Most people get started with only one or two hives, then expand into a thriving business as friends and neighbors begin asking to buy honey. There is no right or wrong answer to the question of pleasure vs. profit, but there are a few things to consider.
Your Personal Goals
Do you want to increase pollination of your home garden, plus eat fresh honey from your own colony? You will notice improved flower, vegetable and herb production from the honeybee’s pollination efforts. Two hives should produce enough honey for a family plus some to share with friends. Around the holidays, you will be a hit when you gift a bottle of local honey.
Or is your goal geared toward building a thriving farmer’s market business selling jars of golden honey to your community? Beekeepers in Central Illinois who produce enough honey for regular market sales tend to have a minimum of 10 to 15 colonies. There is no shortage of customers clamoring for raw local honey in bottles ranging from two ounce samples up to quart size jars. Prices fluctuate by market; however it is common for honey to sell at a rate of $1.00 to $1.50 per ounce.
The bulk of income is typically made from selling extracted honey although wax based products are also popular. Other income options include selling harvested pollen, rearing queens, and creating nucs (short for nucleus, essentially a half sized colony with a mated queen). Large operations may rent out colonies to be transported for pollination purposes, such as to the almond crop in California.
Start Up Costs
Beekeeping can be expensive. A complete hive plus a package of bees purchased from a supplier may cost $350-$400 each. There are ways to reduce this cost, such as building your own hive boxes and catching swarms.
You will need some protective equipment. A veil and hive tool are the minimum essentials. Most new beekeepers also use a jacket or coveralls and gloves.
If you decide to build a business and profit from this venture, you will need several hives. This can be done over time and costs can be reduced by splitting existing hives.
In addition to the hive boxes, protective gear and honeybees, you will need a way to extract and bottle honey. For the hobby beekeeper, there are simple extractors that can be made from inexpensive components as I describe in a previous post (Extracting Honey Economically). For home use, any clean jar can be repurposed for honey storage.
If you are extracting large amounts for sale, of course the need for larger, more durable equipment and consistent containers will become necessary.
Size of Operation
Honeybees do not require as intensive of a management level as some other livestock, say cattle for instance, but they do need some oversight. Spring and summer are the most involved time; however there are tasks through all seasons. Weekly hive checks during the early spring through summer are essential to monitor brood production, pests, colony health and honey stores. Spring also requires monitoring established hives to manage swarming and split colonies if necessary. Late summer and early fall tasks include honey and wax harvest, cleaning and proper storage of equipment. As you can imagine, handling one or two hives may only require an hour or so, but additional time will be needed for larger numbers or travel distance to your hives.
If all of this sounds overwhelming, you can also be involved with beekeeping in other ways. Volunteer your time to assist a local beekeeper. Beekeepers are friendly folks and often appreciate a helping hand. For the cost of your own suit and gloves, you could be involved in the experience. You will be able to learn about honeybees, watch their interactions and enjoy the hobby without a large investment or the sole responsibility.
Again, there are no right or wrong answers in this decision. The most important consideration is the amount of time and money you wish to invest initially.
Julia Miller is co-owner farmer and beekeeper at Five Feline Farm. She is the author of Simply Delicious, a memoir of cooking and The Long Road to Market, a guide for market farmers. Connect with Julia on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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