Bees play an important role in pollinating fruit trees, farms, gardens
and many wild plants. And of course, bees also produce honey.
Bees are kept and looked after by farmers just like any livestock animal.
These bee farmers, also called beekeepers and apiarists, maintain beehives.
The world is full of different kinds of beekeepers. Hobbyists keep bees
for their own enjoyment and maintain anywhere from one to 25 hives. Farmers
who supplement their income with beekeeping maintain 350 to 500 hives. A commercial
beekeeper typically has between 1,500 to 2,500 colonies and has several full-time
employees and extra help at harvest time.
"Beekeeping is one of a small number of occupations which can be started
at a hobby scale for a few hundred dollars and can grow into a multimillion-dollar
business," says beekeeper Ron Miksha.
People from all walks of life keep bees. Although Miksha has spent most
of his time as a full-time beekeeper, he's also a geophysicist. "Other beekeepers
include former medical doctors, a defensive end from the Baltimore Colts,
bankers, psychologists and scientists," says Miksha. "The head of the largest
international beekeeping association, Dr. Eva Crane, earned her doctorate
in nuclear physics!"
Many influential people -- Aristotle, Emperor Marcus Aurelius, Sir Edmund
Hillary and Henry Fonda -- have kept a hive or two in their backyards.
Beekeepers are busiest during the spring and summer months when hives are
buzzing with activity. Bees pollinate trees in the spring and produce honey
in the summer. In addition to looking after these operations, beekeepers also
inspect the colonies for disease, make sure they have sufficient stores, and
check on the health of the queen bee.
Population control is also important. Bees tend to swarm when a hive becomes
overcrowded, and this is a job hazard that a beekeeper tries to avoid.
A beekeeper must also extract honey from the hives. While this is done,
the beekeeper maintains records on the age of the queen and the dates and
amounts of honey harvested. "The beekeeper should be a good salesperson and
should be good at keeping track of money and accounts," says Miksha.
In fall and winter, bees are dormant, and this gives the beekeeper a chance
to repair hives and equipment. A keeper keeps a regular watch on the hives
over the cold months.
Not all beekeepers have exactly the same operation. Some smaller commercial
operators may process and pack their own honey, and even buy up small lots
of honey from other producers. Other producers may operate more hives and
sell their honey to other companies that specialize in packing honey.
Many beekeepers earn fees for pollination services, but few make a full-time
living off this alone. Some beekeepers also are involved in breeding queen
bees and the sale of "package bees" to beekeepers.
A beekeeper needs to be physically fit. Most of the work is done outdoors.
Beekeepers have to lift heavy objects and spend a lot of time standing. Getting
stung by a bee is always a hazard -- a person who is allergic to bee stings
shouldn't try maintaining hives.
Luckily, there are ways to lighten the physical load. "As a woman manager
of over 500 colonies, I hire persons to do the lifting, but enjoy the trips
to the beeyard immensely," says beekeeper Ellie Conlon.
An apiarist should also have a sharp sense of smell and taste to ensure
a good product. A good sense of smell and hearing also help to detect if there
is trouble in a hive without having to open it.
A keeper should also have a good understanding of bee behavior and nectar
sources. "A beekeeper must pay attention to lots of minor details -- in addition
to signs of the changing seasons, floral conditions, beehive strengths and
potential problems," says Miksha. Of course, it's also handy to understand
business and marketing.
The hours that a beekeeper works vary. During the spring and summer, hours
are long. "A lot of days, it's necessary to work over 12 of 15 hours with
just a quick lunch break," says Miksha. "Most beekeepers work seven days a
week for extended periods of time just to get a project completed." During
fall and winter months, a keeper may only work a few hours per day.