- A convenient home money pit
- Starting with the basics
- You never have enough equipment
- Overlooked necessities add to the cost of beekeeping
- Hive stands and rock walls
- We extract honey, bees extract money
- The comb honey alternative
- The little things accrue
- Pick it all up in a what?
- The golden egg
- The final cost-of-beekeeping analysis
Some things should never be calculated, including the cost of beekeeping. 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.”
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.
A convenient home money pit
Backyard beekeeping is not much different. Just like skating, the beginning cost of beekeeping is manageable, but as your interest escalates, so do your expenses.
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 of beekeeping 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
- hive tool
- 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.
You never have 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 add to the cost of beekeeping
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, 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.
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. The cost of beekeeping accumulates in unforeseen ways.
We extract honey, 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 beekeeping is 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.
The little things accrue
Aside from the initial expenses, the little additional ones multiply in a cascade of necessity. Each one adds to the cost of beekeeping.
- 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 that 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?
In beekeeping, 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 in a what?
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 of a pickup.
Now and then you casually insert the idea into a 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. Finally, you say, “If you want a truck, buy your own.”
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 cost-of-beekeeping 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, don’t add up your costs. 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.
Honey Bee Suite
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.
Yeah, I agree. I’ve been beekeeping since ’16 and started with one Langstroth. The next year bought another Langstroth. In the third year decided to build my own horizontal long hive and beekeeping became much easier. Now I have 2 Langstroth and 2 horizontals.
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.
That’s me! The guy who just bought the pickup truck! So have to “bee” your friend!!
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!
Doing the things you enjoy don’t cost anything.
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.
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!!
So glad I started beekeeping before I read this article 🙂
Hi Rusty! Question for you. I was cleaning up after an extraction and stupidly washed all my equipment, including double filter, with hose water from a hose I have used to pump street water out of my garage multiple times this summer. I used the filter to filter a small amount of the extracted honey after rinsing it with sink water. I don’t think that the honey is safe for human consumption, but would it be safe for the bees?
That was hilarious!!! I could not stop laughing!
I too can relate to the chicken pit!
As for bees, I actually had a crazy idea of flying a beekeeper friend from Ukraine to WA state so he can help me with my beekeeping! Add that into the total!
This is probably the weirdest question you have had, BUT … if I were to breed queen bees, is there a way to keep them alive if they are neither introduced to a hive nor sold. I desperately want honey bees, but I am against the untimely demise of even the smallest creatures ?
From Backyard Beekeeping: “Caged queens can be kept a week to 10 days, and perhaps a day or two longer. But queens lose quality when they are kept from laying for long periods, and the quality of their pheromones decreases, so always keep the storage time as short as possible. I have kept many queens seven or eight days with no problem, but I’ve also had a couple die in that period. A little luck seems to be involved.”
“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?”
This applies to my chickens and my bees, and yes, many friends can’t comprehend. I think I’ll start asking some of them just how much monetary benefit they have been to me.
Absolutely yes. Have they monetized their dog/cat/child?
Can anyone suggest a great starter tool set, a nice one for a nice price. I’m a recently disabled newbie (unfortunately, I’m also still awaiting my disability benefits as well), however I have an incredible mentor and have found a horizontal hive brand new, empty however but my mentor is going to assist me in building some of the parts it’s missing! I’m over the top with excitement! I can’t tell you how long I’ve been wanting to start this journey! I’m a longtime herbalist and lover of native plants. I also (thanks to covid, the program was offered entirely virtual this past year) just recieved my conservation stewardship certification through MSU extension! I’m also working on my Master Rain Gardener certification as well. I’m going to have the happiest bees around as well as the healthiest as I’m working on learning everything possible about varroa mites. I’m open to all advice in regards to affordable start up equipment and the best places to purchase online if anyone is able to assist, it would be greatly appreciated!!!