What is Bee Farming?

Bee farmers aim to run profitable business enterprises based on the management of stocks of honey bees.

Businesses in the United Kingdom (UK) vary in scale from part-time concerns providing an additional income stream from self-employment to large-scale operations employing a dozen or more staff all year round.

To be sustainable, a bee farming business needs to ensure its honey bee stocks are well-managed to ensure the bees are kept in optimum condition, healthy and disease-free. Good husbandry, as in all livestock farming, is essential.

High standards of health and welfare of honey bee stocks are essential to ensure business models are sustainable.

Income is generated from the sale of products (eg, honey, beeswax, added-value products) and the provision of services (eg, pollination, training). Increasingly, innovative business models are being developed to exploit market opportunities.

The UK produces around 14 per cent of the honey consumed by the domestic market. This compares with a European average of around 60 per cent. The challenge (and opportunity) for the bee farming industry is to increase UK honey production and availability.

It is widely recognised that there is a need to reverse pollinator decline. The bee farming industry, through the provision of managed and targeted pollination services, is in a unique position to help improve crop yields and increase productivity.

Honey extraction [Photo: Alex Ellis]


Business Considerations

Profitability of a bee farming business is influenced by size of the operation and potential economies of scale. Efficiency of colony management and of product processing also has a major impact. Clearly identified routes to market for products and/or services are essential. It can be a challenge to maintain consistent product supply year-round and year-on-year to meet demand; like most farming activities, weather and season are major factors.

Business start-up and growth requires a number of considerations: capital costs and availability of finance, apiary sites, equipment, transport and handling, premises, processing facilities, storage, staffing, legislative requirements, etc. Typically, an efficient part-time one person operation can manage up to about 150 colonies. An efficient full-time one person operation can manage up to about 300 colonies. Beyond this, assistance will be required; 300-800 colonies may require one to three staff; 800+ colonies will require a greater number of staff.

Choice and standardisation of bee hives and ancillary equipment are important as costs, practicality, durability, ease of transport and efficiency of management practices are all affected.

Moving bee stocks to the heather [Photo: John Mellis]


Working Practices

It is common for bees to be moved from site to site to maximise productivity and make best use of seasonally available forage. In addition, specialist crops such as ling heather honey can only be obtained in certain geographical locations. For those bee farmers who provide pollination services, the ability to move hives efficiently is essential. Bee farmers may use specially-adapted vehicles to maximise efficiency and enable access to sometimes awkward apiary sites.

While a significant proportion of activity is outdoors during the spring and summer months, it is essential to be able to harvest and process honey efficiently and hygienically, and to recover beeswax which is obtained as a by-product of the processing operation. A properly-equipped facility is required, of a scale and level of mechanisation to suit the operation. Premises must meet environmental health requirements and be registered with the authorities. Depending on the end product, additional facilities may be required for packing honey or producing added-value items such as candles, polish or cosmetics.

It is important that a bee farming business meets legislative requirements. Good record keeping is essential to meet the requirements of the Veterinary Medicines Directorate, Animal and Plant Health Agency, Environmental Health, Trading Standards and the Inland Revenue.