Bees are part of our popular culture, from honey and beeswax products to fictional characters like The Simpsons’ Bumblebee Man, Barry B. Benson from Bee Movie, and Billy the Bee. We consume their honey, and they’re responsible for much of the pollination required for fruit and other seed crops. There are over 20,000 species of bees (but no, I’m not going to list them all here).
We love bees (even though some of us are deathly allergic to their stings). The relationship between honey bees and humans goes back at least 15,000 years when people first started collecting honey from wild colonies. Our first attempts at domestication took place in ancient Egypt about 4500 years ago.
So yeah, humans and honey bees go way back.
Beekeeping, or apiculture, is both a popular hobby and big business. Over 260 million pounds of honey and 5 million pounds of beeswax are produced each year in the United States alone. Many countries, provinces, and states have large and active beekeeper associations (just google to find your local chapter). And virtually anyone can do it.
You need space, of course. Somewhere to set up your hives where they a) won’t be disturbed, and b) won’t be too close to populated spots. The startup costs are a very reasonable $300-500, depending on the type and quality of equipment you buy, and how many hives you start with. You’ll need the physical hives, and bees, and protective clothing, and a few other tools like a bee brush (for gently moving bees out of the way), a smoker, and perhaps a honey extractor. Beyond that, you’ll need to educate yourself on the art and science of beekeeping: look to your nearest association, contact a local beekeeper, read a few books or online forums, and perhaps take an introductory course if one exists nearby. Apiculture is a science, but you can certainly learn as you go along after picking up the basics. Check out these beginning beekeeping tips to get you started.
But why bother? Well, some people simply enjoy the peacefulness of the activity. You’re communing with nature and spending time outside, much like gardening. Others want to or eventually decide to turn it into a money-making endeavour. Beekeeping has turned into a billion dollar industry worldwide.
Is it just about the honey? Nope. Turns out, there are multiple ways that the modern apiculturist can make money with bees.
1. Harvest the honey
Honey is big business, with hundreds of millions of pounds being produced and harvested each year. It’s considered a by-product of beekeeping, but a potentially lucrative one. Not only do we love the taste of honey - drizzling it on our food, mixing it with tea or hot water, or using it as a natural alternative to sugar in recipes and baking - but it also has a myriad of other uses. Honey has been used for its medicinal properties for millennia - it can be used to treat burns and wounds, sore throats, coughs, insomnia, and even dandruff. Many people believe that consuming locally produced honey can even help alleviate seasonal allergies (the theory being that it contains small particles of pollen from the area, acting like a low concentration vaccine).
Harvest the honey from your colonies, and either sell it to bigger outfits, or process and sell it yourself at farmer’s markets and local boutiques. Raw or unprocessed, honey is all the rage these days and commands a premium price.
2. Harvest the beeswax
Bees produce beeswax to build honeycombs, and as a beekeeper, you can harvest that as well. The trick is to take enough, but not too much. Beeswax has been used for a very long time in the creation of all-natural beeswax candles, and more recently, in the production of various personal products like lip balm. You need look no further than Burt’s Bees to see how profitable it can bee (that “bee” is intentional...it’s clever, right?). Again, you could elect to harvest and sell your beeswax to an established producer like Burt’s Bees, or start making candles, lip balm, and lotions yourself to sell at local markets or from your own online retail portal. Bees are very “in” at the moment, so strike while the iron is hot.
3. Offer pollination services
Bees are crucial for the pollination of flowering fruits and other seed crops like lima beans, apples, pears, cherries, watermelons, pumpkins, cucumbers, and other berries. No bees, no pollination. No pollination, no crop. Many beekeepers have started renting out their colonies to local and nearby farmers in order to move the pollination phase along.
It works out for everyone: the farmers make sure their crops are getting the bee attention they need, the bees are getting the nectar that they need to produce honey and grow strong as a colony, and the keepers get to harvest said honey (and beeswax) for sale (not to mention whatever price is agreed upon for renting the bees in the first place). Win-win-win.
4. Sell your surplus bees
Once a colony gets too big (or various other reasons), it goes through a process called swarming that will split it into two separate colonies. A new queen (actually several, but ultimately only one will survive) heads out with half of the bee population to start a new hive, leaving the original queen and other half of the bees at the first location.
Colonies grow and thrive under ideal conditions (part of your job as beekeeper extraordinaire), so you’ll end up with more and more colonies. Some keepers take steps to prevent this from happening while others encourage the practice to either grow their own business (more bees means more honey and beeswax) or to sell the surplus bees to other keepers. Bees are typically bought for about $75-150 per 3 pounds (including a queen). It’s not a ton of money, but it could be a little extra income from your thriving bee enterprise.
5. Offer swarm catching and removal services
Speaking of which, when the new queen and her worker bees head out into the big, bad world, they often end up in places that people don’t want them. Near a school, a playground, someone’s backyard, or even inside a house. Leave your name and contact details with local police, fire, and animal/pest control so that they can refer individuals to you and your professional services.
As an established and experienced beekeeper, you could create a nice little side business catching and removing new bee swarms. After all, someone has to deal with them, and who better than the local bee expert (that’s you). And the benefits are many: you charge a set fee for catching and removing the swarm (often in the $100-200 range), you get to keep the swarm, which you can either add to your stable or sell to someone else.
6. Offer tours, talks and tutoring
As a beekeeper, once everything is established and buzzing along, you can start offering paid talks and tours to local schools, tourists, and citizens. Bees are popular, and people are curious about apiculture and all that goes with it. Offer up your expertise for a small fee or donation.
You could also create and market an “Intro to Beekeeping” program to teach interested individuals how to start their own beekeeping hobby.
There’s also traveling bee-beard man, but the market has gotten pretty small in the past few decades. It seems people just aren’t willing to pay to see someone with hundreds of bees on their face like they used to. Go figure.
But don’t let the demise of paid bee-bearding discourage you. Beekeeping can be both a great hobby (fresh air, nature, and all that jazz) and a money-making business. Start small and just for the love of bees, grow slowly over time, and then jump in. Do it right, and the local buzz will be all about your amazing products.
Any other suggestions? How could you turn your love of bees into cold, hard cash? Leave your suggestions in the comments below...