Field Guide to Beekeeping

August 2014

 Know Why You Are Keeping Bees

by Jamie Ellis


In my February 2014 article, I discussed why people keep bees. I outlined a number of reasons that people pursue a relationship with colonies of insects known for their pointed stingers and sweet honey. Practically speaking, however, honey bees can be used to generate income. Of course, many people keep bees as a hobby for reasons other than generating income. Yet, honey bees can be an expensive hobby if they fail to pay for themselves. With that in mind, I note that it is important to understand what you want to accomplish with your bees if beekeeping is not simply an artistic/spiritual pursuit for you. Your goals with your bees will shape your approach to managing them.

Generally, there are three recognized sizes of beekeeping operations and any size beekeeping operation can be used to generate income a number of ways. Regarding operation sizes, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services – Division of Plant Industry, Apiary Inspection Section recognizes the following three groups: (1) niche pollinators (formerly “hobby beekeepers”), 1-10 colonies, (2) sideline/part time beekeepers, 11-200 colonies, and (3) commercial/full time beekeepers, 200+ colonies. This grouping is similar to that used by most other states, though the category names and number of colonies can differ slightly.

Regardless of operation size, beekeepers in the three groups can make money with bees the following ways: (1) honey production, (2) providers of pollination services, (3) production of alternative hive products, (4) queen and package bee production, (5) nuc/split production, (6) make and sell beekeeping equipment, and (7) honey packers. There are, of course, subcategories within each endeavor and most beekeepers use their bees to make money in more than one way.

Understanding what you want to accomplish with your bees is of primary importance since it will dictate how you develop and structure your beekeeping operation. It determines what equipment you should purchase, where your bees should be located and even what type of bee you should use. Most importantly, your production goals as a beekeeper necessitate certain management practices. There is no “one size fits all” when discussing bee management. You must know what you want to accomplish (i.e. why you keep bees) in order to make the most informed decision regarding appropriate management practices. What follows is a discussion of the principal ways beekeepers can generate income using bees. I briefly discuss some important considerations for each category and will expand this discussion in subsequent articles.

Some considerations apply across multiple strategies for generating income with bees. Perhaps the most universal of all of the rules concerns business experience. It is helpful, or essential, to have some business training or to contract with a business consultant or accountant in order to make informed business decisions. Otherwise, you are not likely to maximize your profit, or worse yet, you may actually lose money in the endeavor. Furthermore, there may be local, state or national laws that govern the industry in which you are engaged. It is important to note these when developing responsible business and management plans.

1) Honey production – Many new beekeepers get into the craft because they want to make honey with their colonies (Fig 1). Of course, there are a number of beekeepers who are only interested in producing honey for consumption at home or for sharing with friends, family, and neighbors. Yet, many (perhaps most) beekeepers want to produce honey, package it, and sell it to generate a steady stream of income. There really is nothing like producing honey where you live and seeing it for sale in local markets, on the tables of community restaurants, and in the homes of citizens around town.
Many people erroneously believe that they can purchase a colony, put it in the backyard, and produce copious amounts of honey all year. Nothing could be further from the truth. Honey production take focus and work, especially if you want a predictable, yearly supply of honey that is of sufficient quality to sell. If honey production/sale is your goal, you must keep the following pointers in mind.

Not all land is conducive to honey production. Bees cannot make honey if nectariferous plants are scarce or absent. My own bees are a good example. I am surrounded by oak and pine trees. I have yet to make a drop of oak or pine tree honey (or any other honey for that matter).

Beekeepers interested in producing honey have to be willing to move their bees to areas where important honey plants are located. Depending on the size of your operation, you will need equipment to move colonies: trucks, trailers, forklifts, pallets, etc.
Queen management (especially swarm control) and disease/pest control are the two principal management techniques that must be undertaken if honey production is your goal.
Other management issues are worth considering. How many colonies can an apiary support? Is your production area home to plants that produce prized honeys (sourwood, tupelo, citrus, etc.)? How many colonies are too many for one person to manage when producing honey (that number seems to hover around 700-800 colonies)? Are you in an area where bears live (see figure 1)?

Not all bees work equally well in all areas. So, it is important to network with local beekeepers to determine which bees are the most prolific honey producers where you plan to have your operation.

Honey production is a lot like growing crops. To be successful, you are at the mercy of a lot of factors that you cannot control. This includes rainfall, soil type (which influences plant productivity), heat, available floral resources, market prices, etc.
Bees used for honey production typically are not under the same threat from pesticides that are bees used for crop pollination purposes. This is because most, though not all, named honeys are produced from wild plants that are not treated (usually) and not from crops that typically are treated.

There is a unique set of equipment and space requirements for honey producers. Producers typically have honey extraction and bottling facilities and all the miscellaneous equipment that accompanies those practices.

States have specific laws regarding safe handling and bottling of honey that must be noted and followed. Food safety is of upmost importance so these laws must be followed closely.
States also typically have rules about selling honey. It must be of certain quality, have no adulterations, be sold under a business license, etc. It is important to check your state and local laws about establishing a business and selling goods.

Beekeepers must decide if they plan to sell honey wholesale or directly to consumers. There is a big difference in the equipment and expertise needed to do one over the other.
Interestingly, some beekeepers become so good at selling honey that they convert to being honey packers, a business where they purchase, bottle, and sell other beekeepers’ honey under their own label.

2) Providers of pollination services – This is likely the primary way most commercial beekeepers generate income with their bees. Beekeepers who use their bees to provide pollination services essentially rent their colonies to growers who need the bees to pollinate their fruit, vegetable, nut, or cattle fodder crops. This rent can vary based on the crop and the availability of colonies. For example, blueberry growers in my area pay about $45/colony, while almond growers in California may pay $150/colony or more (Fig 2). Both bloom at the same time; so, where...