How to Start a Beekeeping Business

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Bees on honeycomb
Bees on honeycomb (Image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kaz20/ / CC BY-SA 2.0, http://www.flickr.com/photos/kaibara/ / CC BY 2.0, http://www.flickr.com/photos/fishermansdaughter/ / CC BY 2.0, http://www.flickr.com/photos/kaplanbr/ / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Beekeeping can be a source for a part or all of your income, whether you are interested in pollinating crops, selling bee-related products such as honey, or both. Beekeeping is relatively easy to do, but it does require a lot of knowledge, a fair amount of equipment, hard work and room for your operations. Also, some practical experience in beekeeping is a good idea.

Things You'll Need

  • Bee hives with established colonies
  • Hive tools
  • Smokers and fuel
  • Protective veil, coveralls and gloves
  • Honey extracting equipment
  • Land to establish bee yards
  • A dedicated space for extracting and packaging
  • Flowering plants that produce pollen or nectar
  • A vehicle for transporting beehives
  • Packaging for bee-related products
  • Additional supplies, including feeding and medicines

Decide how big you want to be. Hobbyists can make enough money from selling their honey to cover the expense of their hobby. Sideliners, as they are called, use beekeeping to supplement other businesses, such as farming and may have several hundred hives. Commercial beekeepers have thousands of hives and often employ people to tend and move hives for pollination services as well as honey production.

Build a business plan. Whether you intend to fund your operation completely, or borrow to get established, your business plan will act as the map you use to grow your business.

Establish your business legally. This may include registering your business with your state and local government, as well as your state department of agriculture. Certain states require inspection of your hives on a regular basis, so registration is essential.

Get your accounting in order. Make sure you keep good records. Software such as Quicken and other applications will help you manage your finances.

Select a location. Ensure that your bee yards have sufficient room, forage, light, water and protection. Your extracting and packaging facility should be conveniently located to your yards, and meet all state and local zoning and inspection requirements.

Learn as much as you can about bee biology and behavior. Understand how a colony of bees works and how to interact and manage a hive of bees. Also learn about the different races of bees and which race best suits your needs from a commercial standpoint.

Know your bee-havior!
Know your bee-havior!

Learn and follow the seasons of beekeeping. Spring, summer, fall and winter affect the specific activities within a bee colony. Being aware of these effects will allow you to optimize your inspections, plan for feeding and medicating your hives, deal with times of nectar flows and handle harvesting.

Treat bees like livestock. They have needs such as food, water, shelter and protection as well as medical treatment at times. Take care of your bees and they'll take care of you.

Manage your hives effectively. Managing hives in a commercial environment is very different than in the hobbyist world. Taking care of thousands of hives requires quick, accurate and efficient management techniques.

Learn how to manage swarming. Swarming is the natural process that bees use to propagate. When swarming occurs, an old queen will leave the hive taking many bees with her to establish a new hive, leaving the old hive to a new queen. Understanding this behavior will allow you to intervene and create new hives, thereby increasing your stock.

Know the botany of your area. Does your area have enough forage for your bees to thrive and produce a surplus for you to harvest or will they need to be moved occasionally to follow a nectar flow in another area?

Get some experience. You can start simple, with just a couple of hives in your back yard. This will help you get comfortable with beekeeping.

Find a mentor. Your state extension office or local beekeeping club or organization can provide a wealth of information of keeping bees.

Be aware of the risks to your stock and how to address them. New risks to honey bees in the form of mites and other insect pests, bacterial and viral diseases, pesticides, as well as the relatively new and rather mysterious syndrome known as Colony Collapse Disorder are severely impacting the beekeeping industry at this time.

Obtain and learn to use your tools. To manage your beehives, you will need tools such as a hive tool, a small crowbar-like instrument for opening hives, a smoker to calm the bees down when you are inspecting a hive. It's also important to wear protective clothing to help prevent stings.

Using a smoker on a hive
Using a smoker on a hive

Obtain your hives. Know the parts of a hive and how and when to use them properly. It's important to have adequate boxes known as 'supers' with frames available to place on your hives during nectar flows. If you have 1,000 hives, you will need at least 2,000 extra supers.

Make sure you deal with a reputable seller when buying established hives and be sure to inspect each hive you buy. Some unscrupulous beekeepers will sell sick hives. Introducing a sick hive into your bee yard can be disastrous.

Ensure your hives are set up properly if you get new hives and will be installing new 'package' bees. Order your bees during swarming season, in the early spring and be ready to install them at a moments notice. Bees are shipped via U.S. Postal Service and will not live long after being shipped, so time is of the essence.

Feed your bees during a dearth of nectar. Having sufficient feeders, sugar and a good water source are essential to caring for your bees properly.

Treat your bees with certain medicines to address mites, insect pests, or other diseases. Ensure that you follow the directions carefully and have adequate storage location for your supplies.

Sell honey. Honey is the primary cash crop of beekeeping and can either be sold locally at roadside stands or farmer's markets or to a honey broker. Selling your own honey locally requires time and effort, but does yield the best return on your investment. Selling to a broker requires less effort with little packaging, but will also mean you will sell wholesale and earn less.

Honey for sale at the Farmer's Market
Honey for sale at the Farmer's Market

Sell pollen, propolis or beeswax. You can also sell other products made by bees. Pollen and propolis as used as health supplements. Beeswax, either raw or as candles, in ointments, creams and lip balms can also be sold.

Provide pollination services. Farmers often pay beekeepers to place their hives along almond, peach, apple, cherry and citrus orchards as well as melon, blueberry, tomato and other fruit and vegetable crops. Providing this service requires moving many hives of bees from location to location during the blooming season. You can work directly with farmers, or go through a broker to secure contracts to provide these services.

Sell queens, package bees and hives. Many commercial beekeepers produce a surplus of bees each year due to swarming. These bees can then be resold as package bees or established in new hives and resold. Some beekeepers also raise queens for sale.

Consider selling your products directly online. A simple e-commerce web site is now relatively easy to set up and run. A merchant account will be useful to do credit card transactions online. Also, consider using PayPal for your payment method. Be sure to have your shipping process in place.

Tips & Warnings

  • Your local agricultural extension office, beekeepers clubs or organizations, and local beekeepers can provide you with valuable information on commercial beekeeping.
  • It's also a good idea to subscribe to one of the beekeeping journals such as Bee Culture or the American Bee Journal.
  • If you are afraid of getting stung, are allergic to bee stings, can't perform tasks requiring some heavy lifting, or can't be outdoors for extended periods of time, beekeeping is not for you.
  • Beekeeping, like any agricultural endeavor, is affected by climate, terrain, location and other influences that may be largely unpredictable.
  • Local and state laws controlling beekeeping are changing. Keeping up on these changes will help you to stay in compliance.

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