Marina D’Abreau Denny, Extension Associate
photo by Scott Corey, MSU
“Beekeeping can be a fascinating hobby, a profitable sideline, or a full-time occupation,” according to Jeffrey Harris, Assistant Professor of Entomology at Mississippi State University.
Mississippi is home to approximately 12 full-time commercial beekeepers, 35 part-time honey producers, and several hundred hobbyists. This ranks the state twenty-eighth in the nation in honey production, with about 2.25 million pounds of honey produced each year.
“The net annual income of Mississippi beekeepers from honey and beeswax production, sale of packaged bees and queens, and pollination fees is estimated to be between $2.1 and $3.1 million,” said Harris.
As a value-added commodity, honey bees contribute to the pollination of fruits, berries, vegetables, sunflowers, cotton, soybeans, peanuts and wild plants in Mississippi, totaling $200 million annually (Source: Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce).
If you’re interested in bees and have thought about starting a colony (or two) of your own, keep reading for some helpful information and visit our webpage for more information about starting and managing a beekeeping business.
There are several options for getting started in the bee business, whether for fun or profit. You can obtain your bees by:
photo by Robyn Dulaney, MSU
Most novice beekeepers will start with either a package or nuc. The downside to purchasing a nuc or an established colony is that you also might be buying another beekeeper's problems, such as disease.
You can start a colony pretty much any time of year in the South, but spring is the recommended season, because it gives the colony well through the summer to get established. Additionally, you’ll have better opportunities in the spring and summer to observe your bees and learn their behaviors.
You’ll want to start with at least two colonies of bees, just in case something goes wrong with the queen in one of the hives. A frame of eggs and young larvae from the second hive can be given to the queen-less unit so they can raise a new queen.
Personal Equipment – At a minimum, you’ll need a veil, hive tool and bee smoker. The veil keeps bees away from your head, since stings on the head can be quite painful. You can purchase a special hat to hold the veil, but a well-fitting wide brimmed hat will do as well. The bee smoker keeps the bees from becoming agitated, allowing the beekeeper to work in peace.
Optional accessories include a bee suit, bee gloves, and high top boots. Combined with a veil and hat, a beekeeper can be well protected from bee stings during normal beekeeping operations.
Beehives – You can build a beehive from new materials, but it is recommended to purchase a hive that has had bees in it for at least a year, to lessen the risk of stressing out the bees and reducing your potential honey crop. The best time to buy bees is in the spring, to ensure that you get a viable hive with a good laying queen.
A standard beehive has a bottom board and a hive cover with multiple boxes in between. Each box contains nine or 10 frames of comb in which the bees rear their young and store honey and pollen. Normally the bottom two boxes are brood boxes used for rearing the young and storing honey and pollen for short-term and winter use. The top boxes are referred to as supers and are used to hold the honey crop. Special "shallow" supers can reduce the weights that must be lifted.
Extracting equipment – To harvest your honey crop, you’ll first need to separate the combs of honey from the bees (pulling the honey). Using a bee brush to sweep the bees from each frame is one option, but can become labor intensive the more hives you have. Bee escape boards are used to direct the bees into a one way trip out of the honey supers. You’ll need one escape board for each hive.
Another option includes using chemicals like Bee Go or Bee Robber, which is placed on the underside of a special acid board cover. The smell drives the bees out of the honey super. Finally, a bee blower can be used to blow the bees right off the frames, out of the super and onto the ground in front of the hive.
Once the honey is pulled, you can extract it yourself or ask an established beekeeper to extract it for you. Honey extractors range in size from two-frame, hand-powered devices to motor-driven machines that can handle 100 or more frames. Additionally, an electrically heated knife will be needed to remove the wax caps from the honey comb.
Extracted honey needs to be strained through cheesecloth or nylon and then stored in a warm place in a tall container. This allows the fine impurities to rise to the top. The ideal storage container will have an outlet at the bottom so that the clean, warm honey can be drawn from the bottom directly into the honey containers.
Wintering equipment – Mississippi is fortunate to have relatively mild winters, so bees can typically winter outdoors without insulation placed around and over the hives. The key to wintering your bees is to ensure that they have enough food going into the season – typically 30 to 50 pounds.
In other colder climates, you will need to protect your bees. If you’re working with just a few hives, bees can winter outdoors with some insulation placed around and over the hives.
It’s almost a certainty that if you keep bees you will be stung at one time or another. A bee sting hurts some, followed by a brief period of discomfort. However, for a very tiny portion of people (about 0.4% of the population), there is a risk of death from anaphylactic shock brought on by a bee sting. If you know you are allergic to bee stings (i.e. hives over the body, itching in areas of the body remote from the sting, and shortness of breath or tightening of the windpipe), then beekeeping may not be the hobby for you. If you do experience such symptoms after being stung by a bee, seek emergency medical attention immediately.
In recent years, two species of imported parasitic mites have devastated honey bee as well as feral bee populations in the United States. That’s why both commercial and hobby beekeepers are even more important now.
Setting up a colony is just one of the factors involved in the beekeeping business. You will need to develop a business plan to determine several factors including the costs, potential returns, years to profit, and labor needed to run this type of business. Developing a strategic marketing plan for the products you wish to sell and service you will offer is another critical component.
A 2008 publication by Iowa State University assessed the enterpise for potential returns and investment needed. You can view the publication here: http://www.agmrc.org/media/cms/budgetsheets_beekeeping1FINAL_14A02B2018283.pdf.
Another (more recent) publication that discusses startup costs can be found here: http://www.phy.ilstu.edu/~wenning/HIBA/bkcourse/counting.pdf