Beekeeping with 25 Hives
This manuscript is written for the beekeeper who is hoping to grow to around twenty-five hives, or for the beekeeper who is at the twenty-five hive level and is struggling a little bit to find the available time to effectively manage bees on this level. There is nothing magic about keeping twenty-five hives of bees other than the reality that things begin to change when you reach this level. Twenty-five hives begin to ask you to take your commitment seriously, that these bees now occupy a higher priority in your life.
I also write for the person who is not, and may never, keep enough hives to justify their hobby/sideline as a full-time endeavor with all the aspects of making their operations financially profitable. I really want every beekeeper to find that elusive enjoyment that I found keeping bees.
I hope you’re the kind of person who wants to tap into the wonderful potential so many beekeepers miss. This potential, at first blush, is often perceived as a financial potential, and the financial return is there. And there is no doubt in my mind you can make substantial amounts of money keeping honeybees. But there is also a level of satisfaction, meaning, purpose and enjoyment so many beekeepers miss. I hope this book helps you reach that level of personal satisfaction, even if you don’t keep but a few hives of bees.
I’ve also written for the person who would like to grow beyond twenty-five hives, eventually up to one-hundred hives, but recognizes the need to master this twenty-five level first. What follows is what I learned as I started out with twenty hives, then started again with four hives, then five, then seven up to twelve, to thirty, to sixty and then upwards (at the time of this writing) to one hundred and twenty hives, plus a bunch of nucs where I raised my own queens and made splits.
You may not want to get this big, and that’s okay. We each must choose our level of beekeeping, keeping in mind our other factors such as age and health, family and work obligations, desire (what I like to call the “hunger factor”), your passion for keeping bees, financial stability, land availability, spousal approval, etc., etc., etc. Only then can you really decide how many hives to keep and what level of intensity is right for you.
This manuscript is written with the idea of working up to twenty-five hives. Whether you continue to expand beyond that level is up to you. There are things I learned on the way to twenty-five hives that served me well as I went on up to one-hundred. Then there are a bunch of new things I had to learn at that level.
As you read this manuscript, you will find some duplication of ideas mentioned in an earlier chapter. I did this because so many things are interrelated in a beekeeping enterprise. You will definitely find ideas repeated, cross-referenced, paraphrased and reiterated, and this was done with a certain degree of intentionality on my part.
For example, the cost of bees is covered in the chapter on finances as well as a separate chapter on expansion. Time management thoughts are also included in its own chapter as well as the chapter on record keeping.
As ideas repeat, you may think I’ve lost my mind, and some days I would not argue that conclusion, but many ideas are repeated because they fit a different context or I come at the same idea from a different perspective because the situation changes or the circumstances are different. Beekeeping is like a puzzle with many pieces that interlock with other pieces, which in turn, interlock with other pieces. And remember that every piece in the jig-saw puzzles touch four other pieces. Yes, there will be some things that get mentioned over and over again. No, I have not lost my mind! I did it with some intention, and as with most people, sometimes being redundant helps drive home the point of the discussion.
There is nothing really magical about twenty-five hives. It is, however, a level in which things will begin to change in terms of your time commitment to the bees. Time will be your most precious commodity. You will also notice a change in the management of your resources (mostly time and energy) but also your marketing opportunities. You will also detect a change in your spouse’s attitude. My wife lovingly refers to my bees as my “hobby on steroids.” My son refers to my bees as “that other family that I spend time with.” But it’s funny how he seems to enjoy the money from the sale of the honey brought in by “that other family.”
You will require a necessary shift in the marketing of your honey. Even if you just want to give your honey away, something has to be done with it. Twenty-five hives produces quite a bit of honey. You will probably need to think about what you need to do to store the honey (I still use five-gallon buckets), and how you’ll work with it when a five-gallon bucket granulates. And while five-gallon buckets seem to be a little tedious, I can manage ten five-gallon buckets better than one fifty-five gallon drum. To each their own way, however! There are as many different ways to do things as there are beekeepers.
With twenty-five hives you will find the need to be more efficient. And when you go into a bee yard to feed or medicate or put supers on, your approach changes as well. You will begin to work your hives in “batches” or switch your manipulations to a “systems” approach. Both of those words simply mean that you will find greater productivity of your time when you do one thing to all your hives, all at once. Then you shift to the next thing to do and you do that chore to all your hives.
As an example, I find it becomes more expedient to do the same thing (or few things) to all the hives in that one trip. It is a more efficient use of my time and energy. I find that if I need to do six things, and if I only do those six things to one-third of the hives in the yard, then the needs of those other two-thirds are always hanging over my head. To do one or two things to all the hives, as time allows, yields a greater feeling of an accomplishment. Either way, you still need to plan another day in the bee yard, but with a systems approach, you take care of the most important item that all the hives need. And with all my hives, there are tasks that need to be done NOW, and all the hives need it done right now.
In addition, working with fewer tasks forced me to prioritize my to-do list. There are some things that are more important, and I feel better about my beekeeping job if I get those most important things done to all the hives at once. By doing the same thing, or only a few selected things, and do them to all the hives in that trip, I avoid the feeling that something is still hanging over me. And one thing I’ve learned along the way is that your work is never done. There is always something that needs to be done another day.
Of course, using this systems approach likely means another trip to bee yard on another day, but I’m never sure when that other day might be. But I will sense a greater satisfaction if that prioritized task is off my list. One thing you will learn with twenty-five hives of bees, especially if you have them spread out in two or three different locations, is how much time certain tasks will take and how much time you can afford to give to the more important tasks.
You will also learn timing is everything. This is especially true with swarm prevention, supering, mite control, raising your own queens, and, well, just about everything when it comes to bees! Timing is everything. There are selected windows of time during the season when certain tasks absolutely must get done.
And there are times I can only do the things that the weather allows. Opening the hives is best done when the days are mild and sunny. If all I have to do is change feeders or put in entrance reducers, that chore can be done on a cooler day. The old expression of “making hay while the sun shines” also applies to beekeepers. Do what you have to do when the weather allows; then do what can be done when the weather is not so cooperative on those other days.
And for heaven’s sake, do not put off today what you THINK you can do tomorrow. I can’t begin to tell you how I squandered a sunny day thinking I could take care of those things the next day. The next day comes around and I finish up my office work. I go home and change my clothes. I organize my van with all my tools. I drive out the bee yard, and after I open a few hives a horrendous thunder storm blows up and I’m forced to go home. And some of my bee yards are in low-lying areas and swampy places where the ground has to dry out for three days before I can return after a good rain. Never put off today what you THINK you can do tomorrow. Tomorrow is not guaranteed to anyone.
How do we approach this idea of keeping twenty-five hives of bees? Let’s look at the three major categories of beekeepers, the hobbyist, the sideliner and the commercial beekeeper.
Traditionally, the industry calls small beekeepers “hobbyists.” For the hobbyist, beekeeping is fun, their time commitment may be rather non-committal, limited to sunny days on the weekend or when they feel like it, and any income may be purely coincidental and incidental. As a hobbyist, you may not be looking for any financial return. If any income is produced, it is likely overshadowed by the costs and your labor. Your commitment to the bees may be more relaxed if it’s just a hobby. You get work done when you can, and if you miss doing something this week, next week is still fine. With a few hives, you also devote more time per hive, noting the changes and micro-managing the bees.
As one moves up the scale to twenty-five hives, the hobbyist becomes more involved and the bees are more than just a passing fancy. The finances become sustainable, more than likely moving to a break-even and potentially profitable level. At twenty-five hives, it’s not expected that you’ll have to hire any seasonal labor, but you’ll find the time commitment becomes more serious, and you’ll begin to treat your bees with increasing seriousness. You recognize that decisions have consequences, and some of these decisions will greatly affect your honey production. You will find yourself facing specific windows of time in the season when certain tasks must be done. Timing is a critical aspect of keeping bees, and with twenty-five hives, and more time needed to do these tasks, timing becomes more critical.
Yet beekeepers with twenty-five hives are definitely not commercial beekeepers, those who make a living from their bees, whose income (hopefully) exceeds the expenses. In my mind, commercial beekeepers require a large amount of mechanization, lots of heavy equipment and buildings dedicated to their craft. They frequently have to hire seasonal labor. One commercial beekeeper told me he grossed over $450,000 but his profit was only $15,000 before taxes. Hired labor, workmen’s compensation, benefits, higher fuel costs, increased truck repairs all nibbled away at his gross income.
What separates the commercial beekeeper from the sideliner is not always fast and true. Even the hobbyist can hire seasonal labor, but for the commercial beekeeper, it is probably viewed as a necessary expense. The level of commitment for a commercial beekeeper is likely driven by finances rather than by pure enjoyment. And a commercial beekeeper might very well enjoy keeping bees on this level. Be careful not to get too tight in your expectations as we talk about these different categories of beekeepers.
I like to think of the commercial beekeeper as the one who says, “This is what I do for a living. I need to make a profit keeping honeybees.” However, even the twenty-five hive sideliner beekeeper is still likely producing a fairly significant stream of income and may look like a miniaturized version of a commercial beekeeper. But the sideliner can sit on his honey all winter long where the commercial beekeeper likely needs to be moving his product.
Somewhere along the way to twenty-five hives, one may need to start considering the full scope of the implications of business accounting practices, including depreciation and tax liabilities. When you begin approaching twenty-five hives, you begin to look for a dedicated building, or you probably begin to set aside a corner of the garage or basement for this expanded hobby. But this level of intensity doesn’t necessarily mean you are a commercial beekeeper. Even a hobbyist can desire to make a profit.
Traditionally, hobbyists are those beekeepers who have under twenty-five hives. This level of twenty-five hives is really pretty arbitrary. But I will also tell you there is a big difference between the beekeeper with four hives and the one who has twelve hives. There is also a big difference between twelve and twenty-five hives. There is no difference when a beekeeper moves from twenty-four hives to that twenty-fifth hive. The numbers have to be seen with a certain subjective arbitrariness.
Beekeeping with twenty-five hives also begins to compete with your time and energy, family obligations, and unless you are retired, your work and your job. Most beekeepers I know are older persons, mostly men, and working twenty-five hives is a physically demanding work. Deeps, or brood boxes, full of honey are heavy. Medium supers full of honey are also heavy, but not as much. One older beekeeper I know pulls each frame of honey out of the hive and places it in an empty super on his wheel barrow. Then, as he pushes the wheel barrow to the pick-up truck, he lifts one frame at a time into the empty super on the pick-up bed.
This is very time consuming. However, he lacks the physical strength to carry full supers of honey, even mediums or shallows. He trades time for physical strength. He also manages to care for thirty hives, which he still considers to be “just a hobby.” And this may be something he does all day long, technically, “full-time,” even though the income generated is not what a younger man or woman could make working the honeybees full-time. Again, take these categories with a grain of salt. We just cannot be that strict in our interpretation.
If you have over three hundred hives the industry considers you to be a commercial beekeeper. And likewise, there are commercial beekeepers with thousands of hives and that’s a different ballgame than the beekeeper with three hundred hives, except both fall into this arbitrary category of being designated as “commercial.” And oddly enough, with the increased costs of the larger operation, both may have the same net profit at the end of the season. There is more to life than being the biggest beekeeper in the county.
To me, the idea of being a commercial beekeeper is to make a living at beekeeping. It is your vocation. It’s what you do to put a roof over your head and groceries on the table. Beekeeping is meant to pay the bills. It is your primary purpose in life. And yet, like most agricultural endeavors in this day and age, most farmers require a large degree of “off-farm” income to make their livelihood sustainable.
The commercial beekeeper will probably, but not necessarily, sell most of his honey in “bulk,” most likely fifty-five gallon drums. He, or she, accepts a wholesale price and likely sells to someone who “packs” the honey and sells wholesale to a retail outlet. Hobby level beekeepers, on the other hand, will sell largely “retail.” They have the luxury of time to bottle what they produce and can accept a higher price per pound of honey to reflect the increased labor that goes into pouring their jars and bottles.
Commercial beekeepers are like large farmers while hobby beekeepers are like large gardeners. Both produce a crop, but the smaller producer has greater options to make more money, but they also have more time to selectively market their crop for a higher income. For the large commercial beekeeper, he or she trades the larger volume of honey for a smaller price per pound (and less labor per pound of honey).
The in-between group, the one who keeps twenty-six hives upwards to two hundred and ninety-nine hives, is traditionally called a sideliner. You are more than a hobbyist, but you don’t generate enough income to really consider your income-producing hobby a commercial enterprise. You generate income, but not at a level to tell your boss, or your spouse, or your banker that you’re ready to quit your day job and keep bees as your vocation. But with twenty-five hives, you also find your bees are taking more of your spare time and a greater portion of your passion than when you only had four hives. And I’ll also bet you have other things going on in your life and you’re not even thinking how to manage three hundred hives.
Being a sideliner is a lot my like my son who is living in that in-between age of adolescence, caught between childhood and adulthood. He, at fifteen years of age, is no longer a child, but he has not yet been granted the full scope of adult responsibilities by our society. He cannot legally drive, drink or vote. Yet as an astute young man he is very aware of many of our social issues, both nationally and locally, and he wishes to participate. Participation is part of the great American democracy. He has great dreams and ideals, yet because he is not of proper age, he still requires his older sister to take him and his friends to the mall.
Society doesn’t really know what to do with ambitious young people who have yet to reach the age of majority. They are definitely not a child, but not yet quite an adult. And what do you do with a young person of thirty years of age who is really immature? Does chronological age really have anything to do with maturity?
And so it is with many beekeepers who fall into this level of keeping twenty-five hives of bees. These beekeepers are much more than a hobbyist, yet they are not taken seriously as if their livelihood depended on the bees. And for most sideliners, they really depend on other sources of income though their beekeeping operation may be very lucrative and surprisingly profitable.
This is the middle ground of being what the industry calls a sideliner beekeeper. You are no longer a hobbyist, yet the industry doesn’t quite take you seriously enough to think of you as a commercial beekeeper. It’s still something you do in addition to your “real” job. And because so much of your income is not really income in the sense of providing for your daily bread, it is likely plowed back into the on-going endeavor of keeping bees or saved for a family vacation.
For my own personal definitions, I view a hobbyist beekeeper as one who spends money on his bees with no intent of getting a financial return. He or she may get a return, but irrespective of the number of hives the hobbyist keeps, a financial return is not expected and it is likely that his hobby ends up costing more money than it generates. This person keeps bees for the sheer pleasure they bring. Joy is their currency. Keeping bees is a diversion from work or something to do on the weekends.
A commercial beekeeper is one who depends on a positive net income from his bees. His or her bees may cost money, as does any business, and require annual investments of time and money, but in the end, there will be a positive cash flow that allows him to feed his family or expand the business. For this person, they keep bees for the money (and no one EVER needs to apologize for making money from keeping bees). Cash is their currency. Bees are this person’s work.
The sideliner, in my opinion, is one who runs a sustainable beekeeping enterprise. It will hopefully still be fun and enjoyable, but the expectations are not so high as to make this “hobby-on-steroids” a source of a livable wage. No doubt, like the hobbyist and the commercial beekeeper, sideliners will be spending money and investing financial resources into the enterprise, but their hope is to break even, maybe even make some money so the enterprise is sustainable financially.
The likelihood of producing a positive net income as a sideliner is much greater than a hobbyist, yet it would not necessarily rival that of a commercial beekeeper in terms of gross receipts. I do, however, believe a sideliner’s net profit is greater because they have increased options to market their honey at higher prices, prices which reflect their own increased labor costs. We’ll have a later chapter devoted to marketing so we’ll save most of this discussion for that time.
So for our discussions that follow, think of a hobby level beekeeper as one who keeps a few hives up to around twenty-fives. Think of the commercial operator as one who keeps over three-hundred hives and makes a living from his bees. And those in that “mushy-middle” of twenty-six up to two-hundred and ninety-nine are considered as the sideliners, the passionate ones who have the dedication to take their hobby to the next level and make some money.
These definitions are not hard and fast, but it is my intent and assumption that as you read this manuscript, you are likely a hobbyist looking to expand, or perhaps reverse the annual financial drain and make this hobby a sustainable enterprise. For some of you, that dream of profitability may be your spouse’s hope as well. Or you may be the beekeeper with twenty-five hives or so and you’re looking to discover and master the efficiencies to expand further. You like the money that is coming in and you know you can do better.
I write this manuscript as one who has made that journey. This is my bucket at the side of the well to prime your own pump. There is a great deal of money to be made in keeping bees, but there is a large degree of time, energy and commitment that must be invested before you start raking in all that money. I hope this manuscript helps you navigate and negotiate your journey into this wonderful endeavor we call beekeeping.
Beekeeping with Twenty-five Hives
Background and Introduction
As I sit down to [initially] write this manuscript, it is the winter of 2005 – 2006. I eagerly await the spring of 2006. I have already been out to see my hives on some of the warmer days of January, and they are looking good, at least from my external observations. This is a relief as we had some horribly, bitter cold days in December.
I went into this winter with 103 hives and about a dozen 6-frame nucs. My nucs look good as I walk through the bee yards. These are splits I made with summer-raised queens. Some of the hives, however, are a different story.
I can count about five hives that have not survived the winter—so far. These hives are the smaller hives that should have been combined with another smaller hive. Most beekeepers believe in an old adage of “taking your losses in the fall, making your increases in the spring.” This means combining your weaker hives in the fall, taking a loss on paper in the physical number of hives you carry through the winter. Then, in the spring, in a manner of swarm prevention, you can order some queens and make splits.
But there are many beekeepers like me who fudge at combining hives. We stubbornly refuse to follow the wisdom of that old advice. And somewhere along the way, you would think I would learn. Because the clusters are smaller, they just cannot generate enough heat to keep the hive warm enough to survive. In addition to small clusters, I like to keep an open bottom on the screen bottom boards (SBB) to improve ventilation. But more and more, I’m questioning if that is a realistic practice for all winter long in Southeast Missouri.
As I sit down to put some thoughts on paper, I’ve taken a few moments to reflect on how I came to this place of keeping around 100 hives. I’ve spread my hives over eight different locations. I catch feral swarms and raise my own queens. I make most of my own equipment in my garage from scrap lumber I pick up from a variety of sources.
I sell honey both retail and wholesale, mostly in jars and bottles, in my driveway with an “honor box” and seasonally at the local farmers’ markets. Lately I’ve cracked into the locally-owned, retail grocery stores where I sell my honey at a discounted “wholesale” price. One year my income from the honey paid for a seven-day cruise for my wife. She even let me come along. Bees are a big part of my life. But it has not always been so.
I’ve kept bees off and on for around 25 years, ever since my college graduation. Every time my family has made a move or I’ve changed vocations, or when I sought to further my education, the beekeeping endeavors were interrupted. I never sold my equipment (which would be self-defeating), but I just let the bees die as I put the equipment away in storage or hauled it along to the next location. I never gave up thinking about the bees, even though during those times, I didn’t actually have bees. Then somewhere in this fallow gap of not having bees, I’d quit fighting that overwhelming urge and I’d get more bees.
In those fallow times, I always knew in my heart that I would get bees again. I just needed the time and the place. This is what I believe really makes a person a beekeeper: the intense desire, even passion, to pursue the perfection of keeping bees.
And it happens on different levels. Keeping bees may be something you do for fun or enjoyment. You may want bees to pollinate the garden or you have dreams of making a little money along the way. But in your heart, you know you are a beekeeper. It is a calling, and NOT keeping bees is harder than the actual work of keeping them. You just have to keep bees. You are a beekeeper, a keeper of the bees. It’s in your blood.
The old-timers used to call it, “bee fever.” To them, it was this itch that could not be scratched without keeping some bees in the backyard. And even if something comes along to wipe you out, even when the days are hot or drought stalls the nectar flow, the frustrations are only overcome by the presence of bees in those boxes. It’s like you were meant to keep bees. It is a calling. It is your passion. It is your destiny. And those who are called to be a beekeeper must keep bees. There is no rest until you have those little ladies in the box and a jar of your own honey on the table.
My initial foray into beekeeping came after my college graduation where I bought enough bees and boxes for 20 hives. My full intent was to be a commercial beekeeper, though at that time, beekeeping would be but one of several enterprises on the family farm. I loved the idea of being diversified, so along with other farming ventures, I also kept honeybees.
But then, after three years, my plans changed. At the time of this transition, I put the hive bodies in the barn, went on to graduate school, got married, had children, went to work, and basically became a productive member of society like everyone else. For many years, I shelved my aspirations of being a beekeeper, but the thoughts, hopes and dreams never left me. And sooner or later, when the opportunity presented itself, I cleaned up my old equipment, ordered some packages, and the next thing I knew, I was back. I was once again a beekeeper.
Up until the last five or six years, beekeeping for me has always been more of a very part-time hobby as room for the hives and time to work them allowed. Moving and other interruptions, as well as the normal family obligations with my small children and other challenges, limited the number of hives I kept to four, which I mostly kept along the back fence line near my garden. But my heart was back on the family farm with twenty hives. My imagination was not satisfied with four hives. My quest for a challenge was not met with four hives. I didn’t think I was pursuing the vocation of a beekeeper with just four hives.
My present situation grew out of those humble re-beginnings with four hives after an initial and somewhat futile attempt at twenty hives. I continued to keep a few bees as a hobby as time allowed. It was more of a distraction, something to “mess with” after I came home from work. My wife worried about what the neighbors would think, how our young children would react, and if I had enough time for one more activity in my life.
And then as the years went on, I kept increasing slowly, little by little. Someone called and they had a swarm on their rose bush. They knew I kept bees. Did I want them? (And what kind of question is that to ask of a beekeeper? Of course I wanted them!) That was one more hive. Then another person had another swarm. I needed some more hive bodies. And I needed bottom boards and tops and frames and foundation. Every trip back home to Minnesota meant I was bringing back some of the equipment I had in storage. But then some things needed to be purchased. This meant I also needed more money. But with three young children, money was tight. But the bees were free and so I made the move to expand.
I started cruising the back alleys of large retailers scalping scrap pallets out of the dumpsters to build my boxes. While it seems like this is a less-expensive way to go, it requires a lot more labor. But at that time in my life, I had more time than money. So I kept an eye out for scrap lumber that I could convert into hive bodies. With a garage full of old, broken pallets, my wife was beginning to think I had lost my mind. At times, I wondered as well, but I had before me a vision of being a beekeeper with a positive stream of income.
With more hives came increased amounts of honey. I stored my honey in 5-gallon buckets I got from the bakery. At first I gave my honey away as gifts and presents. Then I started selling it annually at a local “harvest” festival held every fall at the local apple orchard. Pretty soon the word spread and the demand for local honey was more than I could produce with five or six hives. So over the winter, I cobbled together some scrap lumber and built some more hives.
Initially, I tried to reinvent the wheel with what seemed to be innovative designs on an old idea. But more and more, I came back to the conventional Langstroth hive. I would always build a few more hives than I had bees, then I would order a couple of packages in the spring. Then I’d get a swarm call. Soon I had twelve hives. My wife was getting nervous. Did we have room for twelve hives? Was this becoming an addiction or just a mild obsession?
Then doors started opening for me. I expanded my hives, in part because several local farmers requested bees on their property. These were not pollination situations, but rather some local farmers, basically some “good ol’ boys” that remembered the old days of bee trees and wild honey. To them, it just felt good to have a few bees around the farm. They enjoyed watching them work, flying back and forth carrying nectar and pollen. All they wanted was a couple of quarts of honey a year for “rent.” I never charged them for any pollination. I got to keep all the honey the hives produced, and much of our agreement was the old-fashioned “gentlemen’s handshake.” In turn they gave me access to wonderful fields of flowers that yielded buckets and buckets of honey.
As the price of package bees kept going up (and back in those days, $30 for a package was outrageous), I turned to pheromone-baited swarm traps. I started catching feral swarms and the swarm calls started to multiply as word spread that I was a beekeeper. Then the newspaper did a small article spreading my notoriety. More calls to retrieve more swarms came in.
Pretty soon I was at thirty-three hives, then sixty-four hives. And then the real question I faced became, “I just caught and hived that swarm, but it won’t produce any honey this year, so is it a real hive when I sit down and tell someone the number of hives I work with?” And how about nucs? Do they count when I number my hives?
One year I was planning on making nucs to sell, but I got a bad batch of queens, poorly mated and they were hardly accepted. So I started raising my own queens and making late summer splits. Now I had more hives, or more correctly, nuc boxes.
Then came a rather remarkable year in which my job rewarded me with some traveling opportunities. I took some continuing education courses and I was away from home for about a month. It was that summer that the garden just got out of hand.
That summer we had ample rain, unusual for Southeast Missouri. Then, while I was away getting an education, the weeds exploded and the garden looked like a jungle. This was, in part, due to my neglect as I traveled, but also a result of my annual organic fertilizer program. Every year I would I dump several loads of manure on my garden (inoculated with more weed seed). The garden got so bad that summer that even the neighbors complained.
My wife said I had a choice. Either I choose to garden and get rid of the bees or I keep the bees and I mow off the garden. My son was overjoyed! He had great visions of turning the garden into a football version of his personal “field of dreams.” He encouraged me to dump the gardening and go for the bees! And yes, it was a very large garden and it fed my family very well. But it also took a lot of time, which I had before I escalated the number of hives I kept.
My twin hobbies of gardening and beekeeping were competing for my time and energy. And there is great truth in that you can only serve one master. Try to serve both and one will despise the other. And sometimes your spouse will despise the other one anyway.
But I wanted to do both. I thought I could do both. I tried to do both. But my protests went unheeded. My wife told me to choose. I chose the bees, but under protest. The garden got mowed off. Even the lawn mower protested under the choking growth to no avail. My lot was cast. I was a beekeeper. The garden was history. And I have come to realize that everything happens for a reason. The time I tried to put into the garden was now redirected into keeping bees, or I might more accurately say, MORE bees.
This is one of the unspoken aspects of keeping twenty-five hives of bees they never tell you about in all those informative articles in all those wonderful bee magazines. We only have so much time, not just in a day but also our lives are limited. Every day I feel time slipping away and my quest to do something noble with my life. But time is limited. So is your energy. So is your spouse’s patience. I had to make a choice.
With my son overhearing the “conversation” my wife was having with me, my son began chanting, “Bees! Bees! Bees!” He loved the idea of my choice of bees. I made the choice to give up the garden and redirect my energies to the bees. My son now plays football where tomatoes once yielded their bountiful harvest. He complains that the stump from the old peach trees messes up the sod, but soon it will rot away. He got his football field. I got my bees. I still miss my garden. But I just can’t worry about what was lost; I give thanks for what’s left. I have my bees.
As I reflect on my ascent to 100 hives, it came pretty naturally, logically and somewhat rapidly. Along the way, I can detect certain levels of beekeeping that mandated changes in my perception and perspective. While not set in stone, there are levels of beekeeping that change your approach. Some levels force your approach to change. My advice is to master one level before moving up to the next. Mistakes become amplified with more hives. The consequences of those mistakes (like swarming and mite infestations) also become more costly. If you have to buy all your inputs (like hive bodies and packages of bees) the consequences have huge implications if you don’t manage them well.
I can see a definable level for the person who keeps two to four hives. These hives don’t take much time, and there are times when it just seemed like a lot of work to get the smoker going for such a brief time of working with the bees. But looking at the hives, opening them up, analyzing frame by frame and finding the queen was very relaxing for me. I enjoyed those days of four hives. You get to give them a lot of TLC and attention.
But when one gets up to a dozen hives, time commitment and interest changes. You begin to buy larger purchases, which of course, take more money. I began to wonder if it is easier to buy the hive bodies than to cut them out of wood from the pallets I picked up from the dumpster at the home-improvement store. You run out of room in the garage for your empty hive bodies and the scrap pallets now sit outside (much to my wife’s consternation). People begin to actually call you a beekeeper. They ask you for honey, and at this point, they balk at the idea of paying you for honey, or at least, paying a respectable amount that is close to the going retail price of honey. They still treat you like a hobbyist who just keeps bees for fun as if there was no investment in the equipment. And at this point, much of your investment is personal.
As you expand from twelve hives upward to twenty or twenty five hives, you will begin to find things changing. You are probably looking for a new place to expand, or perhaps, as in my case, people come to you and ask if you want to put bees on their property. And since it isn’t really economical to drive six miles to care for two hives, you negotiate and put eight hives on their farm. Fields seem to open before you. And at twenty-five hives, you are either a serious hobbyist, or perhaps in reality, a small-time commercial beekeeper. In essence, you are the serious sideliner and your bees are important to you.
I found myself, as I was moving from twelve upwards to thirty-three hives, as needing to be more efficient, better organized and more informed as a beekeeper. Mites were the biggest problem, and resistance to chemicals was beginning to rise to the surface of our concern. I wanted to go a more natural route. Chemicals were costly, but natural methods took more labor, more time and a closer level of monitoring your hives. I also began to recognize my need to wear more “hats” and become a better beekeeper, a more efficient producer and a more aggressive marketer.
At this level of twenty-five hives, you need to start developing new markets for your honey. At this level, your capital investment begins to grow and you’re likely looking for a financial return. Because of the limits of time, you are likely shifting to buying your woodware. Profits would be nice, but a break-even sustainability would be most welcome. Your marketing will need to become a bit more professional. Putting honey in old mayonnaise jars isn’t quite good enough, and not everyone likes to buy that much honey at a time (fearing it will “go to sugar”). At this point I started to look for smaller squeeze bottles and bears. These cost money.
You probably need to start looking closer at designing your own unique label and the kitchen in the house is no longer the best place to extract honey (unless your wife is away for the entire weekend). The time commitment to get away from your job and family obligations is also harder to schedule. The weather is the hardest to schedule. Working the bees, well, it becomes work.
And the number one rule I’ve discovered when it comes to managing twenty-five hives is that beekeeping at this level is not for procrastinators. If you only have four hives, and they swarm because you were doing other things, you get discouraged but you still survive. If three of those four die out, buying replacement packages again in the spring is something you can easily live with. If you don’t treat for mites on time or fail to get the supers on to catch the honey flow, the consequences of your actions are easily overcome. After all, keeping four hives is just a hobby.
But at twenty-five hives, your hobby must become a greater priority in your life. At this level, most beekeepers find they don’t have the time, the motivation, the perseverance, the discipline, the energy, the interest, or their families begin to resent the time their hobby takes away from the family time. (My attempts have been to try and get the kids involved, but not even that has proved successful).
Twenty-five hives seems to make or break a beekeeper. Either they move on up beyond twenty-five hives, as I did, or they drop back to four really productive hives as a hobby that becomes something like a family pet. A few beekeepers will quit all together and sell their equipment. Some beekeepers will put everything in the shed, taking a break until they “find” the time to get back into their hobby.
But as you expand, you’ll find it’s not always about the time. It’s also about energy, devotion, commitment and a strangely wonderful character that no one else can understand: passion. Sometimes I wonder if beekeepers are made or are they born to keep bees. The most successful beekeepers I know have passion about their bees and pride in the honey they produce.
Expanding from twenty-five to a hundred hives is easy if you can master the twenty-five hive level. Keeping bees in one hundred hives is a lot like keeping four units of twenty-five bees. You begin to streamline your processes and look for efficiencies and economies of scale. I used to find the need to drive to a bee yard and take care of all the hives that trip, and then I find I didn’t bring enough of whatever it is I need that day. You soon learn. Necessity becomes the mother of inventiveness. Experience helps you to become efficient.
At twenty-five hives you want to universalize your equipment, say moving to a standard size of mediums instead of a mix of mediums and shallow supers. You may want to use mediums for everything, brood and honey. Your personal interest and time spent on each individual hive decreases because you have more hives to visit. And you notice more income. Your hobby begins to bring in more money than it costs.
As you move to twenty-five hives, you’ll also notice some elements of beekeeping take on a new priority. You’ll find, or even discover, “niches” of special interest. In my ascent to one hundred hives, I’m producing more comb honey. I hope to start selling queens and nucs. In order to diversity and maximize profits, I want to develop other products using wax and propolis. I find myself settling into a niche other than just keeping bees (though if keeping the bees is what you wanted to do, then letting a spouse or child market your products is just fine).
Perhaps you only have four hives but wonder what it would take to “get serious” about keeping bees. You may dream about the income potential or the possible enjoyment of keeping more bees. More bees will mean more work. But I remember an old expression that says, “Those who enjoy what they do never have to go to work.” Yes, bees will require more labor, but it doesn’t have to be work. It’s never work if you really enjoy what you are doing.
Maybe you are presently at twenty-five hives and you’re having a hard time getting away from work to care for your bees to prevent swarming, treat for mites, get the supers on, or harvest all that honey. Twenty-five hives seems to be a significant plateau. You may not want to go beyond this level. You may wonder if you even want to get this “serious” about your bees in the first place. Your spouse or family may wonder why you want to get involved in a hobby at this level. They may not want you to get that involved as you’re gone too much of the time. The decision is not yours alone, but you’re the one who’s going to have to make it. I hope to present enough of what I know and what I’ve experienced to help you make that decision with a degree of integrity to your own personal situation.
At one hundred hives, keeping bees is still fun for me, but it is also more work and my time is always scarce. The weather is seldom cooperative. As the hobbyist can say, “Well the weather is a little overcast today, so I’ll not worry about working with my bees as they’re going to be a little testy today.” At twenty-five hives, you’ll find there are some days you have to take care of the bees irrespective of their weather-related disposition.
I’ve had to become more efficient at my “real” work as well as in the bee yard. One hundred hives has made a better beekeeper out of me, but it’s because I’ve made numerous mistakes and stupid assumptions along the way. I also learned to manage my time more effectively and juggle my family and work responsibilities better, but this will always be a challenge, and it probably always will.
Keeping four hives is one thing; keeping twelve is different; keeping twenty-five hives requires a whole different philosophy and dedication. It will also give you a whole new education. I’m beginning to appreciate the time that one hundred hives takes, but I also like the money that these hives generate for me. So does my wife. When my wife and children began to see the special things the bees provided for them from the sales of honey, they really started to encourage my hobby. I highly recommend keeping your family’s support through your expansion process.
Whether you want to grow to twenty-five hives, or even if you’re at twenty-five hives trying to figure it out, or if you think you want to move upward beyond twenty-five hives, this manuscript is for you. Come along with me on my journey and we’ll learn together. My intent is not to have the last word or even show you how much I know. See what I’ve done. Challenge my assumptions and conclusions. Take my education in the school of hard-knocks and bee stings and climb the learning curve. I’ve left you a bucket by the side of the well to prime your pump.
I wish you the best of luck, but remember that luck is nothing more than experience and preparation meeting opportunity. And preparation is really about passion. Luck is also what’s leftover after you’ve already given 100% to your efforts.