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.”
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 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
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Honey Bee Suite