There are a lot of suppliers out there offering a plethora of different varieties of equipment. All have their uses but most will not be needed initially (if ever).
As a guide, you will need the following to get up and start ‘beeing’:
Hive consisting of a floor (ideally with verroa screen), brood box, queen excluder, at least one super box, crown board, roof and appropriate frames / foundation. A suitable stand for the hive be it a timber construction or concrete blocks. Tip – make sure all parts are compatible i.e. if going for a national hive, ensure all frames etc. are designed for the national.
A feeder would also be useful depending on your source of the bees themselves.
The minimum equipment a beekeeper needs to keep themselves safe is a suit with a veil, a pair of washable gloves, a smoker with some fuel, some sturdy footwear, and a hive tool.
Suits and Protective Clothing
Beekeeper clothing comes in all shapes and sizes, and with a fairly massive range of prices. Lightweight suits are a good idea, to avoid overheating on nice sunny days.
Veil shapes are a personal choice – there are two, the fencing veil and the traditional round veil. It’s a good idea to try before you buy, so ask trainers or another beekeeper if you can have a go in their suit to help you decide which veil type you prefer. Some beekeepers prefer the ‘fencing veil’ type, whilst others find the veil is too close to their nose – and get stung through it. Those who prefer the round veil say it gives more ventilation and less chance of random stings.
The most important thing with a full suit is to make sure it’s tall enough to at least match your height, with enough room to be able to bend down comfortably. The bees won’t notice if your suit is loose, but they will find their way in through overstressed zips or a suit that’s skin tight over your clothing. If a budget-priced suit is too tight then the zip can fail, which can be pretty disastrous.
If you choose to buy separates i.e. a jacket with a veil and a separate pair of trousers, you may find you need to wear a belt around your waist because bees can often find their way up through the elasticated bottom of the jacket. You often only realise this has happened when you can see a bee’s wings in front of your eyes.
With all suits and jackets there should be a long elastic loop at the cuff. This should be looped around either a finger or your thumb before putting on your gloves, which will keep the sleeve in place.
Before you go too near the bees make sure all your zips are fastened and all Velcro attached, otherwise your clothing will not be bee-proof. When leaving the apiary check, or get a buddy to check, that your suit is free of bees before taking it off. Do this some distance from the hives which will encourage the strays to fly away, rather than hanging around whilst you get ready to go home.
Gloves are more important than you may realise because they not only protect your hands and keep sticky propolis off your fingers, they are easily washed in washing soda solution between colonies – which can reduce the risk of disease transfer, avoid your ‘smelly hands’ moving from one colony to another carrying the scent of the last colony with them. Gloves also offer some protection from stings.
Some beekeepers wear long-cuff ‘marigolds’ from the supermarket because they’re cheap and are easily washed, others wear thicker nitrile gloves that can be bought online or from agricultural suppliers. Some beekeepers just wear thin long-cuff nitriles that can be bought in packs of a hundred or so, and dispose of them after wearing.
Some beekeeping suppliers offer leather gloves with an attached gauntlet as part of the starter kit package, or as a free gift with a suit. These are fine, but probably best to cover them with thin nitriles during inspections because they can be difficult to wash.
The most important thing about gloves is to get a very good fit. They need to be tight, so there are no stray bits of glove that squash bees during an inspection. Check the sizing carefully and, probably, buy at least one size smaller than you think you’ll need.
Bees walk upwards, so are less likely to find their way inside a suit after landing on your boots if the trousers are tucked into the boots. Wellies are a popular choice, but can be sweat-inducing on a hot summer’s day, so some beekeepers choose a leather safety boot instead which will also protect the feet if a heavy super is dropped.
Some beekeepers wear something similar to walking boots. It’s rare to see a beekeeper wearing sandals.
Smoker and smoker fuel
There are probably as many types of smoker as there are equipment suppliers.
The most important is to have a smoker that works, stays alight, and stays alight long enough for all the colonies in an apiary to be inspected – it’s rarely a smart move to try lighting, or re-lighting, a smoker when you’re wearing a veil. This means that it isn’t a good idea to buy the smallest and cheapest smoker on the market.
The best smokers currently on the market are made by Dadant, but they are very expensive. The bellows on these smokers will always be inscribed with the D (Dadant) logo. Beware of those marketed as ‘Dadant-type’ smokers because some are very cheap imitations and can be difficult to keep alight.
No reason, though, not to buy an unbranded smoker from a beekeeper who’s giving up. Their equipment will have stood the test of time and is likely to be reliable.
The best smoker fuel is something you can get for free – pine cones, chipped and dried hedge or herb trimmings, dry pony dung, through to rolled-up cardboard. Some cardboard packaging, though, won’t burn at all because it’s been treated with fire-retardant chemicals so check first before storing it for later. Pine cones and some cardboard can burn ‘tarry’ and leave the inside of the smoker covered in thick residue.
Please don’t use Yew or Laurel in your smoker, both are poisonous to insects.
You can light your smoker using a barbecue lighter, matches, or a blowtorch. The latter will also come in handy when cleaning up (scorching) spare wooden equipment.
Please take care to put out your smoker, by plugging the spout with some grass and then paying it on its side for a little while, before putting it in your car. It’s a good idea to try to get a metal box to carry your smoker, just in case.
Hive tools are used to separate propolised together bits of equipment, which is something you need to be able to do as gently as possible so as not to upset the bees.
When you’re learning about beekeeping try to handle as many different style hive tools as possible, so you know which one will suit your beekeeping and fit into your hand best. You have to keep the hive tool in your hand all the time when a hive is open, so it does need to fit comfortably.
The best hive tools are made of stainless steel, these can be left in the apiary in a bucket of washing soda solution without fear of them rusting. This means you know where they are for next time.
A nice new hive tool, of any shape or design, is always well-received by a beekeeper so would be a welcome gift at any time of the year..