by Tracy Weber
Beekeeping is often seen as a quirky hobby involving a funny-looking white suit, but can actually become an interesting career alternative to sitting in an office cubicle. You would get fresh air working outdoors with the hives, and catch an adrenaline rush from mingling with the massive amount of honeybees and their potential to sting. Professional beekeepers have a minimum of 150 hives, and up to several thousand bee colonies, which produce honey. The honey is then sold at a profit to specialized honey-packing plants that vend the product to retail shops.
A beekeeper sets up wooden or plastic beehive boxes full of worker honeybees and a queen to create each colony with a population over 4,000. The bees need a source of water, which they use to cool their hive, and nearby flowers for food, although nectar or sugar syrup provided by the beekeeper will suffice. There is no need to worry about worker bees straying to build a different hive in the wild because they will always return to their queen bee, and sleep in their man-made hive over night. According to Captain John’s honey trivia website, it takes time for the production of honey because each bee only makes about 1/12 of a teaspoon in its lifetime. So you can see why it is beneficial to have thousands of colonies. Each box contains removable framed slats of beeswax that the bees have used as a foundation for their honeycomb. However, if you end up building your own boxes, beeswax can be purchased separately and added to the frames. This makes a nice adhesive environment for honey to stick. The slats are taken out periodically to extract honey, but be careful because with thousands of bees in each box, the slats will be completely covered with bees.
Extracting honey requires some additional equipment. The box used as the hive may be sealed shut by bee secretion. Use a “hive tool” to pry it open as if you were opening a paint can. Bees don’t like their home being broken into, so make sure you are wearing the proper protective attire in case they attempt defensive stinging. Beekeepers traditionally wear a white full-body suit made of heavy-duty cotton. Elastic is sewn around the ankles and wrists to prevent bees from entering the suit. A hat is also necessary to protect the face and neck by using a mesh-like veil that hangs down so the beekeeper can see without any obstruction. Canvas, leather, or plastic coated gloves will protect hands from stingers. All the necessary equipment can be purchased in specialty shops or online from $45 to $175.
Besides protecting your body with a beekeeping outfit, a smoker helps control the bees while you break into the hive. A smoker is a hand-held metal contraption that looks similar to a watering can or pitcher with a small bag attached. As the smoker wafts smoke around the bees and into the hive, the bees become calm and are less likely to attack even though their hive box is being disrupted. This is the most dangerous part of the job because the worker bees want to protect their queen. You will need a queen for each hive you create. She has an integral role by giving the worker bees a home base.
Hidden inside the hive is a small cubby space built-in for her protection. She stays in this spot and reproduces more bees to continue the honey production process, since most honeybees only live between 42-45 days. Queens are specially bred and can be purchased individually. In his book Beekeeping in the United States, research entomologist Everett Oertel (the section of zoology that specializes in insects) believes “about a million queen bees are sent in the mail annually”. Once your beekeeping is started, selling queens can be one facet of the business, or you can sell a whole colony of around 11,000 bees including the queen and the boxes they live in to hobbyists for over $100.
Professional beekeeping does not require any specific training or degrees, but it is important to understand the nature of bees and to know how to use trade equipment, and why each tool is used. The bees may be doing the actual production of the goods to be sold, however handling bees can be dangerous if you don’t understand their behavior or use caution when interacting with their hives to extract honey. There are numerous books on beekeeping, classes for beginners, and two national beekeeping publications, American Bee Journal and Bee Culture, to help you get acquainted with the profession. There are also beekeeper’s starter kits available online from $157 at http://www.beekeepingstarterkit.com/. Being knowledgeable about entrepreneurship would be useful, as well, so your business runs smoothly and contacts for marketing, packaging, and distribution purposes can be established.
Beekeepers have the opportunity to work from home, as their hives are stored outdoors in fields. The outdoor space needed depends on how many boxes you have. As a professional you may have thousands of boxes, and need a couple employees to help you tend to each hive and extract honey. While some people like the thrill of working with bees because there is the danger of being stung, not everyone will take the same interest in beekeeping. Make sure your family and neighbors are accepting of your beekeeper profession because the trade will cause an increase in the population of bees flying around your neighborhood. Ask if anyone living near you is allergic to bee stings, since provoking even one bee could instigate an attack from a whole swarm. Also, check to make sure that your county does not have restrictions, or that your municipality does not prohibit beekeeping. Some states, like California, have you register with the country agricultural commissioner because you can rent out your bees to help pollinate local farmers’ crops. Overall, beekeeping is a unique hobby that can be turned into an unusual and exciting career.