How Beekeeping Works

By: Dave Roos

Beekeeping Equipment

smoker, bees
The smoker is a key piece of equipment for a beekeeper. It releases a steady, gentle stream of smoke, keeping the bees calm while the beekeeper works. StefaNikolic/Getty Images

First, a word of caution. If you're new to beekeeping and eager to set up your first hive, avoid buying secondhand beekeeping equipment or inheriting used boxes and tools from a friend or neighbor. As we'll discuss in our section on bee diseases, the bacteria that causes American and European foulbrood can linger in old equipment and spoil your beekeeping adventure before you even begin. New, clean equipment is your best bet.

The Langstroth hive is the most popular hive for both beginning and experienced beekeepers, so that's what we'll focus on in terms of equipment. But know that there are alternative hive setups like Warre and top bar hives, each with its own advantages. Warre hives more closely replicate the space within a hollow log and are prized by "natural" beekeepers, while top bar hives don't require the lifting of heavy boxes, which could be better for older beekeepers or those with physical disabilities [source: PerfectBee].


The basic structure of a Langstroth hive starts with a large lower box called a hive body, or brood chamber, which is set aside for the bees themselves. The hive body is where the bees build the comb in which the queen lays her eggs, and this is where the bees raise brood and store honey for their own use.

On top of the hive body is a second, shallower box called a honey super. This is where the bees store surplus honey during the "nectar flow," which happens during certain months of the year when local flowering plants and trees are in full bloom. The beekeeper harvests the excess honey from the super.

A Langstroth hive includes other pieces that make hive management easier and maximize the honey harvest. Each hive box contains removable frames that hang vertically and are pre-printed with beeswax or plastic foundation to spur the formation of the tell-tale hexagonal honeycomb cells.

A special cover called a queen excluder is placed between the lower hive box and upper super with slats precisely spaced to allow only worker bees to pass through. This prevents the queen from laying eggs in the honey super.

A feeder is necessary to supply the bees with extra nutrition when nature's nectar and pollen resources are low, such as during later summer and winter. The simplest type of feeder can be made by filling a small Ziploc bag with sugar water and laying it across the top of the brood frames in the hive box with a small slit cut into it for the bees to feed. Other feeders attach to the entrance of the hive or hang vertically in place of a brood frame. All feeding methods, like many of the elements of beekeeping, have their staunch adherents, detractors and their pros and cons [source: University of Georgia].

Tools of the Trade

Then there are the beekeeper's tools. First, the protective clothing. All beekeepers wear at least a veil that protects their face and neck from stings. Many others choose to wear a full-body protective suit plus gloves. Some experienced beekeepers prefer to work without gloves and minimal protection. It can get hot in all that gear and once a beekeeper has some experience working with bees, she will know what level of protection she is most comfortable using.

Every beekeeper needs a smoker. A stream of cool smoke puts bees in a mellow mood, which is exactly what you want when you're poking around in their hive. A smoker looks like an elongated metal teapot with a spout and a handle. The handle has a trigger that operates a bellows inside the smoke chamber to fan slowly burning cardboard, dry leaves or other materials.

A hive tool is a small metal bar that has many uses in a beehive. It is used for prying open parts of the hive boxes that have been glued together by propolis, also called "bee glue." Bees produce propolis by mixing saliva and beeswax with resinous material gathered from botanical sources and they use it to seal up gaps in the hive. A hive tool is sharp enough to scrape away propolis and old comb, but won't gouge or damage wood like a screwdriver or putty knife. A hive tool is also the perfect implement for helping the beekeeper to gently pry up frames to remove them for inspection.

We'll talk about honey extraction tools in a minute, but before we jump to honey harvesting, let's walk you through the basics of starting up your first hive.