By Blake Shook
I began beekeeping like many others: Slightly timid around bees, uncertain in my ability to find one queen bee amidst thousands of workers who all seemed to be doing the bee dance at once, and highly skeptical of these people who called themselves “beekeepers”. In my all-knowing 12 year old head they simply had to be somewhat strange to be so excited about their career working with millions of stinging insects. Not that I didn’t think beekeeping had its perks, (in what other job can you lick your fingers?) but really, there had to be an easier, less painful way to achieve the American Dream. I never believed those guys who claimed to get used to stings anyway. My two milky white 5-coats-of-paint beehives were plenty for me.
Fast forward a few years, ok, more than a few now, and I’ve spent the years since completely immersed in almost every facet of beekeeping, from migratory beekeeping, to honey production, to pollination, local, state & national club & legislative involvement, honey packing, bee supply stores, selling bees, classes, and more. I kinda took the diversification concept to heart I guess.
Stings are a minor inconvenience, and finding queens, well, it’s a bit easier. I’m not sure what changed in me during those years. Perhaps I became a beekeeper…perhaps I lost a few brain cells. I’ll never know for sure what made me go all in. But one thing I can tell you, beekeeping as a career or sideline job is a wild, thrilling, challenging, unique, and well-worth-it journey. 2008 was a pivotal year in my business. I liken that year to where many hobby beekeepers may currently be. I was making a decent gross income, and was about to graduate from high school. I had the choice to begin full time beekeeping, or put that career on hold and head to college.
Perhaps you are in a similar position, and are trying to decide if you should take the leap and end your current job and pursue beekeeping, expand to a sideline business, or keep it as a hobby. I had always heard the common joke that there is money in beekeeping because you keep putting it there. Though funny, I often found myself wondering how much truth that saying held. I found it to be good for a laugh in any crowd, but over time, not quite true. There really is money in the beekeeping industry if you are resourceful and willing to work. So, after graduating at the top of my class (hold the applause, I was homeschooled), I pursued full time beekeeping.
With a bit of that background in mind, let’s move on. While there are countless methods and opportunities to make money in beekeeping, there are some key traits to those who are successful in beekeeping & those who are not. Many years ago as I was just starting to expand into a full time business, I noticed an often painfully clear difference in beekeepers- those that struggled year after year in many areas and those who were largely successful year after year. The successful guys certainly had challenging years, but overall, handled it well and moved on. After talking to dozens from each camp I found some key attributes that separated the two, and have since worked hard to apply these to my business with varying degrees of success.
What follows on the next page is an outline of those traits & how they apply specifically to beekeeping as a business.
Understanding Business & Beekeeping Finances
-At the end of the day beekeeping is a business! Commercially, a business that picks up and moves around the country several times a year no less! On all scales, understanding basic business principles and especially “beekeeping finances” is critical. That looks like having realistic expectations of expenses, annual losses, average honey yields, wholesale honey pricing and more. This is where sharing your business plan with an experienced beekeeper is critical.
-Sharp beekeepers don’t put all their eggs in one basket. They know years will come where they have major die offs above norms, poor weather will ruin honey crops, etc. Having a variety of sources of income is critical. It could be pollination and honey production, selling bees, selling honey retail, sending bees to almonds, raising queens, producing pollen or propolis, or hundreds of other concepts.
-New beekeepers are great at this! Beekeeping best management practices can change fast. Good beekeepers stay up to date through publications, conferences, sharing ideas and more. New pests come into the US, mite treatments fail, weather changes, laws change and more. Be adaptable, and never assume what worked last year will work this year.
-I know this seems simplistic, but honestly, it’s one of the biggest things that separate the successful beekeeper from the unsuccessful one. Beekeeping, especially on a sideline or commercial level, is just plain hard work. It takes an incredible work ethic and discipline to be successful. If it's cold, hot, raining, etc your bees still have to be cared for. If you’ve not slept in 2 days, bees still have to be cared for. If you are a week late treating for mites or supering bees, it could have a major negative impact on your business. Partner up with a beekeeper the size you want to be, and ask to work during a few of the hardest weeks. Make sure you know what you are getting into.
-Your bees must come first over other aspects of your business. You MUST super, feed, treat, split, requeen, move, and fix hives ahead of, or right on time, no matter what. If this isn’t done, and with great consistency, your bees won’t make it. This is one of the most common reasons for failure.
-Beekeepers can be like a big family, for better or for worse. I can honestly say that a large (greater than 50%) percentage of the opportunities that have come my way over the years are due to having relationships in the beekeeping world. Networking is incredibly helpful!
Having a Long Term/Ahead of Schedule Mindset
-For individual hive care, this looks like never skimping on the care of vibrant hives and being quick to combine or shake weak hives that aren’t growing. Keep in mind that 10 strong hives will always outperform 50 weak hives. It’s being willing to spend money now to make it later when it comes to bee care and equipment purchases. The investment has to make sense, but with beekeeping, the ROI is often 1-2 years or less. Also, always think ahead. When you are making splits in March, your mind should already be on your upcoming honey crop and what you and your bees need to be doing now to prepare for it. A good beekeeper is always looking 6 months ahead.
Never Forget the Basics
-In beekeeping if the basics are cared for, it is hard to go wrong. Bees need plenty of food, good forage, plenty of space, and mites & diseases need to always be under control. Don’t get caught up in the endless array of products and methods and lose sight of the essentials. Bottom line: Take care of your bees and they will take care of you.
-Don’t ever underestimate the power of marketing. If you are strictly a migratory commercial beekeeper this isn’t quite as applicable, but it still has its merit. As an industry we are far behind on the marketing front when it comes to honey, retail, our businesses and more. If you are selling honey, invest in logo and label design. Invest in good photography. Invest in a decent website. Do those things, and you will already be ahead of most other businesses.
Involvement in Associations
-This is one of the best ways as a newer beekeeper to establish relationships, learn, and most importantly, talk to those who’ve made all the mistakes. Join state & national organizations as soon as possible! Good beekeepers never stop learning, and many serve in organizations as well to help protect the industry and get to know others even faster.
Don’t Get Discouraged & Get Help
-Even when we follow all the right steps everything doesn’t always go right. I don’t know a single experienced beekeeper who has not had major losses (often unexplained) and major setbacks. It’s part of Ag and beekeeping. Having friends in the business to help during those times is critical, and important to help you realize we’ve all been there. My business is built on 1000 mistakes...keep learning, keep planning, and keep going.
It has been a long time since I was skeptical of beekeeping and friends have finally stopped politely asking when I’m going to get a real job. I have long since thrown the “strange beekeeper” idea out the window and accepted that we beekeepers are “unique” as my old friend John (see an interview with John here) says…not “strange”. And to discover that fact all one has to do is discover the wonderful world of beekeeping.
Here is the punch line of this article…I was making a decent living from beekeeping as a 20 year old kid. If I can grow a beekeeping business from nothing to something of a success, with no college degree, more energy than sense, and making every mistake in the book, so can you! I don’t have any special skills or abilities…just a willingness to work, accept help, and learn from my many mistakes.
Many have done this before me, and many after me can as well. Hopefully this was helpful to you as you try to discover your journey in beekeeping. If you are interested, I will be taking a more nuts & bolts look at being successful in beekeeping during our “The Business of Beekeeping” class November 14th. You can sign up here. All the best,
Desert Creek Honey & Texas Bee Supply