Honey advice for farmers

Honeybees gather pollen from a variety of sources, including the apple blossom.
Honeybee on Cone Flower

St. Chrysostom said, “The bee is more honored than any other animals, not because she labors, but because she labors for others.” Dennis vanEngelsdorp, lead Pennsylvania apiarist for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture (PDA, www.agriculture.state.pa.us) agrees.

Taking it one step further, vanEngelsdorp praises beekeepers as essential to agriculture too. VanEngelsdorp said last year in his talk, A Plea for Bees, (www.ted.com/talks/dennis_vanengelsdorp_a_plea_for_bees.html) that beekeepers are integral for pollination, honey production and bee research to continue in the agricultural sector of food production. VanEngelsdorp specializes in the study of colony collapse disorder (CCD). He gives an example of beekeepers’ value when he states, “Beekeepers are very good at replacing dead outs (bees that have died during the winter),” which in turn, keeps hives healthy and productive.

Furthermore, farmers with an entrepreneurial spirit can operate a successful honey production business to pollinate their own crops and orchards, as well as make money by selling honey at roadside stands, through farmers’ markets, CSAs or consigning their honey products with their locally owned grocery stores.

Beekeepers and their hives

Beekeeper Becky Jones of Farmington, Conn., talks about the honey that she and her husband, Ted, procure each year from their hives. Jones says, “Each hive is different; some will produce as much as 120 or more [pounds of honey], others next to nothing. It all depends on the honey flow and the weather. We always plan for the biggest crop ever.”

“We keep approximately 500 [bees] for honey production and 30 for queen rearing,” says Dan Conlon, who owns Warm Colors Apiary (www.warmcolorsapiary.com) in South Deerfield, Mass. He’s been a full-time beekeeper for the past 10 years but was a hobbyist beekeeper for 45 years before he went into business.

“The totals [of bees] change annually, as we do not try to winter poor producers or weak colonies. We use a variety of races: Italian, Carniolans, Russian, [all of them belong to Apis mellifera]. Much of our stock is the result of free-mated queens and represents a mix of all the races we have introduced over the past 10 years. In fact, our best races tend to be the mixed races.”

Conlon has his bees pollinating local farmers’ fields and orchards in March, with honey production starting in the summer. Bees, like people, can be picky eaters. Conlon explains, “Honey production is June and August with some varietals during the summer. Colony preparation starts in early March with feeding to build up brood that will be the proper age for foraging. We will remove pollen from the hives before placing in orchards to increase foraging for pollen. Timing is also important, as some crops are less desirable to honeybees than others. Pears, for example, do better when bees are brought in after bloom is well under way. Apples should have bees early for the first bloom. Hives per acre vary with desirability of blossoms.”

Jones explains the honey-making process of her New World Carniolan honeybees, “For honey production, the bees are set up to encourage brood-rearing. Therefore, [they] need lots of nectar and pollen to feed the brood; then, extra ‘honey supers’ placed on top kicks in the hoarding instinct.”

Honeybee on dandelion

What comes in a honeycomb?

There are four types of honey that can be sold to the consumer: section comb, cut-comb, chunk, finely crystallized/creamed and liquid honey. The most common honey product sold is liquid honey. Each type of honey requires special equipment to extract it from the hives.

Penn State University’s Agriculture Science Department published an electronic book called Beekeeping Basics by Maryann Frazier, Dewey Caron, et al. It can be downloaded at http://pubs.cas.psu.edu/FreePubs/pdfs/agrs93.pdf. The book goes into detail in all the aspects associated with beekeeping. For those farmers interested in a honey production business, the chapter called Honey Production and Processing gives information on honey production including honey extraction, materials needed for extraction and ideas on how to market your honey products to consumers.

Jones explains her process of procuring honey from her hives. She says, “Once the honey cells are capped over, the smaller honey supers [the section of hive where honey is extracted] are removed from the hive. Some beekeepers use a blower to remove the bees from the honey supers; some use a ‘fume’ board with a product like BeeGo [a chemical that is applied to a fume pad and placed on top of the hive].”

The Joneses time their extraction to benefit the bees’ survival over critical honey production cycles. Jones says, “We take the extra honey in the later summer and fall. Some beekeepers will take some in the late springtime, but then they run the risk of having to feed their bees if we have a drought in midsummer. We use a blower. It dislodges the bees, but [it] does not hurt them.”

Jones explains how she and her husband separate the honey from the hive. She says, “The wax cappings are removed [or] cut [from] the cells, and the frames are put into an extractor where the centrifugal force spins the honey out.”

If beekeepers want their brood to survive over the winter, they always make sure to leave enough honey for the bees to feed off of during the cold winter months. Jones says, “We leave about 80 to 100 pounds of honey for the bees.”

Beekeeper procuring honey from hives.

A beekeeper’s continuing education

VanEngelsdorp states in his 16-minute video that beekeepers help each other in their business. Conlon of Warm Colors Apiary concurs with that statement. He says that he learned the honeybee business through “other beekeepers, associations, workshops, [and by] trial and error.

“Business practices are the same as any [other] small business. Keeping bees is a specialty and difficult to enter [into] without connections to other beekeepers. Ongoing education is a must to keep up with the many threats to honeybees. Developing best management practices and being willing to change as new research and skills evolve eventually lead to successful outcomes.”

Conlon and Jones agree that continuing beekeeping education is a must. Jones says, “Learning beekeeping is an ongoing process as the industry changes all the time. For the most part, we took classes; attended state, regional, and national beekeeping conferences to continue our studies; talked to more experienced beekeepers; made sure we had a mentor at the beginning [of our business]; read the industry journals; and learned by doing.”

Jones advises other beginning beekeepers to keep an open mind to attaining more knowledge in the beekeeping industry. She says that she mastered pollination and the honey production process the “same way as [I learned] beekeeping. Also, [I learned by] reading research being done on pollination and honey production.”

Conlon admits that he’s still learning the business after 50 years of working with honeybees. Yet, he shares how he gained experience about pollination and honey production. “Most farmers know their business and have clear expectations of their pollination needs. Also [I] refer to several good books for checking requirements [for] specific crops. Most of the farms we work with have a similar annual pattern that we can refine each year. Placement [and] crop saturation can improve when you work with the same growers and become part of the evaluation of the bees’ work.”

Benefits and challenges of beekeeping

When asked about his biggest challenge in the apiary business—especially in the areas of pollination and honey production, Conlon answered, “Getting consistent results. Weather can keep bees in the hive during critical pollination periods, and strength of colonies coming out of winter can vary by months each year.

“Having predictable honey crops is also a problem when establishing customers. We have good markets in Massachusetts, but we can have good and bad honey seasons. The demand for local honey has never been better (and prices too), but it is difficult to predict the weather or find excellent locations that provide consistent honey crops.”

The Joneses’ biggest challenges come in energy costs, such as the rising costs of fuel and electricity. Jones says, “Energy costs … are spiraling out of control and [the demands of] keeping the bees alive with all the disease challenges we face. [There is] a serious lack of research being done to help beekeepers control the diseases. What research that is being done is good; there just isn’t enough being done. Very little—if any—government help with the funding of research [is out there for beekeepers].”

However, Jones adds, “Beekeeping is extremely rewarding. The chance to meet others in the industry at the variety of meetings we attend [as well as] the farmers that we deal with. The opportunity to see other parts of the country and the world through conferences and knowing that our honeybees are helping supply the country with food [are rewards for us].”

If you’re a farmer interested in starting a side business of beekeeping, go to www.beeculture.com/content/whoswho to find other beekeepers in your area. As Conlon and Jones have testified, the support and opportunities to start in this business come from fellow bee folks in the field.

Wendy Komancheck freelances from Pennsylvania. She writes about small business, agriculture and tea.