Can you make money as a beekeeper?

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Quail. Quail eggs. Land with greenhouses yielding instant tomatoes (just add water). I’m sure you can list a number of fads that have come and gone in the name of super money makers.

All these pyramid schemes have a few things in common. They speak in terms of sales, not profit. They offer little or no technical information about how the money will be made. They speak in guarantees, no talk of risk at all.

The first thing we need to be clear about is that beekeeping will never be a fad. This isn’t a 3 month venture. There are no shortcuts. There are no guarantees. If you’re considering this as a business, be sure that this is a long term investment.

Seems a little bleak doesn’t it? Well, there is some good news.

The fixed expenses are few. This means that sales figures are closer to profit than most other agribusiness ventures. Even though there are no guarantees, there are success stories.

Beekeeping isn’t complicated, but people tend to oversimplify, which leads to disappointment. The aim of this article is to give you an overview of beekeeping as business. We’ll outline both the benefits and challenges, enabling you to make an informed decision.

Let’s dive in, shall we?

What are the money makers of beekeeping?

Raw Honey (minimum price – Kshs 500 per kilo)

income from honey for beekeepers

Benefits

  • Little processing required (sieving and packing)
  • Product has a long shelf life so there’s no pressure to sell at a low price
  • Demand is high and always exceeds supply
  • It’s  a healthy product so no ethical issues involved

Challenges

  • Need for consumer education. A lot of people don’t know how to differentiate adulterated honey from real honey, yet they believe they do. For example, many people still believe that “real honey doesn’t crystallize”. People rely on unscientific tests that litter the internet. A customer that doesn’t know better can write-off your product based on unsound advice. It will be your job to educate them.
  • Honey comes in different flavors which vary depending on the source of nectar. The honey you harvest in April may taste very different from the honey you harvest in October. Customers may have a taste for a particular flavor of honey. Sometimes they believe that if it’s different, it’s bad. Once again, consumer education is important.
  • Honey is very heavy. Moving it from the hive to the extraction point can be back breaking work. You’ll probably need to hire some helping hands when it’s time to harvest.

Wax (minimum price – Kshs 700 per kilo)

income from selling bees wax

Benefit

  • Wax and honey are harvested together. No additional trips to the hive are required.
  • Wax is light so it’s easy to transport to the processing area.
  • Specialized equipment is not required (but it would be helpful)
  • Once rendered, wax has a long shelf life and can be re-used by the beekeeper if not sold.

Challenges

  • Without the use of specialized equipment, it can take a lot of time and energy

Propolis (minimum price Kshs 800 per Kilo)

income from selling propolis

Benefits

  • No additional equipment is needed (but propolis traps can increase yield)
  • Can be harvested in addition to the honey (no additional trips to the hive needed)

Challenges

  • Product is found in small quantities – about 100-200g per harvest per hive.

Pollen (minimum price Kshs 5000 per Kilo)

income from selling pollen

Benefits

  • Can be harvested without opening the hive
  • Product is high value

Challenges

  • Additional equipment is needed (pollen traps)
  • It requires multiple visits to the hive. Pollen traps should only be placed for a couple of hours and then removed.
  • Further processing is required to increase the shelf-life of pollen. It is either frozen or dried, meaning you will need additional equipment to get the product ready for market.

Pollination services (No guide in Kenya. In S.A, the recommended fee is around Kshs 5000 (R800) per hive for 21 days)

using bees as a source of income for pollination

Benefits

  • Passive income – It’s like leasing out a car or land.
  • Can help to boost honey production

Challenges

  • The logistics of moving a colonized hive can be tricky.
  • You may need to hire someone to manage them on site.

This article will focus on honey profitability. It’s the basic commodity and doesn’t require scale to be viable.

How much does it cost to start?

Let’s say you start off with three hives.

ItemPriceTotal
3 Langstroth hives650019,500
2 Bee suits with gloves40008,000
Bee smoker42004,200
Hive tool550550
Masking tape200200
Rubber bands150150
Stainless steel sieve38003,800
Bee brush550550
  36,950
*Colony3500 

*With a little patience and proper timing, nature can provide the colony for you. If you would like to jump start your project, you can choose to buy a colony.

Even with a contingency fund for miscellaneous expenses (transport, buckets and set up) your initial investment would total to approximately Kshs50,000.

Unlike other types of animal husbandry, fixed expenses are few in this line of work. Once you set up, your variable expenses will be related to the time spent inspecting the hives, and possibly transport to the apiary. That would be once or twice a month so the expense would be manageable.

Realistically, how many kilos of honey can I expect?

To answer this question, you need to understand something about beekeeping. As the beekeeper, you are only entitled to the extra honey the bees have stored. If you took everything, you would starve the very creatures that feed you.

So how do you know how much is enough?

If you are using a Langstroth hive, you’ll get your harvest from the super. The super is the box placed above the brood box, where the surplus honey is stored. That means, honey found in the lower boxes, also known as the brood box is off limits.

When a swarm first moves in, they concentrate on building the nest, which in human terms would be the nursery. They need to build comb because the queen needs to start laying eggs. The brood needs to be fed on a combination of pollen and nectar/honey. As the colony settles in, all their energy will be dedicated to doing this ground work. By the time the nectar season ends, they are likely to have stored enough to get them by, but not enough for the keeper to harvest.

Year 1

Your first harvest will be just a fraction of what you’d expect when the hive is at its optimal level of production.  A typical hive shallow super can hold 10 kilos of honey. You may get less than half of this your first harvest. 2-6 kilos per hive per harvest.

Year 2 onward

Subsequent harvests are likely to be higher. When the next nectar season begins, they bees will spend more time storing nectar in the super than they do constructing the nest. Yield per hive will probably go up to 7-10 kilos per harvest, all factors remaining constant.

Let’s see what factors these are in the next section.

What affects the rate of honey production?

Size of the hive

adding supers can increase honey harvest
hives with multiple supers vs hive with one super

Think of a hive as a factory. The bigger the factory, the more equipment you can have. The more equipment you have, the greater your production capacity. The bigger the hive, the more bees it can house. The more bees in the colony, the more nectar they can collect.

Bees are programmed to collect nectar and pollen for as long as it is available. The queen increases her egg laying rate just before the flowers start to bloom. More eggs translate to more workers. The workers are the factory’s honey making equipment.

As the colony expands, so does their need for space. If they run out of space, the colony splits. However, if they bees are provided with more space, they will continue to build comb and store nectar. That’s one of the reasons why yield per hive is higher in countries like the U.S.A. The difference comes from the number of supers placed on a hive, or the size of the super on a hive.

Disclaimer: Providing extra supers does not guarantee a greater harvest. Some colonies are more productive than others. There are colonies that can handle multiple supers, while others may struggle to fill just one. That’s why it’s best to start with more than one colony.

Rainy season

Bees collect nectar from flowers. Plants produce flowers for procreation. The success of the procreation depends on the environments ability to facilitate the growth of a seed. So, if the rainy season is delayed or fails all together, that will affect the availability of nectar in your area. No nectar, no honey.

Colony cycle

Just as the bee has a life cycle, so does the colony. The colony grows, shrinks and “procreates” by splitting. When flowers are in short supply, the colony shrinks by limiting the egg laying activities of the queen. Fewer eggs mean fewer workers.

By limiting the size of the colony, the bees can live off the honey they had stored until the next nectar flow/rainy season. You can’t expect any honey during this time, and there’s nothing you can do to alter that behavior.

The behavior of your bees depends on the floral calendar in your area. Yes, you’ll need to have some botany skills. This information will help you predict when the bees will be most productive and when you can expect your harvest.

Agricultural activities

There was a feature on one of the local news channels about how beekeepers in the Mt. Elgon area are losing their colonies. They attribute this loss to increased agricultural activity in the area.

It’s not just the use of pesticides that causes a threat to the survival of bees. Mono-cropping, the planting of one type of crop on large portions of land, strips the environment of vital forage material for bees.

Let’s say that 100 acres of natural forest is converted to a maize plantation. Lots of indigenous trees and shrubs are cleared away. When the natural flora is replaced with maize, vital food sources are eliminated from that ecosystem.

At best, the maize will provide pollen but no nectar. Bees use nectar as their primary source of carbohydrates. Without it, the beekeeper either has to supplement that in the diet (using sugar syrup), or the bees could abscond and move to a location which is closer to a food source. Sometimes, the colony simply collapses, meaning it dies off slowly.

Genetics

In Kenya, we have different sub-species of honeybees. Each has its own unique behavior. For example, I have bees in Lari, Kiambu County. These are probably mountain bees. They are calmer than those you’d find in the lowland areas.

The downside to mountain bess is that they less active and may be less productive than those in other parts of the country.

Productivity also varies from one colony to another. I have a colony that doesn’t give me more than 4 kilos in a good season. About 10 meters from that hive, is another that has yielded 6kg when all other hives were empty. When the nectar flow is good, I can get more than 10 kilos from that colony.

Why should you invest in beekeeping?

Few daily expenses

minimize your beekeeping expenses doing it yourself

Whether you own silkworms or camels, the responsibility to feed and nurture lies with you, the owner. Bees, on the other hand, are completely independent when it comes to their daily provision. That means you don’t need to have labor permanently assigned to the bees.

Labour is only needed to:

  • Check in on the bees once or twice a month to ensure the colony has not been invaded by pests
  • Ensure that the colony has a queen who is productive
  • Keep the apiary clean

These are not daily activities. With some training you can undertake these activities yourself. If you are unavailable, you can delegate this to your caretaker or groundsman. Alternatively, for a small fee, you can call us to help you out.

When you make your initial investment, the assets, namely hives, tools and suits, won’t need to be replaced for at least 10 years. Unless something or someone drops the hive, a properly constructed hive will last even longer than that.

You may need to replace some of the frames that hold the honey. Every time the frames are pried loose, they may chip or even break.

Easily compliments other agricultural activities

beekeeping is good for farming crops
Bananas and pumpkins frequently visited by bees

Let’s use avocado farming as an example. If you were to venture into avocado production, then bees would be your best friends. They are fantastic pollinators, which helps to boost production per tree. After the flowers are gone, you will harvest a rich dark batch of honey that is slow to crystallize. Oh, and it’s delicious.

Other potential benefactors would be producers of watermelon, zucchini, cucumber and a variety of herbs and fruits.

What if you don’t have any land of your own?

No problem. Many beekeepers set up apiaries on land that doesn’t belong to therm, with the consent of the owner’s of course.

Farmers who are reluctant to have hive on site are usually concerned about the safety of their people. Take the time to explain bee behavior to them. Explain that there are precautions that can be taken during the set up to reduce the risk of bee-human conflict. More importantly, highlight the benefits to the farmer.

It works both small scale and large scale

small scale vs large scale beekeeping

Once your first three colonies have had time to settle in, they really start to fill up those shallow supers. You’ll probably average about 7 kilos per super per harvest. In Kenya, most beekeepers harvest honey twice a year. When the rains are generous, you could harvest even 4 times a year, depending on the available nectar.

If we take an example of an average year with 2 harvests, you can expect about 40 kilos of honey that year. Your sales for that year would be 20,000, assuming you sell each kilo at 500 shillings. Expenses will vary from one beekeeper to another. If you have to travel far to get to the hives, your expenses will be more than someone who has them close to their residence. If you carry out the inspections yourself, you don’t have to hire someone to do it, increasing your profit margin.

Once you’ve deducted your expenses, you can choose to reinvest what’s left over. You can increase your hives or buy additional supers. As you grow your business, the expenses are bound to increase, but only marginally. More hives, more honey, and with economies of scale, more profits.

Should you decide to add value to your honey by bottling and labeling it, you charge more for your product.

Yes, you can make money as a beekeeper

With time, patience, hard work and a lot of research, bees can be very valuable and productive assets. Not only are they necessary for our survival, they are very low maintenance.

The key thing to remember is that there are no shortcuts. You will have good days and bad days, just like you would with any investment. There will be a lot of learning to do and the beginning will be rocky.

The payoff, however, will be very sweet.

Do you have any questions or comments? We’d love to hear from you. You can reach us via our website or call us on +(254)737 090 377 or (254) 712 611 207.

About the author:

Judy Nganga is a freelance content writer and a budding bee enthusiast. When she’s not inspecting her hives, she’s probably on her laptop looking up synonyms for the word ‘important’.

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