Small-scale beekeepers are part of a thriving community that so heavily relies on cooperation and mentorship. Hobbyists and sideliners go out of their way to teach others, support local clubs and help newbies get off the ground. Yet as operations scale into the hundreds, thousands and tens of thousands of hives, a different community appears to emerge. A community that doesn’t always feel so cooperative.
There are plenty of good reasons for why large-scale beekeepers hold their cards close to their chests. For one, these beekeepers aren’t doing it for fun; commercial beekeepers need to be competitive because, like any business, their livelihood is at stake. Taking an aspiring commercial beekeeper under your wing to show them the ropes could create a monster that eventually eats into your business.
Other factors have to do with the nature of the job. Beekeepers don’t spend their time in an office making calls, connecting and networking with clients and vendors. Beekeepers—even the big guys—are out working the bees every day. They need all hands on deck, otherwise the work won’t get done. It’s difficult to set aside a couple hours to show a new guy how to move through hundreds of hives in a day.
Beekeepers are isolated. Major operations are often located in the middle of nowhere. Even if one can arrange to spend a few days shadowing with a commercial beekeeper, driving up to Musselshell, Montana can be a major pain.
Beekeepers spend far more time with bees than with people. This point may sound obvious, but it’s easy for isolated beekeepers to develop a bit of tunnel vision. Working bees is a practice in observation. Spending months on end observing nothing but your bees can cause one to forget that there are others out in the trenches going through the same struggles.
How can we contribute?
Here’s my point: the commercial beekeeping community is too shut-off. We need more large-scale beekeepers to embrace the small beekeepers’ model of cooperation and mentorship if we expect the next generation to carry this industry into the future.
Here are a few simple things we can all do to pitch in:
Before I sign off, I should point out that there are many exceptions. Off the top of my head, I can spout off more than 20 big-time beekeepers whose contributions to the community far outweigh what they ask in return. Expect a follow-up post from me spotlighting some of the truly altruistic beekeepers who are devoted to building our community.
Imagine this: it’s a beautiful Thursday afternoon. You’re sitting on the porch, enjoying a cool breeze, rocking back and forth in a hand-crafted red cherry rocking chair. Suddenly, your serenity dissipates as your phone *dings* with a notification: “You’re running low on eggs in your fridge, would you like me to order another dozen?” This is the world we live in today.
The basics of IoT
The concept of the Internet of Things has been floating around since as early as 1982. Carnegie Mellon University pioneered a modified Coke machine, capable of reporting its inventory and the temperature of its drinks. At the time, this was thought of as groundbreaking technology, but now it’s everywhere. Your smart refrigerator tells you when to pick up groceries, your Fitbit alerts you when your heartrate reaches dangerous levels, and your driver assist warns you when there’s a car in your blind spot. All these items are part of a concept known as the Internet of Things (IoT for short).
At a basic level, IoT is a network that delivers information to decision-makers as soon as an event occurs. This information may be used to inform us when an issue exists (like when a traffic light is broken), collect data to help us understand processes (like how much of a certain input you’ve used), connect humans, monitor areas, you name it. Currently, there are over 8 billion connected devices on the planet, and this number is continuing to rise.
IoT or IoBee?
IoT is a major buzz word these days, and the limitless applications can be exciting, but likewise, such fast-paced advancement in technology can be overwhelming. You may have heard about how Amazon is working on IoT wristbands to track employees. Is this a scary “Big Brother” tactic designed to punish slackers, or a wise business strategy aimed at maximizing efficiency?
Despite the apparent privacy risks, IoT creates possibilities that can help to make our lives easier and make businesses more efficient. Industries that deal with gigantic stocks of inventory use IoT to find where things are stored, how much is there and how long it’s been in storage. Agriculture producers use IoT to monitor things like irrigation pumps and soil nutrients. This raises the question: how can beekeepers benefit from adopting IoT?
Think about what information helps you manage your bees. Wouldn’t it be useful to know when a nectar flow or a dearth has just started? How about if you got a notification when a honey-bound colony is about to swarm? What if you could track what kind of honey was being produced based on the nectar sources the bees were visiting? There are countless IoT applications that could help beekeepers better manage their hives.
Beekeepers today face many problems whose solutions may be just around the corner, in the form of IoT. In years past, issues like short battery life and shoddy communication networks (like 4G LTE and Bluetooth) made IoT applications too costly and unreliable for certain industries, but those issues are rapidly being solved.
We’re at a point where some of our crazy ideas—like, “what if my queens could tell me how many eggs they’re laying each day”—might actually be possible. This is an exciting time to start thinking about how we could use IoT to solve some of the problems beekeepers face on a daily basis.
Almond pollination is big business for beekeepers these days, especially with the high global demand for almonds and lower supply of bees making the market value for each pollinating colony quite high. But besides almonds, there are a lot of other crops in the USA that require our honeybee friends to spread their pollen around.
Bees love a fruit medley
One of the crops for which bee pollination is essential is the melon….watermelon, cantaloupe, as well as other varieties. California, Arizona, Texas, Georgia, and Indiana are the leading US producers of cantaloupe. In fact, California produces about 75% of all cantaloupes in the nation.
Watermelons are grown in approximately 44 states in the US, with Georgia, Florida, Texas, California, and Arizona being the largest producers. Seedless varieties have sterile pollen, requiring growers to plant rows of different varieties of the melon with viable pollen. With reduced viable pollen, it’s recommended to have 3 times the amount of bees than that required for the seeded varieties: 3 hives vs. 1 hive per acre.
According to the 2017 USDA Cost of Pollination Report, the top crops needing hives for pollination (besides those required for the “big guy”, the almond) are apples, blueberries, & cherries. Watermelon, cranberries, & cantaloupe follow close behind:
The price per colony to pollinate the almonds is hovering around $170 per hive, which is over 2 times the average price you’ll get sending your bees out to other crops. But, it may be worth your time to get your bees out to the cranberry, blueberry, & pumpkin blooms, as well as others. Cranberries offer the biggest pay day, at close to $77 per colony.
Most of these crops offer an average of $50-$70 a hive:
Your operation may benefit from branching out in its cross-country pollination effort, taking your healthy bees to other crops...especially all that fruit! Fruit salad, please, honeybees!
Let’s talk about the elephant in the room: today’s beekeeping industry might as well be called the pollination service industry. With very few exceptions, beekeeping operations need pollination revenue to survive these days. Fortunately, there’s plenty of money to be made in pollination.
Yet it seems like nobody’s happy with the current model. Beekeepers are worried about introducing new stressors like fungicides and travel fatigue to their bees. Growers think they’re not always getting what they pay for. Who’s in the right?
What does it take to deliver pollination?
In short, delivering pollination is like orchestrating a symphony: it takes a lot of skill and experience to synchronize different moving pieces and create a harmony. Here are just a few of the many stresses beekeepers must endure to deliver pollination to growers:
What do growers want?
From our conversations with almond growers, their interests tend to be fairly consistent. Growers want reliability, consistency. Growers stick a seed in the ground, give it food, water and sunlight, then a crop is produced (I know this is a major oversimplification, but bear with me). Pretty straight-forward, right? There are clearly identified jobs to be done and growers know how to direct their workers to complete those jobs.
Bees are a different story. Bees are not a simple input. Growers can watch the bees fly, but they can’t supervise them or direct them. If a worker fails to do a job like apply fertilizer, it’s not hard to find out what went wrong, who to blame and how to fix the issue. If weak bees do a poor job pollinating a section of the orchard, the grower won’t find out in time, the person to blame has already been paid, and there is no fixing the issue until next season. As far as farm inputs go, pollination is something growers feel they have almost no control over.
Candor increases contract value
Bottom line is growers want to know they’re getting what they pay for. Growers can see through the tired claim beekeepers recycle year after year: “bees are dying, I need $5 more per hive”. Growers are not all that different from beekeepers: they want control of their livelihood, they don’t like surprises, they like to see proof.
Beekeepers should take notes from operations like Apis Hive from Colorado, who take an open-book approach by posting their pollination costs and prices online. Full transparency, no gimmicks, no surprises. These guys get it.
What’s a fair price for a pollination deal? It’s whatever value beekeepers can prove they’ve delivered. Beekeepers take on a lot of costs and risks to provide pollination, but at the end of the day, pollination is a service and the clients don’t always feel well-served. It’s the service provider's responsibility to show they’re delivering excellent service.
A local Denver community marketplace near me recently hosted an introductory beekeeping class given by Colin Mann from Vine Street Farms, which provides mentoring and beekeeping consulting service in my area.
As I had been toying with the idea of becoming a backyard beekeeper, my family & I decided to make a night of it, and went to enjoy some pizza, beverage, and bees. I loved the idea of helping to provide for the needs of our honeybee neighbors and helping their population grow and thrive. And of course, having our own local honey to harvest and share with friends would be just a bonus.
It's a juggling act
I had done my research, and much of what was discussed, I felt I had a good handle on. After all, I’d read The Beekeeper’s Bible. What I hadn’t counted on was how much work was involved in keeping bees. Work AND kids AND dogs AND house AND bees...having one more job to do just wasn’t in the books for our family.
Which got me thinking...I was just worried about the work 1-2 hives would take. How much time and labor is involved in taking care of 100 hives… or 1000 or more?
What to consider
Well, according to Jamie Ellis’s article in the American Bee Journal, the answer depends on several factors: what beekeeping goals you have, what your available resources are, your local climate, how many folks are helping manage the hives, AND, most importantly, how many colonies you have.
So many jobs to do: colony size needs to be managed, hive splits need to be made, and more supers need to be added. Pests & diseases must be prevented or treated. Is the queen in good shape? Do the bees need to be fed? Have they made enough honey to last the winter?
It takes as much as 2700-3900 hours of work a year to manage 1000 hives.
Most commercial beekeeping operations’ main source of revenue nowadays is in the pollination business. With this comes an even greater amount of labor, as well as drive time (which I sure as heck would consider labor!).
So, hat’s off to the American beekeeper! They are some hardworking folks, doing their part in keeping a large part of the nation’s pollinators thriving, and trying to earn a living while doing so.