Growing your operation to 2.5 colonies is a process to learn over 2 years and is reasonably achievable in that time. It is possible to enjoy bees thoroughly with that number of colonies. Expanding your bees up to and beyond two beehives presents the following logistical and financial issues.
Every Counting Starts with One (Top Bar Expenditure List, Year 1)
$285 Beehive , 4 feet long (recommended length for full size colony)
$0-300 Bees (these may come from a caught swarm, a package, or a nucleus colony)
$10-40 Hive Stand Materials. The simplest are made of wood and cinderblocks. Perhaps you have these materials lying around already. Hive stands can be built to house multiple colonies, saving on costs for future expansion.
$50 Dr. Mangum's Book. This book will enable you to learn so much about your bees and best understand horizontal beekeeping philosophy. This book is your most valuable tool for understanding your Hercules Bees beehive. Use the internet for the rest of your info, but really, this book is a must-have. Follow this link to Dr. Mangum's webpage to read more about his book.
$10-22 Hive Tools. Definitely get the 10" standard hive tool. Flat, with no grips. Get a serrated bread knife from the dollar store. Bendiness is good. A fellow beekeeper gave me one of these giant tools from Betterbee and I really like them for reaching all the way to the bottom of the top bar hive. I recommend them.
$40 Smoker (get the big can, really, it is worth the extra money because it is easier to light and keep lit. Trust me. Also, cans with removable inserts are great.)
$20-40 Beekeeper's Veil. The amount of money you spend on protective equipment is up to you, but a veil at least is needed and more protective clothing can help build confidence when working the bees. Old collared shirts work great when buttoned up, and most veils work with a collar.
$430-630 minimum first year investment for one colony with Hercules Bees
Now, how does this compare to a traditional Langstroth setup? I will compare my prices with those of the Mann Lake Limited Company. They are a very large supplier of beekeeping equipment and have many deals designed to entice first year beekeepers. Other bee companies sell their equipment at higher prices, but Mann Lake's prices could be considered standard for the products that they sell.
In order to care for a full size colony, Mann Lake recommends that a novice beekeeper buy these items.
$510 Deluxe Hive kit. This includes 2 deeps, 2 supers, frames, foundation, all assembled (10 frame equipment), plus some other stuff. Visit their webpage here for comparison of their starter kits. If buying just the hive bodies, frames and foundation, one could expect to pay about $310
$5-20 Hive Stand. These could be simple blocks or fancier stands. Up to the beekeepers' discretion
When clicking around Mann Lake Ltd. website, one finds that they have MANY THINGS to use with bees. Remember, Mann Lake sells equipment to many commercial beekeepers. Beginning beekeepers don't need much of that stuff for bees at this stage.
Therefore, the first year investment for one colony with Langstroth equipment is comparable in price with a Hercules Bees beekeeping system,
These prices also scale nicely for achieving the next 1.5 hives, either that year or next. The second year of beekeeping, however, presents new challenges for us, namely honey extraction and equipment storage. It is in this second year that Hercules Bees hives offer a better deal for hobbyist and recreational beekeepers.
Issue #1: Honey Extraction
Frame Beekeepers would need a spinning extractor to recover honey from their colonies. A hand crank extractor could service someone with up to 5 frame hives, but the work takes awhile (most of the weekend), and decent-quality crank etractors cost $250-600. Check out Mann Lake's page on extractors here. Decent motorized extractors can cost thousands of dollars. Other necessary expenses include uncapping tubs, uncapping knives, settling buckets, and other minor purchases are requried. When scaling up with frame hives, larger extractors and honey heaters are required. One quickly needs an entire building to house and process the honey crop!
Top Bar beehives don't require these expensive extractors because honey is recovered by crushing and straining the comb. Cheapest DIY equipment for this is a few modified buckets, some paint strainer material, a potato masher and a pocketknife, or it can be scaled up for many top bar hives with more elaborate straining equipment for under $200 (I prefer a 2 step straining that harnesses gravity and sunlight). Uncapping tubs (~$120) and comb-crushing are both cost-efficient and labor-efficient when compared to extractors, and I currently extract honey from my 25 top bar hives using this system with the same investment of time and labor as I would when using a hand crank extractor for the honey crops of 4-5 producing colonies.
Issue #2: Equipment Storage
Top Bar hives:
- Beehives with bees remain outside year-round,.
- Have minimal honey processing equipment
- No storage of the extractor is required at your home.
- Scaling up with mores hives won't require a separate honey house. Instead, harvest smaller amounts more frequently from established colonies.
- There is no indoor storage of beeboxes during the offseason (i.e. all honey and beehive equipment in Hercules Bees hives stays in the field until harvest time). Empty boxes are useful as swarm traps.
- Frame beekeeping requires the storage of honey supers and frames when they aren't actively producing a crop. These boxes are sometimes not used for months at a time.
- Purchase and storage of a chunky extractor and uncapping tub is required to recover a honey crop from your bees.
- How are frames of empty comb kept safe from damage by moths and mice when not on the colony?
- As the number of frame colonies increases, the mechanical expense to extract all the honey increases quickly.
Financial Conclusion: Managing top bar beehive operations can save hundreds of dollars over conventional frame-hive systems, particularly when accounting for costs in equipment accumulating and storage as one's operation grows beyond 2 colonies.