An email or a business plan….

Here’s an obfuscated email I received today. Thought I’d share it and my response:

Hi “BeeDude”,
I was at the Women in Ag convention and listened to you talk about bees. I believe you mentioned that from a business stand point, pollination is the way to go. I was wondering if you had more insight into this. Is it difficult to get into the pollination business? Is it lucrative? Where would one start? I would like to get into beekeeping, preferably as a business, but possibly just a hobby.

Thank you for your time and insight,
“Farm Lady”

Good morning “Farm Lady”!

Way cool on your interest in beekeeping and pollination services!

Personally, I’m a hobbyist “back yard” keeper. I did work with a small, commercial outfit about 40 years ago when I was in High School – but things have changed, a LOT! Don’t get me wrong, you can run a business selling hive products: honey, wax and propolis. There isn’t huge market – these days – but there is one. Depending on your goals, it may be a fit for you. Many such, ‘not so big’ keepers are called “Sideliners”. Working their bees and operating self-sustaining yard. Not the kind of thing many make a lot of money at, but depending on how you do things, your goals, maybe a fit.

I’d suggest, this spring, visiting your local Farmers Markets – find the beekeepers selling there, talk to them, find a few that are also doing wholesale sales. Into stores, boutiques and the like. They’d be much better at being able to give you a ‘feel’ for current market conditions.

As to pollination services – well you’ve got to keep bees, first. This will take planning, money and time. You’ll likely need several dozen to hundreds of hives to make things profitable on your own. You’ll have a mountain of regulatory hoops to jump through to get them to the farmers and across state lines. Then loading, transport, drop off, maintenance and pickup. You can likely find brokers or agents (cuts profit) to make initial contact with farmers in the ad section of either of the larger bee magazines (American Bee Journal and Bee Culture). It’s a convoluted game.

Anticipate a large investment, initially, just to get enough livestock to become self-supporting. Most start with buying packages. This year they’re running about $150 for 3lbs. Toss in wooden ware, frames – figure along the lines of $300 to $500 each hive to get it started. Depending on how you do it, can be more or less. Likely one of the tougher resources to obtain will be yards. Places with good forage to grow your colonies. The more colonies you have, the better your earning options. Grow your colonies – make splits – build your yards.

Learn your state’s Apiology laws. Easy enough, but required.

As a smaller outfit, you may be able to find a local, larger keeper already doing pollination services and throw in with them for haulage and sites. Special if it’s been a rough winter, they may be looking for a few dozen hives to fill in their contracts. That’d be a more economical way to get started. Let them take their cut – and load your bees on their trucks. Watch and learn. Negotiate.

One other opportunity to include would be supplying hobby keepers with bees. Package, Nucleus colony (Nuc) and queen production. There may actually be more money available in that market. Packages at $150 each, Nucs are around $200 this year and I’ve seen good queens sell for $25 to $80 each. Learn how to produce queens, develop good pedigree, a smaller outfit can generate dozens to hundreds of queens each month of the season.

And then grow. It’s a tough business that involves a lot of work for small gains at the beginning. After a few years, the returns can get better. And, of course, losses along the way are to be expected. Transportation stresses colonies and typical losses are about %30. Overwinter – special in Wyoming – is tough. Again, about %30 average losses. Toss in Varroa mite, pesticides, diseases and yea – vandalism, it can be a bit of an uphill slog.

Thing to do first? Learn beekeeping. Regardless of what you do, you’ll have to have that basic down solid. Keep a couple (dozen?) hives for a season or three. Know what it takes to take care of them. Then see how far you can run with it. Good luck to ya!

You’re on the cusp of being too late to start this year. You still can! The most common route of getting started by buying packages – well – several sellers are already sold out this year and they’re going fast. One place I’d still suggest would be “Big Honey” in “Smalltown”. If you want to get started this year with packages – call them very soon. Or consider Nucs – they are available later in the season and cost more, but success rates for new keepers are better.

Explore your options and dive in! If you’re in town – be happy to talk more.

I’m a bad blogger…

Clearly. It’s October and I’ve not written anything here since May! A whole season has gone by.

Yea – the ‘new’ is wearing off. But, that’s part of the challenge. Not just with a blog, but in beekeeping. By your 3rd or 4th season – it’s not so ‘new’. Now it becomes work. Remember when everyone else talked of how much work this was and you were wondering what they were talking about? Now you know.

I hope your harvest was good! Even more so, I hope your colonies are happy and healthy. You staying up on research? Avoiding the ‘snake oil’? Good.

Now, get out there, build up the gear you’ll need in Spring, clean your suit, tools, gloves and smoker (at least!) and ensure you’re ready for Spring. Repair all the things! Check your note – remember those ‘Good Ideas’ you had? Yea, now is the time to implement them.

In a few short months, things will get busy again. Activities, travel, family and friends. Make sure you’re looking out for your colonies as well.

Small world…

Heather and I have had the privilege of visiting a few schools, groups and clubs and talking about honey bees. We enjoy it! Guess it echos back to our days on the road with the Touring Theater Group and the English Language Communications Programs we used to do in Europe. Lots of work, but good times. Still, some days you wonder if it’s of any use other than a distraction from classes and work. Of course the students enjoy it – it’s different! But now and then you get an indicator that it may well be doing something more, something you can’t see – yet.

I received a message today from a parent…

“I forgot last night….one of the reasons I sought you out on Facebook is to say thank you for going into the schools. I had such a fun “proud” experience with my children because of you which, I believe 100%, reaffirms my belief that all things can have big impacts.
You went and visited the 2nd grade class at Elementary where my two twins go. They were amazed by the bees and the window that you have to watch the bees. They learned a ton. When my friend from high school came back to town for the Awards banquet two weekends ago, they got to meet her for dinner. I don’t know if you know Jeri Wright, but she is a bee researcher in England and has done quite a bit of post doc research. She has been published in Science (I believe) on the effects of caffeine on bee memory. Anyway, the questions and discussion they had with her because of your effort in their classroom was truly amazing. She was amazed at how much they knew and how many more in-depth questions they could ask. It was a wonderful moment.
So, thank you!”

The ‘Window’ mentioned is the beautiful Ulster observation hive one of our club members made for us. He built two of them, and I’m happy to say the 2nd one is out now with another of our group doing presentations for a local elementary school.

There’s a key in there. Heather and I can do this. We enjoy it and get good feed back. But at least as important is enabling others to do it as well. Advocating for pollinators, sharing some of the basics of a natural science in action – watching those new minds explode with wonder and curiosity, even if it’s not honey bees. In moments like this, I see being a beekeeper and sharing what we know as simply a facet of much larger, dynamic universe. A tool for new folks to get excited about their world and what’s going on around them. Things that may be happening right in front of them, but they never see – simply because they don’t yet know how to look. Feeling pretty chuffed that we can use a portable ‘Window’ into a beehive to show them a way to see.

And for a researcher to travel outside their circles, visit old friends and find out their field of study isn’t simply an esoteric arena of academic curiosity, but something folks are curious about and care about. Wow. No, I’m not in a research lab – but to think that our efforts here in Wyoming can at the very least be encouraging to the front line troops doing the research we all so desperately need – that’s just frig’n cool. Being a ‘Dude with a thing for bees’ is pretty slick at times.

Professor Geraldine Wright – Newcastle University
Agitated Honeybees Exhibit Pessimistic Cognitive Biases

One of the toughest times…

…of the year for a beekeeper is likely, right now.

Late winter, early spring. Are they alive? Do they have enough stores to make it to first bloom? Did I do it right going into winter? Did I take too much honey? What if I screwed up? Can I fix it? Oh No! I have to get in there and know!

On a few of these warmer days, I am seeing a few bees out, cleansing flights – poop all over. Who’d have thought finding bug crap on my windshield was a good thing! But, trying to determine if the colonies are alive or not is almost pointless. All you could do is offer feed, if they’re low, and even that’s to no use if they’re already dead.

Many new keepers get impatient and open their hives for a look see. Often, 1 of two things then happens. The colony was alive, but the disturbance breaks the cluster and now they’ve consumed what meager stores they had and starve out in a few weeks. Or, worse, the new keeper doesn’t recognize they’re in a ‘winter tupor’ – look dead, but aren’t. So, thinking they’ve lost their colony, they clean things up and actually do kill the colony.

It’s tough – but usually the best thing to do is leave ’em alone. If anything, offer feed outside the hive – open feeder. Maybe pollen as well. Make it available so if they are low and it does warm up enough so they can get out, they’ll gain. But, don’t open them! Do not add syrup to the hive. You’ll increase moisture and may well kill them.

I also watch behaviors at the entrance. See if I can tell if they’re coming and going – forager like. Or are they being robbed out. Is there nothing going on? Most I’ll do is keep track of the ones I think aren’t alive – so I can look closer, later. Much later. Maybe plan on packages or nucs. Maybe.

Really, the best thing is to exercise discipline and be patient a while longer. Soon the days will be warmer. You’ll know they’re OK as they’re coming and going – finding forage only they know where as you can’t find anything blooming, yet. They’ve been at this a lot longer than we have – let ’em bee.

Now, the ones that didn’t make it overwinter?