Among folks not familiar with the industry, a common assumption is that honey is the main revenue source for a beekeeper. And that makes sense—they're called honey bees for a reason, right? Most folks know that honey bees are "pollinators," but few understand the extent of how much value they create through pollination.
In fact, commercial beekeepers generate most of their revenue from renting their hives to growers for pollination. On the recent Bloomberg Business of Bees podcast, reporters talked to beekeepers about how their services have shifted over the years. Around this time in the season, beekeepers must decide between making more hives, so you can collect more rental fees, or stronger hives, so you can collect as much honey revenue as possible.
Pollination/honey revenue calculator
This made me wonder, what’s the math on this tradeoff? How does honey and pollination revenue compare? I built this calculator to help beekeepers estimate their income potential:
A few notes
Of course, every beekeeper has unique factors to consider, so this may not capture your exact situation. I had to make some basic assumptions to make this work and there are countless variables I couldn't include. Fore example, geographic location of your sites will affect trucking costs and honey yield (see our trucking cost analysis), pollination rental fees, sale prices for honey, and how many splits you can do on each hive.
Math and assumptions I used:
Other things to note:
This calculator is just a start of a project I'd like to keep building. I think there aren't enough online resources for beekeepers and I'd like to change that. Many beekeepers operate in isolated regions and they tend to stick with what's worked in the past. My hope is to show beekeepers that better opportunities might exist if they're willing to switch things up.
Here at The Bee Corp, we try to see eye-to-eye with everyone we work with. More often than not, that's easier said than done. Especially when it comes to our bees.
Seeing what's not there
Human eyes transform 2D images into a 3D images much like the way an artist would paint a scene. When you look at Leonardo da Vinci’s infamous Mona Lisa, you can tell Mona is up close relative to the background. But the painting is in 2 dimensions on a single piece of flat canvas, how can that be? As it turns out, our brain infers depth and distance by literally tricking itself into seeing depth, which is why optical illusions work so well.
However, what’s more interesting is that bees are capable of being tricked by the very same things we can get tricked by. Recently, scientists found that a bee’s vision functions much like a human’s, and they are able to infer depth based on their brains tricking them as well. However, our fuzzy little friends have one small advantage over humans: their vision works in the ultraviolet spectrum.
Show me the honey
What does it mean to view ultraviolet light? This image gives an idea of how bees see a yellow flower.
A. Shows how humans see a yellow flower
B. Same flower through UV light
C. Captured through an array of straws to simulate insect compound vision
D. Shows a merge of the pictures processed on the computer and gives an idea of how a bee might see a flower.
Putting an ultraviolet light to a flower reveals certain parts that you normally wouldn’t see. For example, certain flowers are white in visible light, but become dark under ultraviolet. This same mechanism helps attract bees to certain flowers, by having a blue/Ultra-violet halo around the center of the flower, usually where the pistil and stamen are located for pollination. These concepts allow bees to maximize honey production by prioritizing which flowers to visit.
Seeing the future?
For humans to gain a better understanding of issues facing bees, perhaps we should view their issues in a different light. Research into flowers under ultraviolet light taught us many things, like which flowers to plant in pollinator gardens to attract bees.
But what about the other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum? Learning more about bees through other light wavelengths like infrared light, X-ray and radio waves could yield valuable findings about how these complex creatures interact with the world around them.
Disclaimer: No bees were hacked in the making of this event.
The Bee Corp recently teamed up with Indiana University's School of Public and Environmental Affairs (SPEA) and their Data Science course to host our first-ever Bee Data Hackathon. If you've never heard the term before, a hackathon is an event where the sponsor provides participants with a problem and the resources to solve it.
The challenge: How can beekeepers maximize honey revenue?
The resources: A giant, messy file of bee data including historical honey prices, average honey yields in different regions, costs associated with transporting bees, and much more information (some useful, some intentionally misleading).
Students were given just a few days to clean and analyze data to recommend the best locations to maximize honey revenue throughout the year. Students were scored based on how well they followed instructions, the logic behind their math, how well they cleaned the data, and how the data was displayed in a data visualization. Undergraduate and graduate students were split up to compete for jars of our honey and a feature on this blog.
The students were given raw, uncleaned data with additional errors added by The Bee Corp Data Science team. The first step was to clean the data.
Hive weight was used as a way to track honey flows, working off the assumption that a hive that weighs more is going to be filled with more honey. When moving bees to a new location, students were given labor costs of loading bees and the transportation cost per mile to determine if the move was worth it for the revenue gained from honey collection. Different premiums for different types of honey were not considered for this hack.
Surprisingly, each team had different recommendations on where to move bees based on what they found in the data! Some teams recommended certain months that were best to move bees, while others split the data into quarters. Both a graduate student and undergraduate student team were awarded with honey for having the best hacks, and our company selected the undergraduate team as the overall winner for the blog.
The team, consisting of Yin Zhan, Wanyu Wang, and Hongda Wang recommended starting the hives in Washington for the first quarter of the year, moving to Alabama for the second quarter, Texas for the third, and then moving back to Washington for the fourth quarter of the year.
Their math was highly detailed, which won them a lot of points from the judging. They calculated the difference in honey collected in different areas and subtracted the cost of moving the hives to get the net benefit of moving the hives for honey flows. Check out their visualizations above.
The USDA Honey Report for 2017 just came out this past month, and it offers up some really interesting insights about the industry.
Check out this interactive map I made:
The lead honey producer for over a decade, North Dakota continues to outperform the rest of the country in honey production. Producing over 33 million lbs annually, North Dakota bees yield almost 20 million lbs more than the next highest producing state, South Dakota.
As a newbie to the beekeeping industry, this was quite a surprise to me. Bees and extremely cold winters... I didn’t think that was a good mix! But the Dakotas’ summer climate is optimal for nectar secretions for many of the flowers visited by the honeybees. Plus, the area is one of the last habitats that is not being extensively farmed, leaving room for the forage the bees need.
Another surprise was the high price of honey in New Jersey. With an average of $7.86/lb, New Jersey honey is more than 3x more valuable than the national average of $2.15/lb, and more than 1.3x more valuable than the next highest-priced state (Virginia, $5.73/lb).
What’s going on in New Jersey? Could this be due to the strict regulations on beekeeping taking place in the state recently?
Now, if any of us have ever had the opportunity to go to Hawaii, it’s usually to bake in the sun for a relaxing holiday. But our dear friends, the Hawaiian honeybees, aren’t taking much of a break. Hawaiian bees generate the highest yield per hive in the country, more than 2x the U.S. average, in large part because of the year-round available forage for the bees.
What other insights can be derived from this and past years' reports? Stay tuned, as I go for a deeper dive in posts to come!
One of the most enjoyable things about operating our hives is harvesting honey every season. Even though we're a few months away from pulling honey, it's always good to make sure you're still in compliance with the latest labeling laws.
When we first bottled our honey it was very confusing to navigate federal and state standards to ensure we were labeling our honey right. To make this easier for beekeepers, we've compiled all the state laws on honey labeling into one place, and created the interactive map below to link to the government documents.
Embedd code for map:
Not every state has specific laws on honey labeling, so they defer to the guidelines set by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Beekeepers in all states still need to adhere to these standards in addition to their state regulations:
There are also several suggestions for honey labels. These aren't required, but they're good ideas to help you become the brand of choice for your customers.