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.