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The specialist international beekeeping organisation

Beekeeping and income generation

Beekeeping can be a lucrative income-generating activity which is an important reason for promoting it. Although annual incomes between $200 and $1000 are sometimes quoted, there are a number of things to take into account when looking at income generation from beekeeping which makes quantifying the profitability extremely difficult.

For instance:

  • The skill of the beekeeper is of major importance;
  • Some places are more suitable for beekeeping than others;
  • Honey harvests can vary from year to year;
  • Poor colonisation and absconding must be taken into account;
  • Some species and races of bees are more productive than others;
  • The scale of the activity is critical to the amount of money generated.
  • The costs that beekeepers will incur in establishing the activity
  • The value of any environmental benefits such as increased crop pollination of better forest production should also be taken into account.

The financial input for beekeeping using top-bar hives or frame hives is high. The average extra harvest, the difficulties of colonisation and the risks of absconding do not usually justify the initial investment. Some projects seek to reduce the costs by subsidising these hives in some way. However, one important question has to be answered, "Can a farmer continue improved beekeeping in the long run completely without outside financial aid?" If the answer is 'no' the project is not supporting an economic undertaking and is unlikely to be sustainable.

A beekeeping programme can focus on improving traditional beekeeping. In the flagship North West Bee Products enterprise, 95% of the honey is harvested from bark hives located in the Miombo forests of Zambia and it easily meets international standards. It is important that harvesting and handling is carried out carefully to ensure the honey is not contaminated or adulterated after cropping. Beekeepers are trained to select high quality combs that can be sold and separate them from the lower quality ones for home consumption or local sale. They extract honey from the comb at home using simple equipment such as cloths, buckets and sieves and clean and care for harvesting equipment to make sure the extraction process does not permit any contamination of the honey.

When starting any kind of business enterprise it is important to do some planning first. Ask lots of questions. For instance:

  • Are there resources for honey production and is access to these available?
  • Are the skills available? Is there local knowledge from other beekeepers or a training scheme nearby?
  • How much will equipment cost and how long will it last?
  • Can a start be made without borrowing money? Borrowing money for beekeeping is rarely economic and can leave some producers in greater poverty than they started.
  • What is the honey market like? Who is buying and at what price?
  • What scale of production is required to meet income aspirations or market conditions?
  • Can the honey all be sold locally or do wider markets need to be sought?
  • Is there transport for this? How much will it cost?
  • What kind of packaging is needed? Are local sales through traders or will it need a market stall? Write everything down into a business plan before deciding to go ahead.
  • Can an income be made from producing secondary hive products, beekeeping equipment, selling bees or making value added products such as cosmetics or candles.

One of the most frequently asked questions is about sending honey for export into the European Union. It is rarely worthwhile trying to tap into European markets if a reasonable local market is available. The commodity prices for honey are not normally high enough to be more profitable than local or regional markets, especially after investment costs have been deducted. The costs of complying with European residue monitoring legislation are very significant. In addition, a minimum consignment would be a container load which would be around 18 tonnes of bulk honey and this relatively small amount would only be viable if specialist Fair Trade or Certified Organic marketing schemes were accessed. These also incur significant annual compliance costs. Before entering on this kind of investment it would be essential to finding a reliable buyer within the EU.

Local markets may be expanded by gaining a supermarket contract or seeking out higher value shop outlets. Frequently, there is a lively regional demand for honey while Asian and Middle Eastern markets are frequently easier to access than US or EU markets and may be worth investigating through local business people with connections into these communities. Entry into any large scale market will require a means of ensuring high quality honey free from dirt, contamination or adulteration while small quantities of honey will need bulking or consolidation of honey into larger quantities so a reliable supply can be made available throughout the year. A reliable supplier offering high quality honey that they can guarantee is pure, wholesome and clean will win customers who continue to return to buy more honey.


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