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? Figure out why so you can do better, next fall.

Just a thought…

I’m seeing a lot of posts asking for insight on why their hives died.

Lots of discussion – lots of opinions – some out right guesses.

Just realized, by the time that question was asked – why did my colony die – it’s too late. Those folks didn’t know what they needed to know to keep them alive. Or didn’t use what they knew. Sure, it’s a learning experience – but what a cost.

We need to do better at teaching folks how to keep their colonies alive.

Busy times – new threats

Winter sucks.

Well, not too bad. It’s a good time to get gear repaired, read up on things and take classes. Learning is always cool. But what sucks is the not-knowing how those bees are doing out there!! Did I do enough? Are they damp? Are there enough stores? Oh my gosh – did I get the mite counts down low enough?!?!??

That’s the big one. Wind has been fierce, temps have been low and I’m pretty sure they’ve got shelter and stores to make it. But when I go out and see a dozen or more dead mites OUTSIDE the reducer – man. That makes me nervous…

Warm days and cleansing flights are few and far between out here on the high-plains of the Rocky Mountains. Opening a hive to see if they’re alive at the wrong time is a very effective way to kill them. So, I have to be patient for those warm days to return. Look for ‘spots’ in the snow in the mean time. Some are dead bees, some are ‘plops’ from cleansing flights. Just hope they’re doing OK in there.

So, gear is ready, bees are being bees and the news on the Varroa battle is optimistic. New method of applying Oxalic Acid that doesn’t require a vaporizor from Randy Oliver looks very promising. I’m more than a wee bit eager for his Excel Spread Sheet model of Varroa growth in a hive. That, coupled with good counts, can predict peaks in mite population and assist in determining effective times to treat. I was stoked with OAV – it’s a good tool. I’m eve more encouraged with these new tools.

To boot, we’ve detected European Paper Wasps in the county. First time I KNOW they’re here. They’re like Yellow Jackets, but don’t react to the normal YJ control methods. This is going to be a bit of a challenge.

Oh, and a microscope for Christmas is a huge bonus!! Building some saline petri dishes to do dissections with. This is a full on lab scope and includes an oil immersion lens. Almost too much for dissections. But great for looking at details. Now, to get a camera attached….

So, that’s the key to making it through winter, it seems. Stay busy and trust. They’ve been at this overwintering thing LONG before I showed up. At worst, all I can do is make it harder for them. I honestly think I’ve made it – at least – a wee bit easier.

So, enjoy some toast with your own honey on it from your last harvest. Pour one of the last glasses of last year’s mead. Pull up a comfy chair and let the dog on the sofa. Read ABJ and BC, again and some more. Make sure all your boxes, frames, stands and other gear are ready.

To plagiarize a meme from a popular series, “Prepare yourselves, Summer is come’n!”

See ya in the Spring!

This whole “Mentor” thing…

It feels like arrogance – and when I get my enthusiasm going it likely comes across that way. OK – yea, I’ve a bit of a thing for bees. I’m not shy about it and when folks ask questions I tend to answer, best I can. It does seem a struggle to not come across as a ‘know it all’ or some such. And there’s a LOT I don’t know! Even the basics – well, I know what’s worked for me, what I’ve read and heard about – what makes sense in all that context. Figure at the least I can save folks some time re-doing all that themselves. Hope so!

One of the neatest things I got to watch recently was 2 of my ‘newer’ folks extracting their first harvest. They borrowed our extractor, it gave ’em a bit of a fit. I got called over to troubleshoot and that was easy enough to get done. But, then to see ’em load their frames, spin that thing up and watch that golden goodness flow out the gate! What a treat. These folks have faced some challenges with their hives. Going into their 2nd winter now I hope they’ve strong colonies in Spring! They’ve worked for it.

Felt pretty good to be sitting back, standing around and taking pictures while they worked to collect the fruits of their learning, efforts and patience. What a treat to share in that!

One thing to be blessed with the keeping of these amazing critters – but to also be able to enjoy others achieving. That’s where it’s at. OK, call me arrogant if I’ve earned it. But if I can be part of that accomplishment, even if in the background – power on.

Heat of the summer

Yup – it’s been busy. GOOD! But busy.

Short trip to the political side of things – bit of a disillusionment there, boy howdy. But that’s not for here.

Bees!! We’ve had a couple late swarm calls. About the same total number of swarms caught as last season. Not as sure of the count as we were successful in ‘farming’ out the collection to more folks! Yea! More new hives in more yards. The last swarm we caught was a hurry up rush job. Folks called about 8:00p and we just did get them into a box before we lost light. Bit tight! Good bees and they’re established in the yard and growing well.

The yard is up to 9 hives now. 3 that overwintered well from last season, 3 new packages started this season, one Taranov Swarm from one of the over winters and a couple of the late season swarms.

That Taranov board is a neat trick – if you’re not familiar with it, well worth looking that up and giving it a go. It is time intensive, but it’s gentle on the bees and gives good results. We pulled a ‘swarm’ from our #1 hive. They had queen cells, mated and she’s back to laying and building up already.

Next step – harvest! We’re tentatively looking at a mid to late Aug harvest. Want to leave enough time for them to store up a bit more before frost as well as do all this when it’s warm enough for that stuff to flow in our gear.

We’ve the Wyoming State Fair coming up – been asked to do a booth there to talk about Urban beekeeping. Not sure what that’s going to look like, yet. But we’ll give it a go.

So, until later – happy bees!

Swarms – it’s natural, man.

Swarms – a curse and a blessing.

Swarming is the result of the natural drive to reproduce – common to all animals – the colony as an organism wants offspring. Swarming is the mechanism.

Swarms can be a bitch. You loose bees, swarms move into other folks’ property creating problems for all.

Swarms can be great! It’s a natural drive, something like making honey and can be managed. But, how – exactly – to manage them is a continual struggle. Some try to stop swarms. Either by killing off or removing queen cells, adding space, making splits. But – sooner or later, one will get away. That’s why we put out swarm traps near our yards. The plan is to ‘catch’ those swarms that do get away. It’s a last ditch effort, but one most any responsible keeper makes.

Artificial swarms can help – if they satisfy the drive. That’s a tough one to meet. It also involves finding your queen! In it’s own right, an often frustrating exercise in futility. One option is something called a “Taranov Board” – look it up.

We used a Taranov Board and artificially swarmed our strongest colony. It worked! Or appears to. Seems I may have missed a detail. I didn’t smoke the hive before starting. Idea is this causes the foragers to engorge on honey. That gives the new “swarm” resources when they move into their new home. Just like a natural swarm. Thankfully, you can make up for it – as I have – by feeding and providing drawn comb. Gives ’em a head start.

The point? I’ve never heard of nor seen such a method before a couple weeks ago. It was mentioned as a ‘throw away’ comment in a thread about something totally different. Glad I looked, read and learned! As soon as I’m sure the new hive is established and taking off on it’s own, I’ve another candidate. As with most things, every time I do something – it gets better and easier.

So, 3 hives survived winter, 3 packages installed and growing, one split with a Taranov Board and I kept the last swarm caught. We’re up to 8 hives now! The yard is full.

Summer starts – lots of new beekeepers!

Had call to go to a new yard and treat with OAV for a freshly installed package that was showing strong signs of Deformed Wing Virus (DWV). It was way cool to see these new folks so determined and meticulous in their care of their new bees! They’d collected samples – all they could find – from in front of the hive of wings showing ‘wadded up panty hose’ for wings, placed ’em in a jar and kept them on hand for when I arrived. Several dozen! Yea, that’s bad. Built ’em one of the ‘beverage heater vaporizers’, ran out after work, did a treatment and am waiting to hear back on what the mite drop looks like. Just after the treatment I did see 3 mites at the entrance. I’m hoping for a slaughter! I also hope we got to them in time. This could be one of the heaviest loaded colonies I’ve seen.

Have also had a few more ‘bee’ calls. Mostly looking for cut outs and removals. 2 new members of the group, Michael and Danny, have excelled in their willingness to dive in and take care of things! They not only have the enthusiasm, but the skills and tools to get things done. They’re gradually gaining on controlling the feral hives in town.

Still getting lots of folks asking for honey. That’s a good thing! Once this batch of new keepers get established and are able to start sharing with their friends, folks will have locally sourced, community honey. Mmm, this may not be such a good thing for some of our smaller commercial ventures. Those guys make their money by selling to the community – more competition could well decrease their market base. Yea, it’s competition and generally we like that sort of thing. Just don’t want to see any of ’em run off.

Also had the pleasure of giving a presentation to the students at the Wood’s Learning Center. Great bunch of bee learners!! Good questions, enthusiasm and sharp. Those teachers over there have been doing a great job sharing not just life sciences, but beneficial insect basics. Something that’s been apparently lacking in our public education for some time. (evidenced by the general eagerness to spray indiscriminate toxins for pests.) Great time and I’m eager to do more!