Most hobby beekeepers keep bees for fun, not profit. But almost every beekeeper whom I’ve ever met tells me that, well, it would be nice to hear the cash register jingle once in a while. Bird-watchers or golfers rarely expect to make money from their hobbies. But most beekeepers think that their bees should gather money along with honey.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with making money from honey. In fact, from my observations of beekeepers over the years, those who want to make a few dollars (or at least cut their grocery bill) are almost always better beekeepers than those who ignore bees they’ve parked behind the house where they become diseased, infested with mites, swarm indiscriminately, or become the victim of marauding skunks and elves. When a beekeeper cares about her thousand-dollar investment and hopes to sell a hundred pounds of honey a year, appropriate attention is paid to the bees. I’m not saying that money-making should outweigh good beekeeping. But good beekeeping usually results in a surplus of honey and some money might be made.
A friend and I teach a crash course in beginning beekeeping. We also teach something we call “Making Money from Honey” which sounds like a crass course in beekeeping. We address the reality that some people are in it for the money. Some of our students hope that bees will supplement their income, at least in a very modest way. Others have kept bees for a while and want to expand their hobby into a business. We are very direct. Chances of making a lot of money are pretty slim. That’s the main message we convey to our course participants.
If you don’t love bees and don’t like hard physical work, don’t pursue bees for money. Almost any other occupation pays better. It takes discipline, hard work, and good money-management skills to make money from honey. If you have these talents and money is your main goal, don’t waste your time keeping bees for money. Drive a truck and build up a trucking company. Use a hammer and create a construction business. Work your way up from sales clerk to corporate manager at a chain store. If money is your main consideration, don’t plan on getting wealthy from beekeeping.
I’ve seen dozens of people disappointed by their failures as beekeepers. Sometimes situations spin out of control – short crops because of drought or rain or frost, an unlucky accident, falling honey prices. And sometimes the failure is the result of poor money management, lack of discipline, or both.
However, there are successful beekeepers – and even a few wealthy ones. In all cases, these people have poured every ounce of their effort into beekeeping – they skip holidays, rise early, work late, and (this is important) live in poverty for years while every spare cent goes to bee feed, queens, and hive boxes. They’ve also survived inevitable bad luck. Not everyone can keep their eye on a goal that occasionally gets obscured by flood waters, swirling clouds of dust, or smashed trucks.
So why do people show up for a course about making money from honey? Well, if you really love bees and beekeeping, you can still reasonably expect to make a few dollars. I spent fifteen years of my youth making my entire living from bees. I lived cheaply and worked hard, but I enjoyed what I did. My money-from-honey co-teacher, Neil Bertram, keeps about 300 hives of bees and produces over 60,000 pounds of honey every year. Both of us would tell you that (after expenses) we never make minimum wage. But we like beekeeping too much to quit.
Our course covers a lot in seven hours: growing from backyard hobby to sideliner to commercial; equipment choices and shop/honey house considerations; finances, projections, expectations, difficulties, setbacks, and success; how much money to expect from bees in a typical year; handling and marketing your products; case histories of good and bad beekeeping businesses; and the beekeeper personality and lifestyle. Of course there is even more. I created a cool spreadsheet which participants can take home – you enter your number of hives and stuff like the cost of queens, bee equipment, trucks, labour, container costs, and so on and you put in your honey price per pound. That spreadsheet returns an idea of probable profit or loss.
Our next course is coming up this Sunday, May 6. Not everyone can come to Calgary to learn the economics of beekeeping, so I’m writing a book which will include some of what you’d learn from the workshop. Making Money from Honey: The Book should be ready by autumn. Drop me a note if you’re interested in it and especially if you have some suggestions or anecdotes to share.