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PHOTO: Kristina Mercedes Urquhart
As any new beekeeper shopping for the first round of equipment will tell you, the cost can be more than anticipated. Seasoned beekeepers have found some ways to get around spending a lot on hive equipment, tools and bees every year, but the costs of starting up can be substantial—especially when you include one-time purchases such as hive tools, bee brushes and bee suits. Many thrifty or handy budding beekeepers make the logical next conclusion: Make some of the equipment yourself can save money. While in many other situations I’d applaud this, let me stress how important it is not to take on this task as a brand new beekeeper.
1. There’s a Lot to Learn
If you’re doing your due diligence as a new beekeeper, you’re reading. A lot. All of the time. Books about honeybees, their behavior and their social structure and anything you can find on the internet. Plus, you’ll be learning from seasoned beekeepers that care for honeybees in your area. You are already taking on a lot. As a new beekeeper, this is where most of your attention is best placed: on learning honeybee behavior, not dimensions of woodenware.
2. You Need to Understand How the Hive Works
Before you commit to constructing hive bodies or hand-forging a hive tool, get to know honeybees first. Spend some time in a hive, and watch how it works. See how hive equipment is supposed to work, and watch it in action. You will learn a lot about what the various aspects of the hive are meant to do and why they are important. There is plenty of time down the road to build your own woodenware. Know what its purpose is first.
3. Human Error Is a Real Thing
If you’re a professional woodworker, you can probably skip this point, but most of us new beekeepers are resourceful, thrifty and have perfected the technique of self-teaching skills, which means we eagerly take on new projects. However, unless you’re working with a skilled beekeeper or woodworker who has developed his or her own standard for woodenware, the chances of making mistakes are high. Some novices might wonder if a mistake of 1/16 inch is really that big of a deal, but to inch-long honeybees, it is.
Lorenzo Langstroth, the beekeeper credited with creating the Langstroth hive, is also the first to have recognized something we refer to as “bee space.” Bee space is the amount of space that bees leave in their comb to move about. It is approximately 5/16 inch. Any more than this, and they’ll typically build burr comb. Any less than this, and they’ll usually fill it with propolis, a sticky, tree-resin-based “glue” that honeybees use to seal gaps. Unless you are absolutely precise throughout the construction of the entire hive, these gaps will leave you with headaches when tending colonies.
4. Homemade Equipment Limits You
All beekeepers need to add accessories or buy replacement parts at one time or another. Because your homemade equipment won’t conform to the exact sizes as factory-made equipment and will have minute variations in dimensions, you will be limited in the ability to add woodenware to that hive later.
Beekeeping is an investment in time and money—there’s no way around that—but you can take a few steps to make the wisest decisions up front. If you do choose to construct your own equipment, work from published plans, preferably under the expertise and guidance of a seasoned beekeeper and woodworker. Make enough equipment to have replacement parts in a pinch. If you prefer not to make your own, do a bit of research on the various manufacturers and suppliers in your area. When you are happy with one, commit to purchase from that company. Not all manufacturers conform to exactly the same dimensions, and their equipment is not always interchangeable. It’s a big decision up front, but one you won’t have to worry about when you’re in the swing of keeping bees in the years to come.