Beekeepers are generally placed into 3 categories: commercial, sideliner or hobbyist.
A commercial beekeeper manages over 300 hives and is operating a full time business. A hobbyist is a beekeeper with fewer than 25 beehives. Sideliners are in the middle and generate a portion of their income from beekeeping.
According to the National Honey Board (“NHB”), there are as many as 125,000 beekeepers in the United States and the “vast majority of them are hobbyists” (often called backyard beekeepers).
The U.S. Department of Agriculture goes much further, estimating that there are about 212,000 beekeepers in the U.S. and that over 94% of them are hobbyists. (The difference in the numbers may stem from the age of the NHB’s info which is based on a 2012 survey.)
If you’re considering beekeeping as a hobby, you are far from alone.
In this article we’ll discuss some of the pros and cons, the opportunities and challenges, of backyard beekeeping to help you decide if beekeeping as a hobby is right for you.
Why Become A Backyard Beekeeper?
I couldn’t find any hard statistics to back me up, but it seems to me that interest in beekeeping as a hobby picked up steam over the past decade for two main reasons: publicity about colony collapse disorder and the wildly successful crowdfunding campaign for the Flow™ Hive.
Add in a renewed interest in homesteading, natural products and the health benefits often attributed to honey and you can see why beekeeping as a hobby became a hot topic.
Let’s go over the benefits and reasons why you might become a backyard apiarist (that’s a fancy word for beekeeper).
If you want to be close to nature, it’s hard to beat beekeeping. Watching your colony work as a team to build comb, nurse and grow new bees, forage for food, make honey, defend their turf, carry out their dead, expel the drones and, my favorite, do the waggle dance, is an amazing experience. As a backyard beekeeper, you’ll see all this action close up.
As a beekeeper, you’ll become more attuned to your environment. Bee behavior is driven by seasonal issues. You’ll notice what plants are in bloom and where the bees are foraging for nectar and pollen, how a dry spell is affecting water resources, how the temperature and the angle of the sun are affecting your bees.
At certain times of the year, we find ourselves paying much closer attention to the weather. (There’s a red wing black bird! Has spring finally arrived so we can de-winterize (is that even a word?) our hives?) Does it look like cold weather is setting in early and we better get started prepping the hives for winter?
Unless there’s a few feet of snow on the ground, I venture out to the apiary almost every day just to look around and see what’s going on.
Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD)
“Colony Collapse Disorder is the phenomenon that occurs when the majority of worker bees in a colony disappear and leave behind a queen, plenty of food and a few nurse bees to care for the remaining immature bees and the queen,” according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Widespread reporting on major bee losses inspired people to take up beekeeping to help maintain bee populations.
Fortunately, the EPA says that CCD cases have substantially declined over the past 5 years. That’s no reason to forego beekeeping. Honey bees are still beneficial insects that provide great value as pollinators. It doesn’t hurt to have more healthy, well-tended honey bees in the environment.
Honey (or Liquid Gold)
If you want to be a backyard beekeeper to get your own personal honey that’s great. As general rule, don’t expect to take much, if any, honey until your second year.
Your first year of beekeeping will be learning about honey bees, watching out for pests and helping the colony get established. Your first year bees need time to build out comb where they make and store honey. You may have to leave most, or all, of that honey to get them through the first winter, especially in colder climates.
However, get your colony through the winter and it will have a jump start building up the population and making honey the following spring.
When the time comes, you will harvest honey. Hobby honey is raw honey…unprocessed and unfiltered and delicious.
See our article What Is Raw Honey? (Besides Delicious) for more information
Maybe it’s my imagination or wishful thinking, but I believe the honey from our hives tastes better than any store-bought honey. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. If you become a beekeeper, you’ll feel the same way when your harvest comes.
Health Benefits Of Honey
I am sure I don’t have to sell you on the taste of honey. Many health benefits have been attributed to honey. Some of these benefits are proven, others not so much.
Some of the benefits attributed to honey are:
- It can soothe sore throats and ease a cough (I know I’ve used it for that).
- Honey is antibacterial and can heal wounds and prevent infections.
- According to WebMD, honey has antioxidants that are “thought to reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer.”
- It’s fat-free (but it contains sugar so let’s not get too excited).
- Despite its sugar content, honey is often considered a healthier alternative to plain sugar and other sweeteners.
Claims have been made that eating honey may reduce pollen-based allergies. Some people will swear by this but the science behind it is questionable as described on WebMd.
Despite all the health benefits attributed to honey, do not give honey to children under one year of age as it could be a source of infant botulism (Mayo Clinic).
And did I mention, it tastes great?
See our article How To Eat Honeycomb (Yes, It’s Edible!)
In addition to honey, you can collect beeswax. Beeswax can be used to make candles, lip balm and skin moisturizer. Use it around the house to make drawers slide more easily. Seal your envelopes with wax drippings like kings in days of yore. You can find plenty of uses for beeswax if you’re so inclined.
(Bet you didn’t know this hobby was going to expand like this.)
Put a pollen trap on your beehive and scrape a little off the foragers as they return from a day’s work. Don’t take too much as the bees need it.
Many of the health benefits attributed to honey are attached to bee pollen. It contains antioxidants and has been referred to as a superfood. It’s sold in many health food stores.
Before consuming bee pollen, check with your doctor to make sure you won’t have problems caused by any allergies or medications you may be taking.
Propolis, or bee glue, and its extracts “have numerous applications in treating various diseases due to its antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antibacterial, antimycotic, antifungal, antiulcer, anticancer, and immunomodulatory properties,” according to a paper in the National Center for Biotechnology Information.
These benefits are similar to those attributed to honey.
Foraging bees visit plants in search of pollen and nectar. You’ll see the pollen on the legs or abdomens of bees returning to the hive. Pollen is a source of protein and fat for the colony and is used in the production of honey.
In the course of their travels, bees will brush up against different plants transferring pollen from one to another. Many plants, (apple trees, for example) require cross-pollination to bear fruit. Cross-pollination occurs when one plant pollinates another plant that is a different variety (not a different species).
You’re probably aware that commercial farmers use bees for pollinating their crops. Almonds are incredibly dependent on bees for their production. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “Pollination is the highest agricultural contributor to yields worldwide, contributing far beyond any other agricultural management practice.” The United States Department of Agriculture estimates that one-third of the foods we eat depend on honey bee pollination.
Okay…you’re not starting a commercial beekeeping operation (yet!?). It’s just a hobby. What does all this pollination stuff mean to you?
The impact of bees in your garden will depend on whether your plants are self-fertile (such as strawberries) or need pollination (the aforementioned apple trees).
Our bees help pollinate squash, cucumbers, tomatoes and more in our vegetable garden. When plants in our vegetable garden flower, we can see and hear the bees busily foraging. We’ve noticed a dramatic increase in our harvest, especially the year when we put a split in the garden.
Beekeeping can be a family affair. Communing with nature and your bees is a great way to spend time together and develop a common interest.
You’ll also find that other beekeepers enjoy talking about their hobby. Check out some beekeeping associations in your area. They are a great place to meet both hobby and commercial beekeepers.
Or Private Time
When working with the bees alone, I find myself focused on the task at hand. I am not thinking about work or finances or politics or anything else. Proper beekeeping requires that you move slowly and deliberately. It might be just what you need at times.
If you’re a backyard beekeeper with limited space, your beekeeping will probably remain a hobby. But if you have additional land or are willing to spend time keeping bees in other locations (generally called “outyards”), you might start producing enough honey and other products for sale. Grow from a hobbyist to a sideliner or more.
Selling hive products comes with a whole new set of issues to consider and is beyond the scope of this article. Hobby beekeeping, though, can help you gain the experience needed to figure it out if commercial beekeeping is something you’d like to pursue.
Issues To Consider Before Becoming A Beekeeper
Beekeeping can be hard. There are issues you should consider before becoming a beekeeper:
- Bee stings and allergies
- Beekeeping costs
- Physical limitations
- Time commitment
- Location limitations
We’ll discuss each of these in some detail. This is not intended to dissuade you from taking up beekeeping as a hobby. Quite the contrary. We want you to be prepared so you are not disappointed or discouraged as you face these issues.
Bee Stings And Allergies
You will be stung. You can wear protective gear (in fact, you should wear at least a veil to cover your face at all times). Eventually, you’ll take off the gloves because they make you clumsy or not wear a bee jacket because it’s too hot. Or you might just be strolling past the bees when they are in a particularly defensive mood. You will be stung.
If you’re considering beekeeping as a hobby you should know how allergic you are to apitoxin (bee venom). Severe reactions can lead to anaphylaxis which can be life-threatening. Make sure you understand the risks before you take up beekeeping.
See our article Do Honey Bees Sting? Yes, They Do (What You Should Know) for more information.
Even if you don’t have a serious allergy issue, the swelling and itching that comes from a bee sting is certainly not enjoyable.
It’s going to cost +/- $600 to buy your initial equipment and bees to begin beekeeping. Depending on a variety of factors outlined in our article on startup costs, your expenditures could be much higher than that.
That cost is for startup. Over the first 2 years, additional costs of several hundred dollars may be incurred for feeding, pest treatment, winterizing hives and possibly even bee replacement. (A lot of bee colonies do not make it through the winter each year.)
I’ve seen estimates as low as $300 to start beekeeping. The problem with amounts that low is that they reflect the BARE MINIMUM to get started. Our estimates takes into account the full costs of your first year of beekeeping.
Consider if beekeeping is within your budget. You can skimp on your startup but, in the end, you’ll be spending this kind of money if you want to keep bees and reap the long term rewards of this hobby.
Also, see our article Beekeeping On A Budget for money saving tips!
Some aspects of beekeeping require a certain amount of physical strength and dexterity. For example, Langstroth hives consist of boxes that need to be moved during inspections.
A 10-frame, deep Langstroth box full of bees, brood and honey could weigh up to 80 pounds. Smaller boxes with honey can weigh 40 pounds or more.
While there are ways to reduce the weight (take some frames out and set them aside for example), consider the physical requirements of beekeeping before you jump in.
If Langstroth hives (the most popular type and what we generally recommend) will be too difficult for you to handle, consider other options, like a top bar hive, that don’t require you to move heavy boxes on a regular basis.
Learn more about Langstroth hives in our article 3 Main Types Of Beehives (Which To Choose)
Beekeeping is not a set-it-and-forget-it hobby. It’s going to require an allocation of your time that will vary based on your level of experience, size of your bee yard, time of year and sometimes unpredictable events.
We started by taking a course from a local beekeeper. We sat with another couple that had started the year before but lost their bees over the winter. The husband told us, “We were told that beekeeping was low-maintenance. Unfortunately, I heard it as NO maintenance.”
By the way, it is not always low-maintenance either.
If you live in the cold north, winter will be your least active beekeeping time by far. The hives should be winterized and the bees generally left alone in the cold. If you get some unseasonably warm weather, you might want to check their food stores. You may need to clean some snow off entrances for cleansing flights. Otherwise, it’s a slow time you can use for repairing equipment and other chores.
In warmer southern climates you might find beekeeping less of a time demand during winter but not to the extent you do in the north. A warmer climate means food sources are more readily available and the bees will still be active. You should pay attention to the weather and plants to determine how much attention your hives need.
Other than winter, you’re going to be very busy at times. How busy depends a lot on you.
Initial Time Investment
Your biggest initial time investments are educating yourself, setting up your hives and installing your bees.
As a newbie, you need to start on your learning curve. Accept that you’ll continue to learn things for years to come. I think it’s part of the fun and excitement of beekeeping. Challenges will present themselves and you’ll need to learn how to address them.
If you can, find a local beekeeping course. This will probably take only a day or 2 but will give you a close-up look at working with bees. It will also give you a reliable, go-to local source for information about beekeeping in your particular area.
Read (like you’re doing here). Browse online forums. Check out beekeeping references for information.
Check our book recommendations in 11 Best Beekeeping Books
And of course, spend time with your bees.
Hive Inspections And Management
Once your hives are set up, you’ll need to inspect them periodically. Look for signs that they are building comb and that the queen is producing brood.
I was probably in the hives more often and longer than necessary when we first started beekeeping. I suspect most newbies are the same. Now I look for indications that things are okay without necessarily getting into the hive.
We now get into the hives less frequently and often for shorter periods of time. Sometimes it’s a quick look through the hives for obvious problems. Other times it is frame by frame inspection of the entire hive making sure all is fine.
See our related article Inspecting A Hive (When, How & Why)
Depending on the weather and the mood of the bees, these inspections can last anywhere from 15 minutes or so to an hour per hive. If I suspect a problem, the inspection is likely to be a longer one.
Sometimes I’ll linger if I find a nice waggle dance or something else that piques my interest.
Pest And Disease Management
Various pests and diseases can threaten the viability of your honey bee colonies. If you spot issues during a hive inspection, you’ll need to invest time (and maybe money) to fix the situation.
Varroa mites, small hive beetles and wax moths are some of the more common infestations that require your attention. You’ll need to protect the hives from ants, mice, skunks, raccoons and bears.
See our related articles Varroa Mites: A Complete Treatment Guide and Protect Beehives From Bears (How To Set Up An Electric Fence for additional information.
American foulbrood and nosema are among the diseases you may need to deal with.
You may also find that you’re investing more time as you learn more. Our first hives were purchased fully assembled and painted. All we had to do was put them in place.
Now we buy unassembled hive bodies and frames. They are less expensive and I enjoy putting them together. Shifting to all medium bodies had me cutting down deep frames to fit the smaller format. And of course, there’s time spent painting so they look nice and last longer.
As you learn more, you’ll find more ways to spend time on your time beekeeping…because you’ll want to.
In another article, we discussed Where to Place a Beehive. Do you have a suitable location with enough room? Check your local and state regulations to make sure you can comply.
Think about your neighbors. Will they view your bees as a nuisance? Do any of them have allergies to consider? Be respectful of their concerns. You may find your neighbors love the idea.
See our related article Is Beekeeping Dangerous?
Why We Became Beekeepers
At first, we thought it would be fun to keep bees and harvest our own honey. And then we lost our first beehive to a bear. We decided to try again.
We’ve spent the past few years dealing with setbacks and gradual progress. We’ve entertained our family and friends with stories of our failures and successes, our challenges and our responses.
In the beginning, I was pretty nervous around the bees. Each sting made me wonder why the heck I kept doing it. Now I’ve learned to be calmer around the bees and it seems they are calmer around me. Instead of being nervous about inspecting the hives, I look forward to it. It’s been a fabulous outdoor learning experience.
And when we finally got to harvest our honey, the sweetest part came from being able to give it away to friends and family to enjoy. If you’ve checked all the boxes above, give it a try!
What about the Flow™ Hive?
Don’t become a beekeeper because of the Flow™ Hive. There’s much more to beekeeping than tapping the honey spigot.
It became something of a viral sensation when it raised over $13 million in 2015 on Indiegogo. Getting honey from a beehive looks incredibly easy with Flow™ Hive’s unique frames. However, the ease of taking out the honey obscures the need to learn a lot more about beekeeping to make it work properly.
I am sure that many people have success with the Flow™ Hive. We don’t recommend it for beginners because it is more expensive than traditional Langstroth hives.
This additional expense increases as you’re beekeeping hobby grows with more hives. We recommend that you find out how much you like beekeeping before spending the extra money.