Bee Farmer

The Job and What's Involved

Bee farmers, or commercial beekeepers, sell honey and other products produced by bees. They may own anything from 200 to 2,000 hives, with each hive containing a series of removable frames. The bees use these to rear the brood (the larvae), while a shallower box on top of each hive is used to store the honey.

Bee farmers must make sure the bees are near to plants and trees that have the flowers and nectar they require to produce honey. They may keep them on land they own or which they rent from a private landowner. In spring, the hives may be moved to orchards for fruit pollination, and later in the summer they may be moved to areas that are rich in heather to produce heather honey.

They may also position empty 'bait hives' on their land as a way of building new bee colonies by attracting swarms.

During the spring and summer, bee farmers regularly inspect hives - sometimes up to 60 a day - for signs of disease and swarming. They collect the honeycombs two or three times a year. They normally use smoke to subdue the bees whenever they need to manipulate them.

During autumn and winter, bee farmers spend time cleaning, sterilising and repairing hives, and bottling the honey. They may also feed the bees in early autumn.

Bee farmers need to be able to prevent and identify the diseases and parasites that can infest a hive. They must also know what to do if bees start to swarm, and some bee farmers earn extra money by collecting swarms that are a danger to the public. Some urban bee farmers also collect and destroy wasps' nests.

Once the honey has been collected it is spun from the honeycomb using a machine called a honey extractor. It is then filtered, before being stored and eventually put into jars and bottles for sale and delivery to shops, cafes and other retailers.

All year round, bee farmers are involved in marketing their products and finding new outlets to sell the honey, often based on ts well known health benefits. Some bee farmers produce bulk honey for wholesalers, who in turn sell it to supermarkets and large retailers. Large bee farms may also operate a mail order or web-based ordering service.

Commercial bee farmers may also earn money by:

  • Producing other saleable items, such as honey-based confectionery and products made from beeswax (such as candles and furniture polish).
  • Renting their hives to farmers and orchard owners during certain months of the year to help pollinate their crops.
  • Producing queen bees and other bees for sale.

There are no set working hours in bee farming, partly because it depends on the number of hives to be inspected. Hours are longer during the spring and summer, when bees are most active and producing honey. Sometimes bee farmers have to work early in the morning or at night (and occasionally all night) when the bees are inside the hives and can be moved easily.

Bee farmers work outside a lot of the time, although bees cannot be manipulated in cold or very wet weather. Bee farmers wear protective equipment, including a bee suit and veil, boots and bee gloves. However, this does not completely remove the risk of being stung, so it is important for bee farmers not to be allergic to bee stings. Some heavy lifting is necessary.

A driving licence is important to be able to transport hives from site to site and to make deliveries.

A bee farmer may start on around £8,000 a year. With experience, a bee farmer may earn around £15,000 a year.

The annual income of a bee farmer varies depending on factors such as the market value of honey, the amount of honey produced per hive, the amount paid for pollination services and weather conditions.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

Most bee farmers are self-employed or work part time in family businesses. Many have a second job to supplement their income. Some seasonal work may be available as a worker on a commercial bee farm, but few operators are large enough to employ workers all year round.

While home-produced products such as honey are becoming increasingly popular with consumers, much of the honey sold in the UK is imported. Of the approximate 25 million tonnes of honey consumed in the UK each year, only about 7,000 tonnes are produced domestically. There are about 50 commercial bee farming companies, employing a total of around 300 people. Most are based in rural areas, particularly in the south of England.

Although there is no need for a licence to keep bees in the UK, there are legal requirements to be met when setting up any business that involves food production.

Set up costs can be expensive and new bee farmers have to pay for hives, bees, a suitable vehicle and premises, packaging, jars and machines for extracting the honey.

It may be possible to buy a business from a retiring bee farmer, including sites and pollination contracts, but these opportunities are quite rare.

Education and Training

There are no set qualifications for entry, but it is essential that candidates are knowledgeable about bees and how to keep them before setting up in business.

It is recommended that people have at least two years' experience of beekeeping as a hobby before considering setting up a business as a bee farmer.

Joining a local beekeeping association is a good way of experiencing bees for the first time. It may also be possible to train on the job with an experienced bee farmer, but opportunities are rare.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

Beekeeping courses are available through a number of local beekeeping associations.

The British Beekeepers' Association (BBKA) runs a series of examinations based on a practical knowledge of beekeeping, including Basic Assessment, and General and Advanced Certificates in Beekeeping.

The Scottish Beekeepers' Association runs courses that include the Scottish Basic Beemaster Certificate, Scottish Expert Beemaster Certificate and Scottish Honey Judge Certificate.

Bee farmers are continually seeking to extend their skills in and knowledge of beekeeping, and the diseases that can affect bees. Short one or two-day courses are often run by local branches of the BBKA.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

Bee farmers should:

  • Be able to work well on their own.
  • Be patient and calm.
  • Enjoy working outdoors.
  • Be strong enough to carry out lifting jobs.
  • Be practical and good at woodwork (for mending hives).
  • Be motivated and disciplined.
  • Have some mechanical skills to maintain equipment.
  • Have good organisational skills.
  • Keep up to date with changing legislation about the production and sale of honey.
  • Be interested in horticulture and agriculture.
  • Have good business skills.
  • Be able to keep financial and production records.

Your Long Term Prospects

Bee farming is a tough and competitive career. Success depends on ensuring a reliable supply of honey and other products, and establishing a good reputation.

Get Further Information

Bee Farmers' Association.

British Beekeepers' Association (BBKA), National Beekeeping Centre,
National Agricultural Centre, Stoneleigh Park, Warwickshire CV8 2LG
Tel: 02476 696679

Scottish Beekeepers' Association.

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