I've been rolling these ideas around for a while and I wanted to get them down as a resource/starting point for discussion.
Guiding Principals Permaculture is primarily an agricultural system which produces yields for ultimate human use. If beekeeping is going to be more than a hobby, or a simple on farm pollination service, then some consideration needs to be put into how it can help economically on a farmstead. The same considerations would go into any other element of design, such as introducing a laying chicken flock or cattle. As such these thoughts are primarily from a "commercial" frame of mind.
I know commercial beekeepers have been blamed (quite rightly in some cases!) for much of what is wrong with beekeeping, but there is definitely value in discussing what practices are worth adapting or keeping to make beekeeping an appealing element for a commercially viable homestead.
I'm going to try and avoid discussion about particular hive types and systems as much as possible, but some of the methods discussed here are easier on some hives than others.
There are some assumptions that I will make about a permie focussed beekeeping approach:
We aim to minimise all inputs to the hive - both to reduce costs and on the basis that the bees know best what they need
A corollory of this is that we are aiming for treatment free bees, which requires selecting stock for excellent genetics
We are not necessarily after the maximum yield per hive
We aim to integrate beekeeping with other activities so need to keep time commitments down.
I have not assumed that we are "cheapskating" - yes it is possible to build equipment more cheaply than it can be purchased, but this is a false economy if that time could be spent on other more profitable activities. If purchasing 20 complete hive setups gets me set up this year instead of next then dropping the cash may well be worthwhile.
Scale of operation
1 - 4 hives
This is a very vulnerable scale - one bad year can wipe out every colony and you need to start from scratch. Capital invested per hive is great (think, tools, honey extraction, dedicated work space etc...). Yields are low and variable. Probably serves a useful local pollination service and supplies year round honey for the table. Hives may be non-standard as yield is not the primary objective.
5 - 20 hives
This is a semi commercial operation. Large enough that capital costs are spread across more colonies, yield is more consistent year to year as it is averaged across more colonies. If you have a bad winter you have the resources to quickly build colony counts back up again. With a well thought out management system 20 hives can be managed in an afternoon once a week or so. On this scale you have the scope to breed your own queens and select from your own stock for desirable traits, such as local adaptation and disease resistance. You have sufficient numbers of bees to preserve good genetic lines in the case of a bad winter.
20 hives plus...
Commercial scale - at these sizes you probably need multiple apiary sites, substantially increasing time required to care for your bees. Infrastructure needs to be larger (dedicated storage sheds, more expensive extractors etc...). You are probably looking to sell wholesale rather than retail. Beekeeping is becoming a more major proportion of your overall business and may be taking you away from other farm chores. I'm going to assume that most beekeepers looking to introduce an apiary as a sideline are staying beneath this threshold, or if they make that transition are doing it from the position of a few year's experience managing large apiaries. Beekeepers who run their bees as their sole business tend to run highly efficient operations with huge numbers of colonies, a paid work force and every task is planned with precision to minimise labour costs. One extra hive visit when you have 100 hives or more adds up to a lot of time and expense.
Multiple Yields Key to making beekeeping a successful venture is securing reliable and varied yields, which may or may not convert to income streams. When I started beekeeping years ago the only yield on my radar was honey, and we had a few reasonable yields. However, from the point of view of a mini beekeeping business the ultimate yield is cash from selling good or service. We may sacrifice some honey yield to make extra splits, or we might put pollen traps on a colony for a few weeks. By diversifying away from one income stream (honey) we make beekeeping more resilient and potentially more profitable.
Honey Honey is usually a primary yield from a hive. 20 hives is just about manageable using a low cost crush-and-strain method, but this is more time consuming than traditional extraction and destructive to comb. Permies would usually try to be rather conservative in what they remove from a hive, so that the bees get to eat their own honey over the winter rather than sugar syrup.
Mono-floral honeys can fetch a premium. Collecting these can be as simple as switching to fresh supers when your main flow starts. Here linden honey can be collected pretty much as a mono-floral and is really interesting. If you are selling retail then presentation is everything. The quality of your labels and jars will definitely impact your sales price and rate
Let's say an average yield per colony managed using permaculture good practices results in 20lbs of honey. Sales price varies considerably, but £4.00 per lb is normal around here -> £80 of honey sales per hive.
Cut-Comb honey This can again demand a premium over ordinary honey, provided you can package it well. Permies perhaps have an advantage here as we are likely used to using foundationless frames. There are some tricks to getting this right:
Comb needs to be really, really fresh and clean - not recycled from last year.
You can force bees to draw out and cap honey comb quickly if you reduce their space. Take off other supers and cramp them into a smaller area.
Making a split with the old queen and brood, leaving lots of workers behind lets them focus on honey and lay off feeding brood. Your honey may get capped faster and stay cleaner.
Take it off as soon as it is ready to preserve the fresh white wax surface.
Pollen Pollen harvested by bees is highly sought after as an food supplement and sold over the internet and through health food shops. Local sourced fresh pollen can go for a premium as the local mix of pollens are especially beneficial for people with allergies.
A hive on a strong pollen flow can collect as much as 1.5lbs of pollen per day. A well designed pollen trap only removes some of the pollen so the brood nest won't starve, and the bees will respond to less pollen reaching the nest by sending out more pollen foragers.
1lb of pollen can fetch over £10, so 20 hives collecting over a 2 week period (maximum recommended time) could bring in over £4000 worth of pollen. This only requires a few minutes work per day emptying traps each evening then freezing the pollen to preserve freshness. Collecting pollen once will pay for apiary setup costs!
Local health food shops would love to stock local pollen products.
A strong colony may yield £200 of pollen per year, but weak colonies may not be viable to trap from. Work from an average of £100 per colony.
Bee Bread A bit outside the box, but this is another high demand health food. "Bee bread" is what the bees do with the pollen once it is in the hive. They mix it with nectar, honey and enzymes and stuff in down in cells where it ferments to make a probiotic mush - think "pollen yoghurt" and you get the idea. This is what the bees use to raise larvae and is their main source of protein. It is a high value item, selling for between £10 and £20 per 100g!!
Harvesting bee bread is a destructive process as it is removed from old brood nest combs by shredding piece of frozen wax and then sifting the wax pieces free of the bee bread.
Permi beekeepers may want to cycle their brood comb out of the hive periodically anyway, so this could be a value added product that could be looked at along side the more usual suspects.
I haven't tested this, but I suspect you could encourage bees to fill sections of comb with bee bread by excluding the queen above an empty medium box, so the broodnest is elevated. Alternatively you could use a warre style hive and nadir boxes beneath so the brood nest is forced to move down over time. As you harvest honey supers you will naturally harvest some bee bread in the bottom of cells. Extracting it could be problematic but worth of experimentation.
I have no idea of a yield per hive figure here but it could be substantial, particularly if the bees are manipulated to encourage production.
Most beekeepers will collect wax over the season for later processing. This is everything from nice clean honey cappings, to the wax left over after crush-n-strain honey, or manky old brood comb. At it's simplest you will want to melt down your wax collection to make large crude blocks. A steam wax melter can do large quantities of wax quickly and with minimal fuss.
Filtering and rendering the wax improves it's quality
The very cleanest wax (pale in colour, from honey comb rather than brood comb) can be reserved for making cosmetics such as hand creams.
Large blocks of wax can be traded or sold back to foundation manufacturers.
Bees Wax Ingots There is a market for beeswax ingots from people who are not beekeepers but want to make their own beeswax products. A nice mould, perhaps embossed with a suitable logo, can pop out lots of these quickly. Ebay suggests a market price of £6.50 per lb for ingots, and when cleaning up old equipment or extracting honey, you are going to be collecting wax anyway.
Value added products Your imagination is the limit here. Beeswax furniture polish, candles, wood preservers, cakes, fruits preserved in honey... You are getting away from beekeeping here, but if you have quiet evenings and a decent kitchen you can expand your range of products considerably.
Bees as a yield There is a market for sales of whole colonies as over wintered nucleus hives. These can be produced as splits of production hives and sold on to customers.
As a permie beekeeper we can advertise as a value added proposition that our colonies are treatment free and have good survival rates. Now it may take a number of generations to build up a quality of bee stock such that this is a viable proposition, but when you do you will be able to charge a premium for the enhanced genetics of your colonies. To make this a viable proposition you need good published records that show you winter survival rates and incidence of disease. Beekeepers who make the jump from treated to treatment free experience massive losses in the first few years as the weaker colonies are culled by nature. I recently bought two nucleus colonies and would have happily paid a premium for locally adapted, treatment free colonies of reputable provenance. They simply don't exist around here.
Nucleus hives are often ordered in advance and deposits put down for them in the autumn.
Predictable income streams are always welcome.
You will likely want to be raising your own nucs each year anyway to replace winter losses and to give you a greater genetic pool to select from each year.
Pollination Services as a Yield Assuming we don't want to ship our hives all over the country each year there can still be money made through paid for pollination contracts. Negotiate with local fruit farmers and see if they will pay for you to locate hives near or on their land. If they won't pay you in cash they may trade you in for other goods or services. If you are running a diverse small holding then access to farm equipment at the right time of year may be more valuable than the cash for pollination. Think about what your needs are and see if there is a mutually beneficial arrangement to be made. For example we trade grazing rights to our fields for manual labour on tasks like fencing. The shepherd wins because he can run a larger flock, we get manual tasks done that we have no time for. No cash changes hands.
Overall I would strongly suggest to permies running a diverse farmstead to consider beekeeping as another possible income stream and yield. Run on the scale of 5 to 20 hives it can be a profitable complement to diversified set of income streams without taking a disproportionate amount of time away from other farm activities. The yields of the hive are by the nature not perishable, unlike, for example, eggs, fresh vegetable or meat products.
I'd also suggest that, after learning the ropes in your first year, you aim to expand to between 5 and 20 hives. Once you are suited up the time required to look after 10 hives is not much more than needed to look after 2, but the rewards are much greater.
I think that is all from me for now...
I'd love some input on how others see this fitting into an economically viable farmstead.
Moderator, Treatment Free Beekeepers group on Facebook.
Yield per square meter Bees pack considerable value density into a very small foot print. If your total land is limiting your income levels then turning part of it into an apiary increases the income per square meter enormously. 20 hives can be stationed in an apiary that is 30 m by 5m... perhaps along a field boundary. The land can also continue to do double service as an orchard for example, stacking multiple yields into the same footprint.
Currently enjoying a revival in popularity due to Game of Thrones. A good additional "value added" product to consider, if only for home consumption!
Propolis I don't know much about this, but again, it is another possible minor income stream. Propolis can be harvested while bees are laying up honey or a pollen trap is in place.
Every permie should have bees, or let a beekeeper keep hives on their property. Just for the pollination.
They are definitely away to function stack a small property. Or time stack the yields on a small farm.
They are a big investment, though. There are ways to cut costs but it is still an investment to do it right.
I started with four hives, only had one surviving this spring. I think at least ten hives spread across a couple locations would be minimum for self sustainability.
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