I'm 52 and have kept bees of-and-on my whole life. Missed the terrible years from 85 till now since I was in the city. Daughter graduates from HS next month and my wife and I are getting ready to go back home to the Okanogan Highlands (north central Washington). We live 3200ft up on a 4200ft mountain. The situation is ideal for producing organic honey since there is no non-organic agriculture or spraying in a 5 mile radius. We have good early season pollen sources from the wet draws and some surface water (although if the drought keeps up that may go away.) We have a good persistent nectar flow from wildflowers and weeds (the wildflowers people don't like.) In the fall we get access to hundreds of acres of fireweed.
That's the situation. Here's the question.
My wife and I need to make an income. We figure that as long as we can net $20k or more a year we will be fine until retirement and SS (if either of them still exists in 15 years) kick in. I've been exposed to the concepts and ideas behind biodynamic beekeeping and based on the revelations and understanding I've developed about our relationship with bees TBH equipment is the only way I can go, at least for the brood chamber. I think the area can handle up to 200 hives broken into 8 apiaries.
Are am I being realistic in thinking that with the increasing interest in organically produced honey (selling at the local farmer markets for between $5 and $7 per pound), uncontaminated beeswax for medicinal and foundation purposes, as well as orgainic propolis that we can meet our financial needs? We will also be growing organic garlic, seed potatos and perenial medicinal herbs. Probably using less than an acre for production.
I know there's lots of variables. Question is, am I completely unrealistic or is this a reasonable approach and attainable goal based on your experience with TBHs?
Thanks to you all for your input.
I think the main issue is how to develop markets for all those things. I think the demand is there somewhere, but how do you tap into it?
I think clean wax is already worth something and will probably increase in value as the world supply is contaminated and the queens keep dying younger. But who buys it? At what price? So far only other beekeepers trying to get off the chemicals are buying it, that I know of.
If you can develop direct markets to consumers for pollen and honey and comb honey that could be a large amount of your sales, but still it's difficult to sell 20K worth of income direct to consumers. That is a lot of customers.
Most people making a living in bees are migratory and selling pollination as well as honey. TBH are not a good migratory hive.
I think another market is going to be small cell, clean, bees. I know there are a lot of people wanting them and not much supply but that is a difficult thing to do in the North. Everyone wants their bees the 1st of April and you won't have enough to sell until the middle of May.
Just some thoughts.
Your points are very well taken. I'm fortunate in having several good friends who have positions with the Seattle Farmers' Markets and the Seattle food co-ops and the Okanogan co-op. They're very encouraging and feel that I probably won't be able to produce enough honey to meet their demand.
What I need to know is, based on the experience you folks have had with TBHs is it reasonable to anticipate that I can produce 5,000 up to 10,000 lbs of honey from 200 TBHs. If I can do that, I can realistically meet the financial goals we have set for the next phase of our lives. I grew up on a farm so no one needs to caution me about the hardships and uncertainties of an agricultural lifestyle. In spite of that, the happiest years of my life have been spent doing those sorts of things. My wife can always do her nursing thing if we bottom out but I'd like to let her retire and enjoy being at home. Whatcha think? Is it reasonable to estimate that kind of production given a good flow, no competition from other beekeepers and reasonable weather?
Well I am working on growing my apiaries to commercial level with TBHs. I think its possible, but there are some pitfalls. TBHs by their design take longer to manage during a single session. YOu can't work through a hive in less than 15 minutes if you are serious about it, and longer if you are paying attention to your bees and hive. The 15 minutes is how long it takes to disassemble and reassemble the hive with care. It takes me 30 minutes to go through my hives if I am paying attention. Consider this when you are figuring how much time you will need to spend on each hive. You need to be interactive with newer hives than you do with older hives, because the newer hives are still developing the brood nest and if you don't pay attention to what is going on, you can find yourself with a serious management nightmare.
I figure that with TBHs, it will only be possible to work a maximum of 100 hives if you plan on visiting them at least once a week. If you plan on visiting them less often you can figure in more hives, but remember new hives need more interaction and management than mature hives. Again because you don't want the bees building the nest the "wrong" way from a managemnet point of view.
It will be interesting to talk with you since we both have plans on commercial TBHing.
Scot Mc Pherson
Foundationless Small Cell Top Bar Hives
Rip: There are at least two beekeepers in the US making a living with top bar hives. One is a fellow named Crowder, I believe, out in N. Mexico and I heard of another tonite who is supposedly somewhere up East.
Do some internet crawling and contact one of those guys before you get all wrapped up with us beginners and our opinions.
Remember that top bar hives are tender the first year or two until the combs have a solid infill of brood coccoons. Somewhere in this forum not long ago someone talked of doing pollination work with established TBH's. If you did this with new comb all your hives would turn to mush.
The hive design is important too; too much depth and the comb fails more easily. Talk to the fellows making a living at it.
You may want to contact Wyatt Mangum in Northern Virginia, I have his contact info somewhere, but can't find it right now. He is a sideline beekeeper/academic doing pollination and selling shaken bees for packages. He runs 200 hives for migratory pollination services and another 100 or so for research. All his hives are top bar hives.
I can get you Les Crowder's number, if you like. He's got around 100 top-bar hives and makes a living at it, though not an extravagant living. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I'll get his number for you. I think he'd be happy to talk to you about it.
> is it reasonable to anticipate that I can produce 5,000 up to 10,000 lbs of honey from 200 TBHs.
Yes it is. More or less depending on the weather but I think 10,000 lbs from 200 TBHs is a reasonable number in a typical year. But then I haven't raised bees in your climate.
>TBHs by their design take longer to manage during a single session. YOu can't work through a hive in less than 15 minutes if you are serious about it, and longer if you are paying attention to your bees and hive. The 15 minutes is how long it takes to disassemble and reassemble the hive with care. It takes me 30 minutes to go through my hives if I am paying attention.
I think TBH's take less work and no more time than a booming Lanstroth hive with 5 or six full supers and two or three full deeps for brood to go through. I don't see anyway that I can't do it faster on a TBH. I don't have to move all of those boxes. But then I haven't had to work it when it was full yet either.
DMCDONALD AND LIMULUS: You done good.
This is just so fine, here I am getting the benefit of knowledge and experience from beekeepers in OK, NE, ND, MD, NM and FL. Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore.
With this sort of communication possible, who knows we may be able to undo some of the damage we've unwittingly done to the bees.
I want to thank you all for taking the time to respond. As they say, no good deed goes unpunished, so you may rest assured that I will be asking for more advice. I'll be picking your brains so that I don't do any unnecessary reinventing of the wheel. Hopefully in a few years I will be able to repay your kindness by having some worthwhile observations and experiences to share with all of you.
[This message has been edited by Rip Van Winkle (edited May 21, 2004).]
I'm keeping bees in coastal california. I've only been doing it for seven years and mostly as a hobby. We have always used organic methods and a have definately lost hives to mites over the years but never all of our hives. Gunter Hauk, a biodynamic bee-keeper got me interested in top bar hives and also foundationless lang hives. We currently have 20 hives (3 tbh's). We constructed the tbh's from the plans on this website this year. We don't try to make a living at it - just supplement our income, but in our area there is a huge demand for our honey and we get top dollar. The thing I really like about thb's they are inexpensive to make. In two leasurely weekends, we constructed 3 complete hives with curved copper roofs out of salvaged wood that cost us nothing. I can see that if you construct the hives assembly line style, one could make them much more efficiently. I would say - grow your business - build your tbh's a few at a time so you can refine them and learn from them - that is what we plan to do. 200 hives is impressive!