Is Beekeeping for you?

In my fantasy backyard, I have a large garden, some chickens, and beehives. But the thing about my fantasy backyard – I don’t have to take care of it! So if I were to add bees to my real backyard, how much work would it be, and would it be worth it? Let’s explore if beekeeping is for me, or you.

Beekeeping in the U.S.

Guess what? Honey bees are not native to the U.S. They were brought here from Europe in the 17th century. Since then, beekeeping has grown along with our population’s taste for the golden nectar of its efforts – honey.

There are currently 2.6 million managed colonies producing about 157 million pounds of honey a year. While the majority comes from commercial beekeepers, a large slice of the market, roughly 40%, are hobbyists or part-timers. 

As of May 2020, industry reports show that the market for honey is very strong with locally produced honey and specialty honey enjoying especially robust markets.

Beekeeping is considered an easily accessible industry to enter and exit. But not all beekeepers sell their products. Some keep them for personal use and gifts.

Who are beekeepers?

Beekeepers were typically farmers or their relatives living in rural areas relying on beekeeping techniques passed through generations. But in our shiny, new internet reality, newbies can easily find the equipment and information they need to get started.

As access to equipment and education meets rising demand for locally produced honey and a growing interest in sustainable agriculture well, more and more beekeepers are cropping up! (And apparently so are the agricultural puns.)

Today, you can even find beekeepers on city rooftops!

Can I keep bees in colder climates?

Yes! Click here to watch A Growing Business interview a South Michigan beekeeper as he explains his beekeeping business and what bees actually do in the winter. (Hint: they don’t hibernate!) 

Cut the sweet talk, will I get stung?

I’m a pretty tough person, but I have a memory from childhood that stings. (Yeah, I said it.) It was the morning after a Ferrari had crashed into the woods behind my yard. The wreck had been towed away, but I had a fantasy of finding the Ferrari emblem and showing it off at school, so I set off exploring.

If I had a t-shirt printed to commemorate the event, it would read something like, “I wanted a Ferrari emblem but all I got were these bee stings.”

A beehive had been knocked down in the accident. I was stung 5 times. Did it teach me about showing off? No. Did it hurt and make me cry? Yep, it did.

So will I get stung?

It’s a complex question with a simple answer.

Yes. You will get stung.

At some point, a bee will find its way through a vulnerable spot in the suit’s protection and the keeper will get stung. The suits, while offering a lot of protection, do not entirely prevent stings.

Would it help if I tell you that beekeepers claim that the stings hurt less over time?

I didn’t think so.

Oh, but what’s that? You are tough. In fact, you enjoy a little risk. You’re thick-skinned, perhaps, literally? Then, this may be the adventure for you! 

Personally, I feel I would enjoy the badass side of it. I’d like to shrug and answer casually when asked how many times I’ve been stung, “Can’t remember.” And even though I cried as a kid, I think I could handle it better as an adult. By running into the shed so no one could see me cry and then lying about it ever happening while chewing a piece of hay and shruggin, “Doesn’t much hurt.”

Is beekeeping for me?

Ok, so you’re buying equipment, you’re getting stung…is it worth it? It very well can be. Whatever work you are doing to manage the bees, they are working hard, too, and all of that mutual effort reaps rewards:

Beeswax – used to make products including candles, cosmetics, crayons, art, and furniture polish.

Propolis – a resin made of plant matter that honeybees collect to seal and varnish the hive and is known to have beneficial medicinal properties.

Honey – real pollen honey with all the health benefits for your body and skin. (Didn’t know that a lot of store-bought honey is different? Read on.)

Seasoned beekeepers can also extract royal jelly and bee pollen, (little balls of flower pollen collected by worker bees), both touted for their health benefits. In fact, bee pollen has performed so well in scientific studies that the German Federal Board of Health classifies bee pollen as medicine. Benefits include preventing and controlling coronary heart disease and reducing inflammation and menopause symptoms.

Beekeepers also generate income by renting out their colonies for pollination, a practice often more lucrative than honey production, and selling excess bees to other interested beekeepers.

If by now you are just buzzing to start a beekeeping business:

Click here for step-by-step instructions including equipment and costs!

You saying the store bought stuff ain’t real honey?

Like so much in life, it’s complicated. Most store-bought honey is highly filtered. As the raw honey is processed, it looks more and more like the very clear, easy to squeeze honey Americans are used to buying. Grocery stores encourage this – they want honey that can sit on their shelves longer.

As became painfully obvious when antibiotics, contaminants, and trace metals like lead were identified in large amounts of honey imported from China, the USDA does not even come close to regulating and testing all the honey sold in the U.S. To make it worse for consumers, most of the honey imported from China is sold under US labels with no indication of the country of origin.

So what’s the problem with filtering the honey? 

Remember the health benefits of bee pollen? As the honey is filtered, the bee pollen and its health benefits are removed. Without the pollen, labs can no longer trace the origin of the honey. Highly-filtered honey, while technically still honey, does not contain the health benefits of pollen and could contain, depending on its origin, contaminants.

Ultrafiltered honey has been heated to high temperatures and processed to the point that it no longer meets the definition of honey. It is considered instead of a honey byproduct.

Expect to find this information clearly stated on the label? Think again. Some ultrafiltered “honey” has even had sugar and other sweeteners added to it.

The Real Deal

Certified organic honey has restrictions on filtering that ensure no contaminants have been introduced and all the beneficial bee pollen is intact.

Raw honey is honey in the closest form to what is found in the hive. It may be very minimally heated, but still contains all of the beneficial pollen and propolis.

Local honey, while not a certified designation like organic, has been shown through random testing to contain the beneficial pollen and be less filtered.

The Benefits of Beekeeping

Tranquility. Don’t perceive buzzing bees as tranquil? Beekeepers report that the drone of the bees combined with the slow pace of movement required to work with them boosts feelings of calm and tranquility.

Entertainment. Bees are fascinating creatures. Between all there is to learn about them, the products they create, and their applications, there is plenty to keep a beekeeper (and a beekeeper’s family!) entertained.

Bee Products. As we’ve learned, bees make a variety of useful products. Honey has applications as a sweetener, medicinal product, and in-home skincare routines. Beeswax can be made into clean-burning candles, used as furniture polish or in cosmetics. Propolis, bee pollen, and royal jelly all have medicinal applications, which continue to be studied.

Sustainability. By now, we’ve all seen the news about the honeybee colony collapse crisis. While scientists continue to study the problem, its presence has inspired many individuals to start beekeeping to ensure that our bee numbers stay healthy.

I don’t want to keep bees, but I want bees to be healthy. What can I do?

Plant flowering trees! Trees like cherry and maple are best. They support the most bees and provide the resin they need. Plants and flowers are also great, especially ones such as sunflower, goldenrod, lavender, and salvia that aid in honey production.

The Final Buzz

Beekeeping is fascinating and has so many benefits. While I can’t start a beekeeping operation tomorrow, I am more committed than ever to bee-supportive planting and to purchasing organic, raw, or locally produced honey. I not only want to support people engaged in sustainable practices, I want to receive all the potential health benefits of honey myself!

While the cost of beekeeping equipment is rising, so is the price of honey and the market demand for local and sustainable varieties. Whether you want to support bees, gather honey for family and friends, or start a profitable side business, beekeepers find themselves in a sweet position.

Click here to learn how to start your own beekeeping business!

Click here to watch A Growing Business interview a South Michigan beekeeper about his hives and honey business!

Click here to subscribe to the A Growing Business YouTube channel and learn more about sustainable business practices!

Rosamond Rice is a fiction writer, blogger, and organic microfarming enthusiast living in Southeast Michigan.