The expense of beekeeping.

I never got into bees to make money. I don’t even think the professionals get into bees to make money. Yes, you pay a lot for great local honey at your farmer’s market, but beekeeping is more expensive than most folks realize. Ever since I put my honey on the (underground) market, friends have made a lot of comments about how much money I must be making. So let’s review some of the expenses.

To get started, you need $300 minimum, for a suit, equipment, and your first hive. Your first hive will just be a single brood box, with frames, and a top and bottom board. Bees are extra. $60 if you can pick them up yourself at a bee farm like Koehnen in Chico (plus your travel costs), or up to $125 if you buy them (with frames included) from a local beekeeper. Your new bees will outgrow that single box within a couple months. Another brood box will run you about $100, with frames. There are ways to make this cheaper by buying the box and frames in pieces and assembling them yourself, or starting from scratch and building your own, but it is merely a substitution of your very valuable time for money. An uneasy tradeoff for anyone with a full-time job and a farmlet.

An example of a single hive just starting up, and an established hive with two brood boxes and a super:
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Later in your first year you’ll probably find that you need some added equipment, and you’ll be lucky if you have a local beekeeping supply shop, so every time you order from Dadant shipping is at least $15. You’ll have to replace old brood comb occasionally, so you’ll need to buy new foundation, plus the special wire and tools to mount it on the frames. And you’ll need chemicals to treat for Varroa Mites, possibly antibiotics to treat for Nosema, Bt to keep your stored frames free from wax moth, and maybe pollen if your bees are having a bad winter. I never get out of Dadant’s website without spending at least $50. Speaking of a bad winter, you’ll probably have to feed your bees during their first winter, and maybe subsequent winters if you’re in an area experiencing a drought. You’d better get a Costco card for all that sugar. In the hardest months of winter I was buying 30 pounds of sugar every two weeks.

Here’s what a frame from the brood box looks like:
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When your bees are healthy and productive, and your local flora is finally producing nectar for them to turn into honey, you have to buy smaller boxes to go on top of the brood boxes, so your bees can store all that honey for you. These are called supers, and usually set you back about $60-$90 depending on whether you need frames with foundation. You need at least two of these per hive, and most beekeepers recommend more. If you do crush-and-strain to harvest your honey you’ll have to buy foundation by the case to keep refilling the frames. Those are about $1 per sheet and you need 10 to fill a super. My bees can fill up a 10-frame super in about 2 weeks. I have 6 supers. You can see how this is starting to add up. If you contract out with an extraction service so that you don’t have to keep replacing that foundation, you’ll be paying a service charge, plus 50cents per pound. And if you want to get your own extractor, be prepared to pay at least $800 for the barebones version. If you’re lucky enough to have $1200 laying around, that’s the one that will actually work.

Crush-and-strain is labor-intensive and expensive:
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Honey and wax returned from the extraction service in buckets, ready to be bottled:
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Now you need to bottle your honey. Mason jars are expensive these days, at a little over $1 per jar. Wholesale will save you some money, but there are big minimums. My orders have to be $75 at a time, and my jars with lids end up costing me anywhere between 50cents and $1 depending on their size. Bottling takes tons of time, sometimes costing me 5 hours to bottle a few gallons, especially when I do crush-and-strain. And time to me is more valuable than money. It is the most precious commodity I have.

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My honey sales right now are going towards recouping some of these costs. I don’t anticipate the demand to stay as strong once the novelty wears off and friends find it easier to just grab some honey while they’re at Trader Joe’s than to email me to arrange a pick-up or drop-off. So as I slowly sell honey in the future, the goal is to save up for an extractor. I’m not getting rich by any means. And neither is your local professional beekeeper, who has the added expense of managing a legitimate business. It’s one reason why beekeepers have been driven to provide pollination services, even though it compromises the health of their bees. But that’s another story.

So, my friends, I’m not trying to make money off of you. Right now I’m just trying to break even. Your local beekeeper is trying to do the same, and he’s also probably trying to keep his business running and support his family. Please support your local beekeeper, whether that’s me, or someone at your local farmer’s market. We promise not to sell you high-fructose corn syrup from China.

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