beekeeping equipment

How many hives to start?

It’s fall. You are pouring over glossy bee catalogs about to order your first hive. Your bee club advises you start with two, but you are thinking one is best. After all, it looks expensive and you might not even like it. What to do?

My advice? I have to side with the bee clubs on this one—you really don’t want to start with just one hive. Start with two. If you have no experience with bees at all, don’t buy more than that. Two is a perfect number.

That said, be careful what you buy the first year. The first year you are unlikely to harvest much honey, if any. And you probably won’t be raising queens, splitting colonies, or building nucs. Your bees might not even make it until fall. So take it easy on the purchases until you begin needing things. The bee suppliers will be just as happy to sell to you later.

More than once I’ve seen a new beekeeper buy a hive, a complete bee suit, and an extractor all at once, only to have his colony die before fall. And believe me; it’s hard to multi-purpose a honey extractor.

So I suggest buying two hives, two colonies of bees, some protective gear, and a hive tool but don’t buy everything in the book. Nearly every new beekeeper complains about the expense, and rightfully so. The individual pieces don’t seem so expensive, but when you add up the cost of a hive, then tack on shipping, handling, and sales tax, the number at the bottom can be breathtaking. And that’s before you double it.

If beekeeping is so expensive, why do I recommend two? It’s hard to understand this before you’ve tried it, but the answer is flexibility and choices. Sometimes a colony is not strong from the beginning. It could be queen health, queen genetics, or something else. But there are strong colonies and weak ones. If you have two colonies, you can use the stronger one to strengthen the weaker one, to produce a frame of brood now and then, or a queen cell so the weaker colony can raise a better queen for itself.

Then, too, some colonies don’t make it an entire year. Many things can go wrong through no fault of your own. If you have two colonies you have a much better chance of bringing one through the winter. And then, come spring, you can split the colony and be back to two. If you have only one and it dies, you have few choices until you can order another package or catch a swarm—things that can be done only at certain times of the year.

So buy two. Then, while you are waiting for your new colonies to establish themselves, you can consider what equipment you will need for the fall and winter. To save money you can make things yourself, perhaps find some used equipment, or look for sales. Once you get started you will have a better idea of which equipment you want. Every beekeeper does things differently than the next, and it won’t be long before you, too, have your own ideas about the things you want or need.


Two hives: a perfect place to start. Flicker photo by S. Zelov.


  • Oh boy, I second that emotion! I began with one hive and when it grew quickly and to an enormous population, I should have split it, but had no second set of hive equipment to do so. I could easily have finished the year with 4 hives from that one, and sold two of them to subsidize my setup costs. If you are buying all the equipment, count on about $150 per hive in boxes, bottoms etc., and as much again for the bees.

    Later in the summer, my hive was queenless, so I actually ended up unintentionally doing a brood interruption! But with no second hive I could not raise out a replacement queen, I had to buy one. The first went AWOL, so I had to buy a second. I have just finished wrapping up my single hive for the winter. If the colony dies, I have to start from scratch next spring. If I had more than one hive, I could restock deadouts from my survivor stock. As it is, I have all my eggs in one basket. And as a first year beekeeper, two hives would have meant twice the practice and twice the learning opportunity too.

  • I totally agree! Both of my hives were so different! I had a Carnolian queen in one and an Italian queen in the other, plus I had them in two slightly different locations on my property with different sun hours. Good for sharing brood or honey. Good support for losses. Two is the right number for a beginner.

  • Oh boy, talk about timing; I’m a novice (hopefully soon to be) beekeeper and this is exactly the sort of information I need. One quick question; you talk about it being ‘Fall, and pouring over glossy bee catalogs..’ – is Fall the time to start a hive? I would have thought Spring?

    • Chris,

      You are right, you actually install bees in a hive in spring. But many beginners buy their equipment in the fall and then have the winter months to assemble, paint, build hive stands, etc., all in preparation for spring. You can do it last minute, of course, but many people enjoy the process, and while they are doing the prep, they are learning more and more just from handling the equipment. Also, wait too late and things go out of stock and may be back-ordered.

  • I just found your blog and have been loving it! Thanks so much for doing this.

    We just started beekeeping last spring and we’re having a blast! We started with 2 hives and there is one more reason to start with 2 – you can compare the hives. At the start one had chalk brood and it was very clear that the other hive was stronger. We learned a lot by comparing the hives. I’d definitely recommend starting with 2 hives.

  • Yes, never start with one. “In the day” that might work, but with mites, etc., it’s all problematic. If you can buy nucs go that route. Packages can be a disappointment for a new beekeeper and if you have a bad season they’ll end up way to light for a typical winter. If you can only get ‘packages’ I’d opt for three pounders rather than two for the obvious reason. Even having been around a while I always lose a few packages. I would also buy a small five-frame nuc box and if you have one of the two hives with a super queen pull a couple of frames of bees and some eggs and make your own queen as a backup or simply to see how that works; you’ll learn a great deal from watching that develop. At the end of the season you can dispose of that queen and combine the workers back with the weaker of the two hives.

  • The most compelling reason for two hives is for comparison. A first year beekeeper with a new hive won’t know if the colony is weak or strong without another hive started at the same time to compare it to.

    • Along that line of thought, a first year beekeeper with two hives won’t know if both are weak or strong. People talk about how every hive is different, even two hives in the same yard. Starting with one hive *can* work, but in this case I would suggest that the beginner locate as many hives as s/he can in their area. If you can observe other beekeepers’ hives, you can learn what is normal or abnormal for your locale.

      The apiary at our “community farm” has hives with observation windows, and you can learn so much with a quick peek. Most times, hives won’t have observation windows, so you may only be able to observe flow of traffic, but this will still give you something to compare your own hive to. That’s my 2 cents on starting with 1 hive. 🙂

  • Right on the money Rusty… I started last year with 4 hives in 2 yards, did a split and had 5 by late Summer. The learning opportunities were fantastic… This year I added 14 colonies by packages or captured swarms; and have 20 hives up and running all settled down for the Pacific Northwest winter. Each beginning beekeeper’s journey I’m sure can be a little different but I think 2 hives is the best way to start. Hope you’re all having as much fun as I am…

  • I am that newbee pouring over glossy bee catalogs about to order my first hive. This post was right on time for me.

  • I started with one. I thought it was going to make it the first winter but it died out in April. By then I couldn’t buy a nuc or package because they were all sold out. I had to skip a year before I could start again, this time with two.

  • I definitely agree, though I might suggest three hives if starting from packages. I started with two packages my first year (2011) and both had problems. Early supersedure by a poor queen in one, erratic egg-laying in the other. One was lost (hopelessly queenless) in the fall; the other died out in early February.

    Let’s assume that a beginning beekeeper will lose 30% of colonies the first season (mistakes, absconding, common problems (e.g. queenlessness) not detected in time by a novice), and that 50% of fall colonies will fail to overwinter (average is 30%, again assuming higher losses for a novice beekeeper).

    Thus we have
    1*0.7*0.5 = 0.35
    2*0.7*0.5 = 0.7
    3*0.7*0.5 = 1.05

    In other words, starting with three colonies increases the chance that at least one will successfully overwinter.

    Looking back, I think the best way to start beekeeping would be to buy two or three nucs/packages and “adopt” one established hive belonging to a local beekeeper. This would entail payment of some amount in return for the privilege of participating in inspections and a share of the honey. Such an arrangement would allow a newbee to get a better sense of seasonality (honey flow, mite treatment, pollen/honey stores, periods of enhanced or decreased brood raising) and a basis for comparison to assess the condition of the new colonies.

    • Mark,

      Your numbers are realistic, but I think three hives are a lot to buy, especially if the person doesn’t know if he will like beekeeping or not. That said, I like your idea of adopting a hive. Getting to see what an established hive looks like throughout the season could make a lot of difference . . . and the learning curve would be much steeper.

  • Two is a good number. This past December, the city of Idaho Falls revised the laws on keeping bees in the city. Instead of holding to the long held regulation of “no bees,” they now allow two hives in the city limits, so I got one. Should have gotten two.

    Now I have plans for having two in town and at least two out of town at my place of my employment. I actually was asked by my boss to put some hives out there. I am really hoping that my existing colony, which I got as a “nuc” makes it through the winter. I am applying all the strategies I have learned of. (You should see them lined up along the edges of the grease patties as if it was a food bar.):)

    Willow Creek Honey Producers

  • Hi Rusty,

    I agree wholeheartedly – with one important exception. Small space beekeepers – aka urban or perhaps suburban beekeepers – may want to consider starting with one hive. Getting to know your apiary space is important if you’re keeping bees in a small area close to neighbors.

    Starting with one hive, while not ideal in many ways, has been important for me to ensure I’m not overdoing the bee activity in my small urban backyard. After 4 years of keeping one hive in my backyard, I’ve confirmed each year that this is the right amount of bee activity to keep my neighbors happy and supportive. More hives would likely be too much. That said, I found a nearby lot to keep more hives – as a beekeeper you cannot sustain an apiary of one hive for very long without understanding how important it is to be able to share resources among the hives as you outline above.

  • One of the most important issues I would like to bring up is the overall quality of packages being sold these days….VERY POOR!!!! I would definitely suggest to anyone thinking of doing bees to start 2 colonies and in mid-June, make a split from the strongest. In my experience, all one would need to order for each colony is 3 deeps plus all frames and related woodenware, or equivalent, for the first season. I borrowed an extractor my second year harvest, but also did several walk-away splits in early summer the first year, which is the easiest way for beginners to expand with little risk of failure, especially from strong populous colonies. These splits can easily be sold through local clubs and payback the beekeeper the first year!!!

    Honey is why most get into beekeeping, but the big boys make their living through propagating and selling colonies and there is no reason why a first or second year beekeeper can’t do the same. Just think…selling 3 frames of bees with a laying queen can easily fetch $100 a shot and the experience that comes with doing your first successful split will elevate any beekeeper’s confidence. But each person must weigh their tolerance for failure too as there are a multitude of variables that comes with beekeeping and nothing is certain to be sure. But with risk comes…REWARD!!!

  • This site is a FANTASTIC resource for beekeepers!! Thankyou!

    We have several registered beekeepers whom are easier to find for the newbee….this is who I had followed at local markets for several years before making the leap with a new hive kit as a Christmas gift from my spouse. Thus, I had requested a ‘nuc’ at the first opportunity from this local beekeeper/honey producer, but not available until….mid May. Huh…long wait from Jan/Feb….

    Alas, my excitement was unbridled and I connected with several local beekeepers just by chance! I lucked into my first hive this past MARCH if you can believe it (yup…2015!)….things are very early on Vancouver Island! I have a hugely supportive mentor in the keeper that sold me the hive. We have split it once for mite control and again because of the extra emergency queen cells….Have already also split fellow ‘students’ hives with the mentor, and jumped at the chance to recover and hive a swarm with only myself and my 13 yr old fellow newbee daughter…successfully! Who has time for anything else when it is bee season!

    With all the healthy and prolific beehives in the area I considered passing on the original order from Feb (apparently they are at a premium, all either sold or spoken for) but truly believed that a second colony would provide a comparison (totally different gene pool and origin) and stability in the event of losses over the winter, the major complaint here on the island so far.

    While struggling with a bit of buyers’ remorse, I am soothed by the hum of happy bees in my yard, several hives growing and developing, and a huge nod from this site alone recommending and thus confirming we had done the right thing by starting with…2 colonies. Thanks for your site…a wealth of knowledge at our fingertips!

  • Thank You So Much for answering my questions in other ares of your site. After much thought and comments from other readers, I have decided to get a second colony and I will be starting with 2 hives and 2 packages in mid April. My Question. My hives will be about 4 feet apart from one another in a 10″ x 10″ area fenced in just for the bees. Can I just dump the first package in the first hive and turn right around and dump the second package in the second hive without worrying about bees getting mixed up and flying in and out of both hives?

    • Troy,

      No need to worry. Your bees will recognize the pheromones of their own queen. But if a little crossover happens, there is no problem anyway.

  • Thanks for your website! I’m a first year beekeeper and I started two sets of package bees the first week of April. Like a poster above my bees went gangbusters and and had about 16-18 frames of drawn out comb as of a week ago. One colony swarmed a week ago which made me sad and was unexpected as my bee club and the book they taught from (Beekeeping for dummies) never raised it as a possibility.

    Our second hive was not as strong or aggressive and we have split them this evening using directions from this site. The first year queen went into the new hive with frames of brood, pollen, and honey. Frames with swarm cells, brood, pollen, and honey were left in the hive that she once ruled.

    I might be a completely unique situation and not trying to get new beekeepers to spend more money unnecessarily but… I would have bought extra empty hives my first year if I knew I might have to split. I know it’s probably unappealing to people who are trying to get honey, Had I seen multiple swarm cells in either of my hives it seems the only way to really prevent a swarm is to split the colony which requires a new hive. Is this wrong?

    Seems like I also could have had nucs on hand that would also be useful to prevent a swarm. Many paths to the same destination.

    I suppose the question is what equipment do you need on hand to prevent a swarm?

    • Brian,

      I suppose the possibility of swarming the first year is not generally taught because there is so much to learn in the beginning. But in truth, it’s pretty common for a new package to swarm. People go through a lot of silly machinations to prevent swarming, but the best way (in my opinion) is to split. So having a nuc box or two is a good idea. If you don’t want that many hives, you can always recombine the bees after swarm season is over.

        • Errol,

          Beehives will attract any kind of bear that happens to live in the area. The scent of the brood is very appealing to bears because it’s a source of high-quality protein. They also like the honey.

  • Hi, I’m planning my first year of beekeeping but cannot decide between the wbc or national hive. Starting two hives sounds like a great idea. Would it be a good idea to start one wbc and one national – to figure out which I prefer working with, or will that complicate the comparison?

    Many thanks for the helpful post and comments.

    • Keith,

      That’s a personal decision, but I would start with two of the same so you can move frames easily between equipment.

    • Keith,

      Hold on a moment. I don’t know the exact dimensions, so perhaps they do fit into both. If they do, then that’s not an issue.

  • Hi, i’m a beginner in beekeeper, I stay in Asia country Indonesia. Do you have research about raising bee in Asia country?

    Thank you

  • Hi Rusty,

    I am new to the beekeeping realm. I inherited four Technoset 3 box hives with bases, queen excluder, top feeder, 160 FD plastic frames that have been waxed, and top. Wasn’t keen on the plastic, but hey it was free. As I am retired and have plenty of time on my hands thought to give beekeeping a shot for home use. Have done the courses, watch youtube instruction videos, read the book till I am about to have a brain hemorrhage. Have sourced four, 6 frame NUCs to start things off. I will put 2 hives at our 40-acre farm and 2 here at home, mainly to see which location is better for the little ones. Locations are prepared using recycled plastic pallets cut in four for stands and carpet underneath. I will break the hives down to a single box with base, accesses closed of course with feeder and top to pick up the bees and transport them home. My initial idea was when I get them home to add in the other 2 boxes and queen excluder so I would have 2 brood boxes and a honey box. As it is spring here I intend to feed them light syrup with a booster until they adjust to their new home and environment and find natural food that is abundant around them. My question is will it be too much shock to add all the boxes at the same time that soon or should it be done gradually across time and how long?


    • Mike,

      You can do either, but inspections will be more difficult with all those boxes in the way. I’d would leave them off until I needed them.

  • ***What’s the most number of hives you could start with, assuming you already had a lot of equipment and education?***

    Can someone advise me on this?

    I’m half retired. And my family mutinied a few years ago when I first wanted bees. It took me about 4 years to condition them to see I could do it right without being a mess. So I’ve had 4 years to read tons of stuff and be thinking about this, educate myself, while getting the equipment.

    So I’ve felt held back and feel I’d missed out.

    I’d like to start up fast to make up for the lost time and I already have studied most of the issues.

    If possible, I’d like to have an abundant start with possibly 6 or more hives, but wanted to see if there have been other similar cases like this first to test the waters.

    • Bob,

      It depends on what you think you can handle. I know a guy who kept one colony for two months and then bought 500 for the next year. You’re the one who will be doing the work and paying the bill, so figure it from there.

  • Feels like I finally found like-minded bee folk on this site. Thank you! Love the “get natural” dance with bees, logic-based vibe, which goes well with my gardening philosophy. Anyway, I’m a newbee in CT and am setting up for spring. Two hives, both have 10-frame deeps (going with single-brood chambers) and medium supers as needed. Ordered one package of bees and one nuc to increase the chance of getting through the season. Apiary is nearby and does a 24 turnaround to GA for packaged bees and has its own winterized nucs. Does this make sense? Cautionary tales?

    • James,

      Not sure what you mean by “Apiary is nearby and does a 24 turnaround to GA for packaged bees and has its own winterized nucs.” You mean the apiary you are purchasing from? If so, how nearby is nearby?

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