A lot of North American beekeepers operate huge operations. These days, 2,000 colonies is about average for a commercial operation. Help is usually imported seasonally and the beekeeper/owner is sometimes a bookkeeper/trucker who has more than a veil and gloves between himself and his bees. I asked one of these operators about this. He told me that’s the only way he can keep bees full time and feed his family. He is probably right.
Real beekeeping – shirtless, shoeless, without gloves and veil – is mostly confined to sideliners. This includes operations like the 26 hives run by actor Morgan Freeman (who probably doesn’t need the extra honey money). And it includes perhaps a thousand or so others in the USA and Canada who run 20 to 100 hives on weekends. For these folks, the bees (when profitable) provide a bit of income, but are mostly kept as a hobby. However, I know of a few others who keep a small number of hives to supplement retirement income.
I have great respect for a beekeeper in my area who retired at age 45 from a rather good job that had him traveling all over the world. He had saved some money, but certainly did not have enough money to live on. But he was determined not to work for anyone ever again. For the past 25 years, he has been keeping about 50 hives of bees. Each year he makes about 8,000 pounds of honey. He owns one small truck, makes his own equipment, hires no one, sells all the honey out his backdoor, and grosses $40,000 a year. With expenses at around $10,000, the profit nicely enhances his unpretentious lifestyle and supplements his modest income from retirement investments. And he genuinely enjoys beekeeping.
There is another beekeeper, this one a world away in northern Russia, who wrote a short interesting piece in a recent issue of American Bee Journal. This fellow, age 63, is a retired professor. He has been running bees for a long time. He has a lot of experience. He stays fit, enjoys the outdoors, and makes a complementary income from his 60 colonies. About the numbers, he writes:
“One ton of honey I produce yearly for about $6 for one pound. In addition, I sell 10-20 overwintered colonies, about 100 kg (220 lbs) of sealed [comb] honey and about 50 kg of a homemade mixture of pollen and honey. So it all adds up to about US $20,000 of gross income. I net about $17,000 a year.”
Both of these beekeepers are retired from professional careers and have found satisfaction and a modest income from keeping a small number of colonies of bees. It can be done. I suppose it can also be done by beekeepers who decide to retire from 40 years of running 2,000 colonies – though most of these folks can not dismount from their behemoth bee businesses (and associated obligations and mortgages) and will never get back to the small scale endeavours that would evince more pleasure than meeting pollination deadlines and payrolls.