The topic of this section is selecting what equipment to start with and how to start your first hive. Let me set up a bit of a scenario before we get to that.
So you have decided that you want to try your hand at beekeeping. You have lurked on multiple beekeeping web sites, looked at every beekeeping supplier’s eCommerce site, calculated the costs for all of the new equipment that you want to buy, found a corner of the yard where you can set up your new hive, and you are ready to sign up for a class with the local beekeeping club and start putting your plan into place. As you start actually talking and interacting with people who are successfully keeping bees you notice a trend in their suggestions. Everyone seems to be adamant that you can’t keep bees with just one beehive. It would be foolish to start with less than two, and you should consider starting with three just to be safe!
Wait a minute! You just wanted to set up a beehive in your back yard and now it has suddenly turned into a major undertaking! That little corner of the yard behind the shed is filled with boxes full of bees. By August, there are bees everywhere and you are realizing that you have spent way more than you budgeted for on bees, boxes, and tools and now you are looking for the best price on 25 pound bags of sugar. All this, and you just wanted to get ‘a’ beehive. It does not have to turn out like this. You can actually start out with a single beehive. You just need to be a little more creative about managing resources and make a few beekeeping friends nearby.
One of the first benefits of having more than one hive is that you can compare the growth and progress of both hives and get a good idea of if one of the hives is failing to thrive. You can do the same comparison by helping another local beekeeper inspect their hive. Having a ‘bee buddy’ in the neighborhood can be a better solution than having more than one hive. How can you find a ‘bee buddy?’ Check to see if there is a beekeeping group for your area on Facebook. Check out any bee clubs in your area and reach out to the members. Talk to friends and family members. Chances are that someone you know is also interested in starting beekeeping, but just does not know where to start.
The actual ‘need’ for an additional hive(s) does not come into play until there is a problem with the hive and what options are available to address them. The solutions to most problems in the brood area of a beehive involve re-allocating resources. If the bees are backfilling the brood area with nectar you need to find the queen comb to lay in. If the queen has failed you may need to provide the hive with a frame of eggs/young larvae from another hive. If the hive is queen right, but slow to build up a solution may be to give it a frame of capped brood from another hive or shake in some nurse bees from another hive or swap locations with another hive to steal some foragers. A common manipulation is to demaree or move frames from the brood nest to another location in the hive to open up the brood area, reducing swarming pressure. Most of these solutions involve moving frames from one hive to another. It is important to keep in mind that this is not easily done if the frames are not the same size as the box they need to go into.
Having a mix of deep boxes, medium boxes, and even possibly shallow boxes significantly complicates things when there is a need to move frames within the hive. My basic hive brood box is two deeps. When getting the hives ready for winter the only boxes that I had available with built out comb were mediums. This has me going into winter with a medium over two deeps. Because the bees move up in the column over the Winter, most of my spring brood will be in the medium in April! That is not where I want the brood. In my spring reverse I will move the medium to the bottom of the stack, but it could be well into May before I have my brood chamber configured how I want it. Worse still, the bees will spend half of the Spring nectar flow storing honey in a brood box instead of in a super! This would not be an issue if all of my honey supers were also deeps.
First Decision – Standardize Frame Size
Finding myself in my current situation, I’m surprised that the most commonly advertised “deluxe” beehive kits are usually comprised of two deep ‘brood’ boxes and two medium ‘honey supers.’ Manipulating a hive is significantly less complicated if all of your frames are the same size. The benefits of standardizing on a frame size extends to all of the hives you may start, and even more importantly to support hives like nucs and queen banks. So what size frame should you standardize on?
Deeps vs. Medium Frames
In simple terms, using mediums costs 50% more and require 50% more work in maintenance and inspection operations. They are more complex to relocate and can be more complex to reverse.
So why would anyone standardize on medium frame equipment? Mostly because deep frame equipment is 30% heavier than medium equipment. When the boxes are empty or just have bees/brood the difference in weight it not enough to really worry about. Boxes full of bees just aren’t that heavy. That changes drastically however, when the box is full of honey and/or pollen. Honey is normally stored by the bees in the upper boxes of a hive. These are to boxes that need to be moved the most often, removing for inspections, removing for extraction. Because they are the first to come off of a stack and the last to be put back they are lifted the highest and lowered the lowest.
I consider myself an average strength man. When loaded with honey, an eight frame deep weighs at the upper limit of weight I am comfortable lifting and carefully setting down with my feet firmly on the ground. Dropping a box full of bees is not a happy event. I keep my workspace set up so that I do not have to walk around with loaded boxes, but set them down very close to where they came off of the hive. I would never consider trying to manipulate one of these while standing on a ladder. I am always careful to lift properly to avoid hurting my back.
A strong, young man would have little or no problem with handling eight frame deeps full of honey. Trying not to be sexist here, I think that eight frame deeps are just beyond the safe handling weight for most women. There does seem to be a trend among non-commercial beekeepers to move away from the age-old standard of ten frame deep brood chambers to eight frame mediums. If you have a slight build or a history of back problems I would strongly suggest standardizing on eight frame medium equipment for everything (brood, supers, support hives, nucs).
I am in the process of rotating all of my medium frames out of service. I hope to have everything set up on deeps by the end of next Summer. Fortunately, there are a lot of local beekeepers who are in the process of moving from deeps to mediums so there are good opportunities for barter that benefits all. I intend to keep all of my medium boxes however, as they are a real good size for covering feeders on the top of the hives.
8 frame or 10 Frame?
The decision of standardizing on eight frame or ten frame equipment should also be based first on your physical capabilities. A ten frame deep loaded to theoretical limits with honey (if a beekeeper could be so fortunate) would weigh over 80 pounds. If you are capable of lifting 80 pounds with your arms outstretched they may be the best answer for you!
Aside from the weight issue, bees tend to not want to build comb on the outside frames. In winter, they have difficulties moving horizontally while in a cluster which makes the outer frames inaccessible. While these factors are also somewhat true for eight frame equipment, the ability to get them to use the outer frames is easier in the smaller box.
With these disadvantages to ten frame equipment you should ask why they are the most commonly used and sold size. Looking at the market, it is absolutely clear that ten frame hives are the standard. There must be something that makes them the right choice, I just can’t see it. This is probably because I’m not concerned with the commercial aspects of beekeeping and am a Backyard Beekeeper.
There are lots of choices in beekeeping that are easy to change. Feeders, treatment methodologies, entrances, bottom types, even what type of bees you keep can be changed without a great deal of cost or effort. The type of hives (depth and frame count) is not easy to change. Once there are bees in the hive it becomes both difficult and expensive to change hive types.
Consider setting your hives up with the same frame size in the brood box as your bee buddy (assuming you can find one). If you need to borrow a frame to save your hive it will need to be the correct size to use in your hive.
Try to Buy Locally
I would recommend that a first year beekeeper buy the first bees as a locally over-wintered or at least locally prepared nuc from a local beekeeper. Don’t be afraid to ask if he/she will sell you additional frames of comb. The local beekeeper I bought my first nuc from (see Kevin’s site on the right bar) sold me five extra frames of brood comb at a very reasonable price. These made a significant difference in what my hive was able to accomplish in its first month. You may want to talk with him/her about the possibility of buying emergency frames later in the season if you encounter problems. Having a source for a frame of eggs/larvae in June may be the difference between success and failure in your first year.
Bee Buddy Advantages
Another benefit of having a ‘bee buddy’ is that you can reduce the cost of bee supplies/treatments. They don’t sell single hive treatments of ‘Formic Pro’ or Apivar. Having to buy enough to treat multiple hives just to treat your single can make treatment pretty expensive. This also applies to items like BTa for storing frames, ground drench treatments to kill SHB larvae and other expendable items.