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Starting a Small Beekeeping Operation

March/April 1994

Eric C. Mussen, Extension Apiculturist, UC Davis

The number of US beekeepers has declined steadily since World War II, partly because land development has eliminated many flowering plants from which bees collect nectar to make honey. However, nearly 100,000 people in the US still keep bees for fun or profit.

Beekeepers enjoy being their own bosses--deciding what to do and when to do it, being responsible for their own successes or failures. Beekeepers are adept at, and spend a significant amount of time in, assembling and repairing hives, frames, and other equipment. They enjoy the natural world and appreciate the contribution their bees make in increasing plants and benefiting the animals that use the plants for food and shelter.

Getting Started in Beekeeping

One knowledgeable beekeeper is needed for every 500 to 1,000 colonies. Without some experience and lots of sage advice, taking care of a commercial beekeeping operation would be overwhelming. Experienced beekeepers are full of advice. Their years of experience have shown them what does and doesn't work. These beekeepers are also your best bet at getting into the business. With your enthusiasm and his or her expertise and apiary locations, you could work out a phased retirement plan that eventually leaves you in charge.

When kept in a healthy, stress-free condition, bees will thrive as long as food and water are available in abundance. But this success can be a problem. Populous colonies often swarm in the spring. While fascinating to watch, it is not appreciated by neighbors in whose bushes the swarm settles. Worse, the swarm sometimes finds an opening and moves into the wall of the neighbor's house.

When Africanized honey bees move into an area, it is extremely difficult for your neighbors to accept the presence of your bees. Anti-beekeeping ordinances will become common, as will law suits after stinging incidents.

At the end of the season, after the honey has been removed, the bees exist on stored honey and pollen until new supplies become available--as long as six months in cold areas. Beekeepers must be certain that adequate food supplies are available. Hive components must be weather tight and well protected from winter winds. In warm climates, bees continue to fly on nice days and deplete their food reserves quickly. As soon as spring approaches, another year of monitoring must begin.

Moving a honey crop from hives into containers is a multi-step process. The bees must be removed from the honey combs by brushing or blowing them off or chasing them out with bee repellents. The combs are moved to a place where robbing bees cannot find and empty them. The cappings are removed and the honey is spun from the combs with a honey extractor. The honey runs out of the extractor, through sieves, into a settling tank. When the foam has floated to the top, the honey is poured into jars. Labels are placed on jars just before the honey is sold.

Land and Buildings

Land--Beekeepers own, rent, or find free locations where their bees can find food while not being a nuisance to humans or livestock. You must abide by beekeeping regulations, including restrictions or prohibitions on beekeeping, and colony registration (by county in California). In some areas, the hives are left permanently. In other areas, suitable permanent locations do not exist and the apiaries are relocated six or more times a year.

Buildings--You will need a place for storing and repairing equipment, mixing bee feed and antibiotic treatments, extracting and handling honey. Some people use a garage or toolshed, but a larger facility really is required. Many beekeepers rent buildings. Others build a "honey house." Before building a facility, visit other beekeepers to note features that make handling of equipment and honey efficient.

Equipment and Supplies

Vehicles--You'll need vehicles for hauling equipment or bees from one location to another. Flat bed trucks are used most often, equipped with a bee boom, or pulling a forklift so hives do not have to be lifted by hand. Some beekeepers use a station wagon or pickup truck.

Hives--Bee hives are stacks of four-sided, bottomless boxes that hold wooden frames upon which the bees build their combs. Each hive has a bottom board and cover. The bees glue the small cracks between the components together with "bee glue" (propolis). The frames rest on ledges cut into the top of the boxes. Sheets of embossed beeswax (foundation) are attached in the frames to provide the bees with the midribs for their new combs. The bees extend the foundation wax and add more to it and draw comb cells out of each side of the sheet. The comb cells are used for food storage, clustering, raising baby bees, and air conditioning.

Queen excluders are wire or plastic screens with a mesh size that allows worker bees to pass through while preventing the passage of the queen (or drones).

Fume boards are similar to covers, with an extra rim that provides a space for an absorbent pad saturated with liquid bee repellent, the fumes of which drive bees from the boxes.

Feeders are usually gallon cans with small holes in the cap that fit into a hole drilled into the hive cover; or a plastic or waxed wooden device that has similar dimensions to drawn combs and hangs with them and into which syrup is poured.

Entrance reducers are wooden or plastic blocks that partially close hive entrances to prevent robbing or entrance of mice.

Robbing screens allow continuous ventilation of the hive while prohibiting entry of robbing bees.

Division or follower boards are frame-shaped dividers used to confine bees to a specific portion of a hive.

"Nuc" (nucleus) refers to a queen, bees, brood, and food covering two to five frames, or to a specially designed small hive box holding a three- to five-frame nuc.

Bee brush is a long-bristled, soft brush to sweep bees from combs.

Escape board is a divider placed between hive boxes containing gate-like devices that allow bees to pass only unidirectionally from one box to another.

Veil and hat prevent stings to the face if the smoke fails to calm the bees while a hive tool is being used to break apart the propolis bonds between the components in the hive.

Smoker and hive tool are essentials that are used daily.

White coveralls protect clothing and prevent stings.

Elbow-length gloves keep bees away from hands and out of sleeves.

Sources of Bees

Purchase a "package" of bulk bees containing a queen to install in an empty hive.

Purchase functioning colonies, hives and all, from another beekeeper.

Purchase a nuc--a queen, some workers, brood, and food can be purchased on three to five frames for installation in an empty hive.

Catch a swarm. Police and fire departments and animal control agencies will appreciate you, but swarms come with problems: 1) they may swarm again, 2) they may carry diseases or parasites, and 3) they may not be as gentle as breeder stocks. Stocks can be changed by replacing the old queen with a new one.


Costs to start a beekeeping business are not high. There are quite a few ways to make money from bees. Most beekeepers rely on honey and beeswax production and commercial crop pollination.

Honey production depends on the availability of nectar producing plants. Production is lowest in areas that receive little rain. The color and flavor of honeys vary with the origin of the nectar. Lighter colored, milder flavored "table" honeys sell for a few

Investment Needed for 1,000 Colony Operation

Hive Equipment

1,000 bottom boards @ $8 each $8,000

1,000 covers @ $8 each 8,000

2,000 deep boxes @ $12 each 24,000

20,000 deep frames @ $0.35-0.65 10,000

20,000 deep foundation @ $0.06 1,200

1,000 medium depth boxes @ $8 each 8,000

10,000 medium depth fames @ $0.40 each 4,000

10,000 medium depth foundation @ $0.40 4,000

100,000 frame eyelets @ $2.00 per 1,000 200

2,000 queen excluders (optional) $9.00 each 18,000

6,000 metal rabbets @ $0.08 each 480

50 fume boards @ $9.00 450

1 bee blower (optional) @ $325 each 250

75 gallons paint @ $16-21 per gallon 1,500

1 staple gun and compressor 500

Bees 1,000 packages @ $25.00 25,000

Honey Handling Equipment

Automatic uncapper 1,700-3,000

Frame conveyor 600

Conveyor drip pan 250

Cappings melter 1,000-2,000

Extractor 1,900-7,800

Settling tanks (each) 170-250

Spin float (replaces melter) 3,300

Honey sump 325-800

Honey pump 170-190

Flash heater (optional) 1,000

Barrels (each) new: l6; used: 8

Barrel truck 160-250

Hand truck 125-525

Glass jars (if not selling bulk honey) 17,300

Bottling equipment (if not selling bulk honey) 940


Flat bed trucks (each) 16-1800

Bee booms (each) (mounted) 2,500

Forklifts (each) new: 16-18,000; used: 8-10,000

Pickups 14,000

Warehouse 6,000

Land @ $3,000/acre 20,000

Rent (house and shop/year) 15,000-17,000


Self 30,000
Help, full time, each 20,000

Help, part time, each 1,630


Utilities (year) 2,400

Insurance varies

Workman's compensation, health insurance 13,000