There aren't too many ways to start a blog about beekeeping without talking about the tools of the trade. Problem is, it seems as there are hundreds of blogs, videos, and websites devoted, if not dedicated, to that very topic. If you haven't searched google and youtube for tools yet, you're in for quite a spread of facts, opinions, and demonstrations; Much of this is not right or wrong, but right for the right person. It will be up to you to decide what tools you must have, wish to have, and can't live without.
For the minimalist, a hive tool and a smoker is all you'll need. For the gadget junky, a 10ft box truck should hold what you need, but you might want to find one with a towing package on it. Somewhere between these two bookends lies most of us. Below are some tips in deciding where to start when selecting from the myriad of tools out there and how we choose to store them and keep them organized.
The Hive Tool
There are not too many tasks the beekeeper needs to accomplish that can be done without the use of the hive tool. In essence, it is a prybar; used to manipulate hives and frames. At its most rudimentary form, a screwdriver or knife could accomplish the same task. But like most tools, having a single tool for multiple applications is advantageous. Because of this, the hive tool has been remade and remastered for a variety of uses. Most common today are the hive tools that contain a hook. Known as a J hook, these hooks allow for frames to be lifted out of the boxes. Lifting frames in this way is also a great way to see how well you assembled you frames, as the J hook is the best tool to separate the top bar of the frame from its side posts. If you find yourself using a hook to lift frames that are separating: stop. Use the scraper end to provide lateral force to loosen the frame, remove the adjacent frames until you have enough space to remove the entire damaged frame. Decide if that frame needs to stay, or if it can be replaced by a more secure frame. I have learned that hive-side repairs of frames are rarely successful and are, at best, temporizing.
Notice that the j hook tool has no 90 degree prying end. This end is beneficial for frames who you can't lift straight up due to wood warping, propolis, or damage. This angled bald fits in between two surfaces and acts as a fulcrum to pull frames apart. This is a good feature to have in a blade, and if you like the j hook design, consider having a second tool with the pry bar option.
The other side of the standard hive tool is the scraping end. This end should be kept sharp to allow for prying and scraping of frames, as well as purchasing a prying surface between boxes. Think about what material the hive tool is made from when you purchase a hive tool since it may need sharpening over time.
When trying to find the end of the internet one rainy offseason day, I came across this
hive tool (available on amazon), which boasts a multitude of uses. I like the thicker handle because I have large hands, but I also find the hook to be small enough to fit in-between closely packed frames. It's heavier and a bit more expensive than a normal J hook tool. It has a built-in spacer and nail puller. There is also a "hammer" striking surface at the top of the tool, which I remove the wing nut and keep in my tool box to lessen the weight. It does weigh a bit more but I like having the narrow hook.
There are also a variety of specialty tools for different hive types. Top bar hives require longer tools, and there are a variety of specialty tools just for those keeping in top bar hives. At the end of the day, use to tool thats right for you and your hives.
There is no hive that I would be interested in opening without a well lit smoker. This
item is necessary regardless of what type of beekeeping you are into. The use of the smoker, how much to smoke, how to light, when to use can be its own blog post (several good ones out there). When looking at these smokers, the major variable seems to be volume. This is, of course, a consideration when you are comparing two smokers. If you are a backyard beekeeper with two or three hives, a smaller smoker will be just fine. If you plan on being in the bee yard for hours, then a larger smoker is going to be best for you. Almost all smokers today are made from stainless steel, so material is not a consideration when deciding which smoker to buy. It is important to consider a few of the individual parts of the smoker when looking at options, especially those "bargain" or "entry-level" smokers out there.
Smoke Chamber- This is where you put your fuel. Many smokers are 4 inch cylinders and range from 3-11 inches tall. The shorter smokers are a bit more stable but this mostly has to do with how long you need the smoker to run before a refuel.
Bellow- The larger the bellow, the more air introduced into the smoke chamber. Ensure the bellow makes contact directly with the smoke chamber. Bellows are made from vinyl, leather, or plastic which all have their pros and cons.
Hinge- After the bellow the hinge is the most manipulated part of the smoker. Ensure it is strong enough to handle the weight of the lid opening and closing frequently. If it breaks, its time for a new smoker.
Handle/Hanger- these are either loops or hooks, and are designed to help open the lid. the handle loops are good to fit a j hook into to open. Do not hang these with active fire inside or with a load of fuel. It's just for storage.
Heat Shield- provides a barrier between the hot smoke chamber and the outside world (your hands, bees, equipment, etc). Should be sturdy, thick, and made of stainless steel.
Breather Plate- One of the more important aspects of a smoker. This is the "shelf" that sits in the smoker that allows air to circulate under your fire. Ensure there is a breather plate in the smoker you are purchasing.
The Other "Must Haves"
Ask a veteran beekeeper and after these two items, the rest of what's out there is fluff on a cake. I do carry a few other things in my inspection box and other toolkits. The "Must have" list includes:
The Bee Brush- I like the bee brush. The bees don't, but I like having something light to brush bees off of equipment and frames. Purists would use some leaves or branches from a nearby bush which would also work just fine. The idea is the brush should be soft as to not hurt the bees. If it hurts your face, it'll hurt the bees. Cheaper brushes are made of hard bristles.
Duck Tape- Because maybe you need to repair something, or tape down something, or build something, or fight a zombie attack or something.
Staple Gun- Good for doing quick repairs on frames, securing screens etc. T50 staples work well. They make some with jagged edges that seem to hold better.
Frame holder- There's no way I could talk about the pros and cons of comparing frame holders. They're all the same. Get one, use it. It helps create space in your boxes for inspection.
Hive Beetle Traps- I guess this could go under "supplies" instead of "tools," But I think these are vital. They make disposable ones and reusable ones. Either way, these should be in your hive to keep your SHB numbers low.
I carry these items in my modular toolkit (described later). These things are nice to have, but not required on day one or month one for that matter. If you are interested in increasing your tool kit. Here's a short list of options:
Common hand tools- Hammer, screw driver, needle nose pliers. Good for the "what if's" when out in the yard. One time my queen cage dropped into the 3lb box of bees and I was glad to have the pliers to help fish her out.
Queen Marking Cage/Markers- If you are planning on marking your queen (which is highly recommended) you'll need a cage for that purpose and a set of color coded markers. Queens are colored based upon the year they are born. Many beekeepers who become comfortable handling their queen will do this without the cage and just hold her wings.... I've been known to have TDS (transient dropsies syndrome, so I choose to have the cage hold her. You can choose between this type or this fancy type. Your call.
Spray bottles- Bad thing to forget if you are on package installation day. I find the smallest ones I can find, as it doesn't take much sugar water to spray down a package. Also useful for mite checks and cleaning tools with isopropyl alcohol.
Burr Comb collection- Fancy word for a ziplock bag. You don't want to leave pieces of burr comb at your hives, so bring a long a ziplock bag and keep it in there to bring the burr comb away from the apiary. Melt it down with the rest of your wax at the end of the season.
This list is, of course, not exhaustive. I am sure I will add and remove it as the years go by. This list does not include any feeding or mite testing equipment, which will be described later.
How you choose to keep your tools organized is of personal preference. A lot of it will depend on how your apiary is set up. Many choose to work out of their trucks, while others keep a tool box with their bees. I have seen some beekeepers using bucket systems, which keeps tools on the outside of the bucket, a rotating top to sit on (like from a hunting store), and the inside of the bucket to collect comb for harvesting. All great ideas if it works for you.
Most of my bees are spread out across several apiaries. I utilize hosts to put bees on their property, so I need to have my equipment to do inspections at one yard, installs at another, and treatments at a third. I don't have a pickup truck of my own, So I needed something that would fit the trunk in my car and be able to be rolled down to the yard. I settled on this setup from Rigid. I've painted it, but other than that, no modifications are needed. When broken down, it sits in my trunk of my sedan. The lower box is on wheels. I have fit a frame holder under the lip of the top and keep spare frames in there as well as extra veils and suits. The small briefcase above that is for feeding and medications. It includes varroa testing equipment, treatment strips, some protein patties and sugar roll supplies. The top tool box is just that, a toolbox for repairing things while out in the yard. There is another briefcase on the top that is used for inspections. It carries the tools described in this blog post and is the most used; hence on top. The height of this setup is also nice because I do not have to bend over to get to most of my tools.
Wether you are new to beekeeping or a veteran, the tools are what makes this job possible for all of us. I hope I've been able to add to the wealth of information out there. If you have any questions or comments feel free to post them below.