now that green mossy stuff has grown all over it, it looks cool, like something the ancient Romans may have built using legions of stonemasons with expendable lives and tree-trunk rollers.

I don’t recall how much we spent on stones and supplies, just that they don’t give that stuff away. The work, though, I do remember, and the time spent doing it was massive.

 You wouldn’t recognize the retaining wall now because it’s covered with slippery green moss and lichens. It works great, though.
You wouldn’t recognize the retaining wall now because it’s covered with slippery green moss and lichens. It works great, though.

Bees extract money

If you make it in beekeeping long enough to get a honey crop, you may start thinking about an extractor. Now there’s a subject with dollar bills attached. One of the problems with extractors is that people start too small with, perhaps, a two- or four-frame hand-cranked extractor. A few years later, they want something bigger, perhaps with a motor, and a few years after that, something even bigger and made of stainless.

To complete the extractor setup, you also want a refractometer, cappings scratcher, uncapping tank, double sieve, and honey gate. That’s the way it is with bees: Everything keeps getting bigger and costlier until you finally surrender, broke and worn to the bone.

To me, the biggest extractor detractor is storage. I don’t have room to store things that only get used once or twice a year. If you calculate how many square feet of floor space things require, and then figure how much it costs per square foot to build a space like that, and then figure in your property tax per square foot per year, you will soon see it’s not free.

The comb honey alternative

Of course, all these years I’ve completely sidestepped the extractor issue. Nope, I’ve never spent a dime on one. Instead, I’ve poured all my money into every type of comb honey super you can imagine, including Kelley section boxes, Ross Rounds, Eco Bee Boxes, and even homemade section boxes. After spending a small fortune on every frustration imaginable, I concluded that shallow frames with starter strips make the very best comb honey. Go figure.

I often wonder how many hours I’ve spent scraping frames and what magnificent opportunities I’ve given up to do it.
I often wonder how many hours I’ve spent scraping frames and what magnificent opportunities I’ve given up to do it.

The little things accrue

Aside from the initial expenses, the little additional ones multiply in a cascade of necessity.

  • You can’t find anyone to check your hives for nosema, so you buy a microscope, slides, and a counting grid.
  • You decide you should attend a conference in another city which requires an overnight stay, transportation, meals, and registration fee.
  • You decide to read the latest bee books, only to discover new ones are published weekly.
  • You decide to make candles so you buy a wax melter, candle molds, spray release, braided wicking, and packaging supplies.
  • You decide to sell your honey, so you buy jars and labels, lids, sieves, and a display table.
  • You decide to wrap your hives for winter, so you buy tar paper, staplers, wooden support slats, and a handsaw.
  • You decide to make lip balm, so you buy melters, oils, fragrances, tubes, labels, and shrink wrap.
  • You decide to make food wraps, so you buy colorful cotton fabric, jojoba oil, rosin, and expendable cookie sheets.
  • You decide to monitor your bees in winter, so you buy a thermal camera, in-hive temperature/humidity sensors, and a hive scale.

Life’s minor accidents play a role too. Even when you buy everything you could possibly need, stuff still happens. Do you remember:

  • The $35 (plus shipping) queen that flew away while you were installing her?
  • The brand new jacket you tattooed with propolis streaks across the front?
  • Your favorite stainless steel pot that is hopelessly seal-coated with beeswax?
  • The two acres you plowed, seeded, and watered to grow the flowers your bees ignored?
  • The bill your neighbor presented (along with photos) of the upholstered lawn furniture your bees flew over in spring?
  • The $500 fine you got from your town council for harboring dangerous animals inside city limits?
  • The vet bill you got after the bees spooked your horse, who then tangled in barbed wire?
  • All the hive tools you lost, including the one that ruined the lawnmower?
  • Your partner, frustrated with sticky doorknobs, replacing them all with lever handles that could be opened with elbows?
  • The time you set fire to your best hive when your vaporizer snuggled against a piece of burr comb?

Opportunity costs count too. Do you remember all the time you spent:

  • Scraping frames?
  • Cleaning bee poop off your cars, patio, clothes, and the side of your house?
  • Trying to force sugar to dissolve in cold water?
  • Staying home because your face was too red and swollen to be seen in public?

Pick it all up

All these items come to mind without much thought. But dozens of other expenses arise each season, things you don’t bother to add to the expense column. One of these optional extras is the pickup truck.

If you have two hives in your backyard, you can make do with whatever vehicle you have. But once you establish outyards, sell honey at county fairs, cart generators from place to place, or buy pallets of sugar, you begin to see the potential advantage.

Now and then you casually insert the idea into conversation, careful not to connect the truck to your bee habit. You say, “Honey, wouldn’t it be nice to have a pickup? Grocery shopping would be so much easier for you. And camping would be a breeze, no more wedging all that gear into the backseat. And think of the money we’d save not paying Home Depot for delivery.” Gently, surreptitiously, you plant the idea, water it, and fertilize it until you get the go-ahead from your spouse.

Once you get the pickup home, you fill it with all your beekeeping paraphernalia, making it useless to anyone but you. Forget grocery shopping, forget Home Depot. And camping? Never. That truck is an essential beekeeping tool. “If you want a truck, buy your own.”

 Another thing you can do with bees is collect pollen. It requires more specialty equipment and a freezer, but it’s a learning experience. If you’re industrious, you can even make chocolate pollen drops, which taste remarkably horrid.
Another thing you can do with bees is collect pollen. It requires more specialty equipment and a freezer, but it’s a learning experience. If you’re industrious, you can even make chocolate pollen drops, which taste remarkably horrid.

The golden egg

When I first began raising chickens, a similar escalation occurred. We got a few chicks — cheap cheeps — and then built a henhouse. The second year, we added a second henhouse with lights on timers, two fenced yards, an automatic watering system with cute little drinking cups, and several banks of nests. Ongoing trips to the feed store netted bags of layer ration, oyster shells, scratch, and leg bands.

Once the eggs began coming, I soon ran out of cartons and was forced to buy them by the case, along with rubber stamps with my name and phone number. Not long after that, we ran out of space in the fridge for regular food, forcing us to give away dozens of eggs until we found room for the milk.

But the thing I remember most still bothers me. My boss at the time was a shrewd businessman, having made his fortune in real estate. When I proudly gifted him with a dozen Ameraucana eggs in shades of periwinkle and celery, he just laughed and said, “Ah! The golden egg! How much did that cost you?”

That hurt, and I never gave him anything again. Why is it that some people don’t understand doing things to learn, to grow, to understand? Yes, we work to support ourselves and our families, and if we’re lucky, we love what we do. But it’s also okay to do things that don’t return a monetary profit. Why is that so hard to comprehend?

The final financial analysis

When you get right down to it, my skating coach was right: You should never examine the numbers. How can you possibly do a financial analysis on a life-enriching adventure? For many people, beekeeping provides an awakening, a brush with nature they never expected, or a peek into a world of biology they never imagined. How much is that worth? It doesn’t come with dollar signs because it’s priceless.

So when you begin beekeeping, don’t keep accounts. Unless you’re starting a business, settle for an open mind, a willingness to learn, and a conviction to spend what’s right for you. Sure, less expensive workarounds exist, and if you need them, you will find them.

It’s all about the journey. In beekeeping, there is no endpoint, there are only rest areas and viewpoints. Once you begin beekeeping, you’ve embarked on a lifelong trajectory of learning, discovery, reasoning, and just plain joy. Add to that a few nerve-shattering stings, and you’re well on your way to a lifetime of red ink.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

I don’t want to know how much my golden eggs cost. I just want to revel in the experience. Pixabay photo.
I don’t want to know how much my golden eggs cost. I just want to revel in the experience. Pixabay photo.

18 Comments

  • This part about equipment being too heavy: Ditch all the accumulated Langstroth equipment and replace it with a long hive and start the process of accumulating new and different stuff.

  • It *is* astonishing how much obscure beekeeping equipment I “need”. I didn’t acquire a pickup, but I did persuade my partner to build me a bee barn. Which, by the way, despite being seriously oversized when he built it, is now so full I can hardly get in to *find* anything.
    It’s true that the bees are a money pit, but as for opportunity costs, bees come out of the entertainment budget, and they’re pretty good bang for the buck, entertainment-wise.

    I have kept track of all my monetary expenses, so I can say I cannot afford to sell my honey because it costs me $40/$60/$80 a pound to produce it. Having the numbers to examine gives me a good excuse to avoid the work of selling.

    Also, I got zero honey this year, so the honey is infinitely expensive, right?

  • Wow, that pretty much sums it up. Thank You for all your hard work and valuable information and insights. Everything you mentioned has rung true in my own experiences as well. Appreciate all you do.

  • If laughter is a cause of death, count me in. I thought I would die laughing. I have a friend who just arrived at the buying-a-pickup level. Thanks for this, Rusty. I, too, went through the chickens dollar progression until, one by one, raccoons took them out. Raccoon-proofing the henhouse was an expensive exercise in futility. I also have raised a $40 tomato. For beekeeping, I’m at the two-frame extractor stage and outfitting the spouse.

  • What a wonderful article! We keep our bees because we love them, love how hard they work, how incredibly creative they are (who else can build perfect comb in complete darkness?), they are fascinating. The whole process is worth it. Thank you!

  • Love your posts, I totally relate to much of what you have said, and keeping bees has been a life-changing experience for me. I can’t count the many sleepless nights thinking about my bees and what I should or shouldn’t be doing. I also love to watch them and also all of the other bees, wasps, and whatever else, which I never thought of doing before.
    Thanks for all your great stories.

  • This post warmed my heart and resonates soundly with me. I just built a beautiful extraction trailer with my 20 frame extractor and uncapping tank. My husband asked if it was to make money extracting honey for others. The real answer is that it allows me to travel the province and meet fellow beekeepers, hopefully the cost of gas will be offset.

  • Thank You for sharing this informative blog. I hope that you will share more blogs in the future. As you love to write about beekeeping so I would like to share with you this awesome educative website “WikiBeekeeping.”

  • Looking back I can only say passion. I’m a better person not because of bees but because of the adventures and people that have become part of my life around bees. Two hives in the backyard and no label on the jar. Each jar is given by hand to the person to enjoy and expand their taste. It only cost what I’m willing to give. Thank you for sharing your life and opportunities with us, Rusty. Always a good read that engages me.

  • What a great article! I can relate to almost all of the points although I haven’t set a hive on fire yet. I learned many years ago not to calculate the cost of bees, equipment, chickens, horses, cattle, and all the rest of it. My husband counted my fruit trees and chickens once. I suggested he should mind his business or we could talk about that old Chevelle out in his well-equipped, gigantic workshop. I know I lose money on everything except possibly cattle sales (unlike hogs), but making money is not the point.

    I’ve always worked to have and do pretty much what I want and have done so after paying all the necessary bills. The plants, animals, bees make me happy and I’m thankful I can afford to run in the red. It’s hard to explain to others that mindset. Before retirement, an anesthesiologist coworker made fun of a couple of us when we were talking about canning green beans. He was incredulous that we’d go through the whole process when “beans are so cheap at the store”. Whatever. I don’t try to enlighten anyone. You either get or you don’t.

    • Sue,

      I just read this aloud to my husband. He broke up where you say, “I suggested he should mind his own business…” You see, we have the 1926 Model T Ford in the well-equipped garage.

      And yes, I can green beans.

      • I get canning (though too lazy to do it myself), but green beans are better blanched and frozen.
        So you’re both crazy, though not OF COURSE for keeping bees. 🙂

      • Rusty, Funny how the men don’t always equate their stuff with ours on the importance scale. Mine will also do the heavy lifting so it’s all good!

  • This post reminds me of The $64 Tomato. I agree, best not to do all the calculations. And don’t succumb to the latest and greatest invention in beekeeping. Keep it simple.

  • I love reading your articles. This one really hit home and I laughed
    till I cried. I don’t even know where I get the money to pay for all the bee stuff. And I have the chicken money pit too. Most of the time I love it, although this year I’m not getting any honey from them. Last year was amazing! Hopefully next year will be better!!

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