American Beekeeping Journal - April, 2008

Question: Bee Race or Rat Race?

Jerry, thanks for providing your monthly service to the beekeeping community; I really enjoyed reading your columns and learn a great deal from the articulate explanations that you provide. I graduated from college awhile back and began working in the corporate world. However, I grew up in a commercial beekeeping family and spent most of my childhood in the beekeeping world.

To make a long story short, I've concluded that I'm not cut out for the cubicle life. I miss the bees, the sunshine, the hard work, and everything else that comes with bees. I've been spending much time lately pondering whether there is a future in commercial beekeeping. You are likely more aware than anyone else how much the game has changed in the past 20 years, with the rise of Varroa, AHB, CCD, and small hive beetle just to name a few. Things are becoming more challenging every day and energy prices will continue to climb, according to all the data I've seen. However, I also see unique new opportunities in the beekeeping industry that didn't previously exist.

My question for you is this: What is your candid outlook for the commercial beekeeping industry the the upcoming years? There are significant new opportunities emerging, especially in pollination, but it seems like every year brings a new form of disease or parasite that threatens the industry. I'm sometimes skeptical that a commercial operation can be viable as they once were. How would you approach this is you were in my position? Thanks a lot Jerry.

- Eric


Eric, I have sat on this for a couple of days just to think about this excellent question. So, here goes and hopefully I won't be too rambling.

This is what I think I know. Unless a meteor hits us or atomic weapons are rained down on us and we have a nuclear winter that will destroy all flowering plants, I think there will always be honey bees. Global warming doesn't count in this doomsday scenario, as it will be a non-event for honey bees generally. Honey bees have seen global warming and ice ages before and survived.

I also think that there will always be part-time or hobby beekeepers because it is just a very interesting hobby or sideline avocation. There will always be a local market for locally produced honey and small truck-farm size pollination opportunities. I think this group can control honey bee pests, parasites and diseases better than full time or commercial beekeepers.

Commercial beekeeping is not beekeeping just like production agriculture is not back yard gardening. Both push production very, very hard. The large tractors, combines and other machinery sold to farmers are tools to push production. In commercial beekeeping the main tool is the honey bee. Honey bees are pushed to enhance production by putting them in boxes designed for the beekeeper, not the bees. They are fed nutritionally incomplete artificial diets. They are exposed to toxic chemicals applied by beekeepers to "control" pests, parasites and diseases that build up in the chemical sponge called beeswax. They are environmental samplers and chemical mops that go outside the colony and bring back all sorts of bad things to expose the colony to. We load them on a semi and expose them to all sorts of stuff on the interstate highway, taking them to new climates and holding yards, which are cauldrons of pest, parasite and disease sharing. Then, we are surprised that they die more often than we would like. And yet, many colonies still survive and the commercial beekeeper can still make a profit. Honey bees are simply amazing. Theoretically, they should all be dead.

The USDA projects that in 5 years or so that perhaps 40% of our veggies will be coming from China and that in 50 years the US could be a net food importer. Not a plan, but it is what it is if no one cares from where his/her food comes. However, there will always be niche agriculture in the US that needs pollination and there will always be some honey production. I think the key to making money from honey is to do a much better job of marketing and merchandising the product. Putting it in a barrel as a low cost commodity is a losing idea for the future. Will the industry look different in the not to distant future? I think so. Are there always those who can turn lemons into lemonade? There sure are. Will we get honey bee pests, predators, and disease under some reasonable management method? Yes, I believe so.

So, Eric, are you a young intelligent, entrepreneurial and hardworking individual or someone who would rather just be a beekeeper because you can take the winters off? Will you put honey in a barrel and sell it to a packer for less than your cost of production? Does loading colonies at 2 a.m. on a truck for apple pollination sound way too hard? Maybe the cubicle life is easier and this is all too risky. Take a close look at Eric and what he wants and needs, as you know him best. I think it can be done, but it takes a smart, hard worker to pull it off.