Honey Business - How to Raise Bees for Money
Beekeeping Can Be Profitable
One of the perks of hobby beekeeping is that it can generate some income and help pay for itself. It is also scalable into a small business. The main source of beekeeping income for most small and medium-sized beekeepers is honey sales.
The Market for Honey
In the United States, the demand for raw, local honey exceeds the supply and beekeepers have no problem selling all the honey that they can produce.
Three things seem to drive local honey sales:
- People want high quality, local food. Local produce is generally recognized as superior in quality to what is in the grocery store.
- People want to feel connected to the people who produce the food that they eat.
- People want raw, local honey because they believe that it helps prevent allergies.
Food Safety Laws
The requirements that need to be met before a beekeeper can legally bottle and sell honey varies from state to state. Some states require a licensed honey house, which can be quite burdensome to the small producer. Other states allow beekeepers who less than a certain amount of honey annually to be exempt from the honey hour requirements. In other states, direct producer to consumer sales are exempt from most regulation.
Honey sales are usually regulated by the state department of agriculture. Your local agriculture extension service is a good contact to help you understand what is required before you can legally bottle and sell honey.
There is a general movement in the United States to relax some of these particularly burdensome regulations and make it easier for small producers of products like honey.
Product Liability Insurance
This can be expensive for a small producer because there is usually an annual minimum premium. I think that most small producers just don’t worry about it, that’s not what I am recommending, but that’s reality.
Pricing Local Honey
The first thing to keep in mind when pricing your honey is that you are not competing with the grocery store. Don’t price your honey based on the price of honey in the grocery store, price it based on what other local beekeepers are getting for raw, local honey. The honey in the grocery store is usually pasteurized and filtered. It’s pasteurized, or at least flash heated, to keep it from crystallizing on the shelf. Raw is what consumers want and it’s what you have.
Honey is generally priced by the pound. In some parts of the country, it is most often sold in pint and quart jars, which weigh approximately 1.5 and 3 pounds respectively.
The price of local honey varies widely from one area to another. I have seen it priced at $4 per pound in a rural area and $7 per pound in a more urban area just an hour away.
Different regions of the country seem to have different expectations about how honey should be packaged. Some areas are accustomed to seeing glass queenline jars, others pints and quarts. In some areas, consumers are happy with plastic containers; in other areas, glass is expected. Ask around at your local bee club and visit your local farmers’ market to find out what is the norm in your area. It makes a difference.
Of course, you need an attractive label. Pre-printed labels are available from bee supply catalogs, but in my mind, they aren’t very attractive. You can also design and print your own labels. A laser printer does a much better job than an inkjet. The ink from an inkjet smears more easily.
Two things to include on your label:
- Your email address, or telephone number. People will contact you with orders. I am always surprised by how many people do this and I have had other beekeepers tell me the same thing.
- Emphasize that your product is raw and local.
Your state will also have specific requirements for food labels, like ingredients (that’s an easy one in this case) and weight.
Where to Sell Your Honey
Once people learn that you have local honey, they will come to you. You can sell a lot of honey “off the back porch,” so to speak. Farmers markets and craft shows are popular options for beekeepers. Back in the day, we sold honey at a self-service stand in our front yard. People chose what they wanted and put their money through a slot in a locked cash box. We just put the honey out and left. It worked great for everybody and there was very little, if any, theft.
Be Loyal to Your Loyal Honey Customers
Most beekeepers have trouble producing enough honey to meet the demand. Indeed, large beekeepers’ best customers tend to be smaller beekeepers who are augmenting their own supply.
Try to pace your sales so that you can keep your customers supplied. If you run out, people will go somewhere else and they might not come back.
Congratulations! You are now a farmer and farmers have some special tax considerations. I am not qualified to give tax advice except to say that, if you are in the U.S., take a look at Schedule F and the IRS Farmer’s Tax Guide.
Don’t forget about sales tax. In some states, producer to consumer direct sales of agricultural products are exempt from sales tax.
Managing Bees for Honey Production
Here are a few things to keep in mind when managing bees for honey production and profit:
1. Keeping bees with the idea of making a profit is no different than keeping bees in general. Learn the craft. The more you know about bee biology and beekeeping the more likely you are to be successful at the business of beekeeping.
2. Big, strong colonies produce large honey crops. Big, strong colonies also tend to swarm, which hurts honey production. The idea is to keep a large population of bees without having them swarm. It’s like walking a tightrope. How to do this is the essence of beekeeping and central to the craft. Methods and timing will vary from one region to another. Sometimes I think that this central theme gets lost among other beekeeping concerns.
3. It’s better to over-super than under-super. Supers are the boxes of comb in which the bees store surplus honey, the honey that you will harvest. Giving the bees plenty of space in which to store honey encourages the collection of nectar and helps discourage swarming. It is important that you stay ahead of them and give them plenty of space. You have be careful not to overdo it or the bees will store a little in each super, but not fill them out. Also, as you add boxes you are adding space that the bees have to guard against pests like the small hive beetle and wax moth.
4. In most parts of the country, it’s very difficult to increase colony numbers by making splits and still make a honey crop. A split is basically dividing an established colony into two, or more, colonies. In many parts of the country, it takes the entire honey production season for the split colonies to grow into full-sized production colonies. If you want to grow your apiary by making your own splits, you will sacrifice honey production.
This is why large commercial beekeeping operations head south for the winter. They get an earlier start in the spring and can split their colonies and get them to production strength in time to make it back to northern nectar flows.
Beekeeping For Pleasure and Profit
If you start out in beekeeping just because it sounds like a way to make some money, you are likely to fail. There is just too much to learn for someone who isn't interested in the bees themselves. I know beekeepers who have run thousands of colonies for years and they are still actively learning and trying new things. You have to love it.
But if you do love it, there is nothing wrong with managing your bees with an eye toward making a profit. Selling a great product that you produced (with the help of several thousand bees) is part of the fun and deeply satisfying. The opportunity is there.