Can you make a living and still be a Treatment Free Beekeeper, we are honored to welcome Aaron Jennings from Jennings Apiaries on his first guest article. Here are five tips to make a living and still be a Treatment Free Beekeeper.
To give the bees all necessary advantages, and obtain the greatest possible amount of profit, with the least possible expense, has been my study for years. I might keep a few stocks for amusement, even if it was attended with no dollar and cent profit, but the number would be VERY SMALL; I will honestly confess then, that PROFIT is the actuating principle with me. I have a strong suspicion that the majority of readers have similar motives. I am sure, then, that all of us with these views, will consider it a pity, when a stock produces five dollars worth of surplus honey, to be obliged to pay three or four of it for patent and other useless fixings.”–Mysteries of Beekeeping Explained,
Chapter II paragraph subtitled “Profit the Object”Moses Quinby
I wholeheartedly agree with the 19th-century father of commercial beekeeping and have set up our beekeeping business using the simplest methods and equipment that I can get away with. In this article, I want to share 5 ways that treatment free beekeeping can be leveraged to make money.
1. Treatment Free Honey Demands a Higher Price
We are based in rural northern Louisiana in the United States. It isn't a particularly affluent region and most of the beekeepers around me charge roughly $10 per quart (3 lbs) of honey. I couldn't make any actual profit if I charged only that amount. Instead of trying to compete with mass produced and processed honey, we strive to stand out as a premium quality honey at a premium price.
Even without being able to afford, or actually get certified as organic, there are other certifications and standards that can help give your honey an edge in the marketplace. We went with Certified Naturally Grown (naturallygrown.org). It has helped reassure customers of our practices and give us a foundation to help educate about the benefits of our product over some big store brand.
2. Treatment Free Means Spending Less on Inputs
One of the most obvious advantages of being treatment free to me was not having to buy treatments. I want to make a very important distinction, treatment free does not mean neglect your bees. If you don't want to treat or monitor your bees, then it may be best to just let them live in a tree somewhere and enjoy them from afar. The treatment free community gets a lot of flack from beekeepers, researchers and groups that are sure that all treatment free beekeepers are doing are spreading diseases and pests.It is totally possible to have healthy, vibrant bees without using any treatments. I don't say this out of theory but from practice. Our bees have not been treated for over 5 years. My numbers consistently grow every season and my winter losses average around 10% year after year. Admittedly, the first 2 winters my losses were more like 60-75%. That could've been because of my lack of experience, but I suspect also from varroa infestations that overran the hives.
Either way, I save money every year compared to most beekeepers I know by not buying and having to take the time to apply treatments.
3. Diversify Your Product Offerings
Everyone thinks of honey when they talk about beekeeping as a career or hobby. While honey is a great product, with many nutritional and unique benefits, we have found that our beeswax, propolis and even bees themselves have been more lucrative. We have been able to advertise that our bee products and bees are treatment free which has given our business a unique advantage in our marketplace.I got into beekeeping for the beeswax, so I was acutely aware of the lipophilic nature of most chemicals used in beekeeping. It's why I decided to go completely treatment free in the first place. As a massage therapist for 10 years, I was tired of using chemically laced, petroleum based lotions on my clients. I began researching recipes for lotion and many called for beeswax.
I spent hours googling beeswax and discovered that beekeepers were putting chemicals into their own hives and that these chemicals were being absorbed into the honey and beeswax. After calling many regional beekeepers that all treated, I started my journey in beekeeping.
The products that we make are all products that my wife and I use daily. So if we can't sell them, we at least have a lifetime supply! 🙂 Find products that you are passionate about and I promise you that selling them will be the least of your concerns.
4. Look at Alternative Hive Designs
Most beekeepers in the US use Langstroth's movable frame hive. I have nothing against Langstronth equipment particularly. It does strike me as costly and overly complicated, but I think that has more to do with my preferences and specific situation. I think that for beekeepers running large (300+) operations dependent mostly on honey or nuc production, they make total sense. I also know many treatment free beekeepers that use Langs either wholly or in part and do very well! Treatment free beekeeping offers a chance, in my opinion, though, to explore some new hive designs that existed pre-Langstroth, or were created afterward and took a lower tech approach. Our bees are exclusively in top bar hives now, and I wouldn't go back to frames and vertically stacked boxes for anything. (I'd do it for $1 million, but I don't think I have to worry about that!)
My suggestions would be Warre, top bar, Layens, long Langstroths or Lazutin hives, but there are literally hundreds more. Maybe you can create your own hive that fits your situation perfectly!
5. Treatment Free is Better For Long Term Health of Bees
This is perhaps my strongest argument for treatment free beekeeping in my own mind. I cannot see a way to adapt to, and eventually live with, diseases and pests if we continually medicate our bees and prop up genetics that cannot handle their environment. It seems to me that by selective breeding and creating a shallower gene pool, beekeepers have created friendly, highly productive bees that need constant coddling to survive. That is not sustainable, and since I am 33 years old and plan on keeping at this as a career for decades, I need bees that can handle themselves.As I mentioned above, I lost most of my bees the first 2 years. Small hive beetles, varroa, and an overeager beekeeper was just too much for most of the Italian based stock I had initially purchased. Only after I started to leave the bees alone more and introduced local stock, VSH bees and adapted my techniques to combat the hive beetles did they start to not only recover but thrive. It can be difficult to admit that bees you purchased or have become attached to, just aren't cut out for this world. I think it is very necessary, though.
By continuing to propagate bees that exhibit traits to make our lives easier and disregarding the natural defenses and behaviors that may help bees be more independent, we are dooming ourselves to a continuing path of chemical and antibiotic management. This slows down the managed bees abilities to adapt on their own and find balance with their environment.
I say managed, because contrary to what some beekeepers say about there being no feral bee populations, the feral bees in the US are showing great resistance to varroa, among other diseases and secondary pests like the hive beetle.
This is an exciting time to be interested in or to be a beekeeper. There hasn't been this much interest in bees for decades and the chance to reconnect with nature, as a hobby or career, is an amazing opportunity that I hope more people will continue to embrace.
Beekeeping can be an expensive and apparently complicated endeavor and I fear that blocks many aspiring apiarists from ever getting started. I try to reduce it down to the bare necessities and remove obstacles for those intrigued by these fascinating insects. By removing treatments and focusing instead on biology and natural behaviors, I think we continue to work towards a beneficial approach for both the keeper and the bees.