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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.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

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

Comments

Janet Wilson
Reply

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.

Rusty
Reply

Janet,

Exactly what I was trying to say! I hope beginners read your comment.

suz
Reply

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.

Chris
Reply

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?

Rusty
Reply

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.

Andrew
Reply

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.

John
Reply

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.

Audrey
Reply

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.

HB (@Hello_Kitty_)
Reply

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. 🙂

Brad Raspet
Reply

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…

Kenneth
Reply

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

Rusty
Reply

Kenneth,

Glad to help! Bee sure to stop by again.

Danielle
Reply

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.

Mark Luterra
Reply

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.

Rusty
Reply

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.

Ken
Reply

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

Rusty
Reply

Ken,

If you’ve got enough friends you can have hundreds of hives!

Carrie
Reply

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.

Rusty
Reply

Carrie,

You make a really good point about small spaces, and I’m happy to hear you found a space for more hives.

bill castro
Reply

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!!!

Paula
Reply

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!

Rusty
Reply

Paula,

You are very welcome. Have fun with all those bees.

Leana
Reply

Great pics!

Troy
Reply

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?

Rusty
Reply

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.

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