The following information on homestead bee-keeping comes from Five Acres and Independence by M. G. Kains. Five Acres and Independence is also available to purchase in print.
In my estimation, no branch of agriculture is of such absorbing interest as bee-keeping. Having kept bees of my own I know something of the marvelous origin and cooperation of the colony not only in gathering nectar and in manufacturing honey but in making “bee-bread” from pollen, beeswax from honey, “propolis” or “bee-glue” from the waxy exudations of flower buds, and of the “royal jelly” on which the developing queens are fed. I also know something of the profit that usually accompanies good management and the loss that surely follows carelessness and neglect.
The highly satisfactory experience of sitting in the shade on a hot summer day and watching throngs of workers flying between the hives and the basswood trees or the white, crimson, alsike or sweet white clover (or melilot) fields during a “honey flow” and realizing that soon there will be another “super” full of well-filled “sections” that sell on sight to personal patrons is another experience that I have had.
But from having worked on two “bee farms” I also know that commercial bee-keeping is a man-size job—one that demands far greater ability, patience, tact, and attention to details than any other branch of “live stock” breeding, rearing or management, to say nothing of crop production. I therefore can indorse the statement of the late Professor J. H. Comstock, the famous entomologist and bee-keeper, that “any man who can make $1,500 out of bees has ability to make at least $2,000 out of something else!”
So this chapter is written to warn you not to go in for commercial bee-keeping until after you have served your apprenticeship with one colony, then with others developed from it; for perhaps in no branch of agriculture is it so important to learn to creep before you try to walk.
Before you start with even one colony first make sure that you are willing to be punctilious in attention to details, to do the thing that must be done when it should be done. If not, don’t attempt bee-keeping, for you will almost certainly fail. As the nectar flow of one plant species lasts for only a few days it is essential to have everything in readiness so the bees may make maximum amounts of honey during such times. By attention to details the careful man will often get a profitable quantity whereas the careless one in the same locality with the same equipment will have little or nothing.
By starting with only one colony, preferably in early spring, the necessary equipment will cost only a few dollars and by following directions in good books on bee-keeping you may end the season not only with honey to sell but with two or more colonies developed from the first one. Then by assuring proper conditions, especially in having abundant stores of honey, the colonies should pass the winter in safety and be prepared to double or triple their number as well as increase the honey production average during the second season. And so on! The greatest increase of which I know was made by Dr. C. C. Miller, one of the most noted beekeepers, who in a single season increased nine colonies to 56!
The first colony with the small necessary equipment and extra hives should enable you to teach yourself in bee-keeping and make a profit at the same time.
Low prices or low yields of honey may not affect you as a small bee-keeper who combines honey production with your other work so as to use your time profitably. Local markets and personal customers assure the readiest way for you to maintain profits. Reduction of costs is another way to increase net returns. Yet the lowest cost per pound does not necessarily mean the greatest profit. Amount of business and total production also figure. Yields vary from 30 to more than 200 pounds of extracted honey per colony, or one to seven cases of comb honey per colony, with three as a high average.
Comb honey should be produced only in localities particularly adapted to this class—where there is regular, abundant, rapid flow of white honey such as basswood, white, alsike or white sweet clover (Melilotus alba) and where there is a minimum of off-color honey and propolis. In all other regions it is more profitable to produce extracted honey unless the local market can be developed for the dark comb honey, such as buckwheat. Often this can be done because a local dark honey sells well where produced, even in preference to white honey shipped in.
A man with a maximum of 250 colonies may busy himself profitably in other directions, provided the other lines do not exact work at “peak times” of bee activity—brief summer periods. To handle the work properly as much work as possible (e.g., hive, frame and section assembling, foundation making and placing) should be done during the previous winter so only the actual, necessary handling of the bees may be left for summer.
Cooperative work with the United States Department of Agriculture in Wyoming with bee-keepers and more than 25,000 colonies showed that the total cost of handling the bees ranged from $2.04 to $12.50 a colony! At 50c an hour the highest labor cost was $4.47, the lowest, $1.09. Average net incomes were $4.65 a colony. This figure included labor of operator at 50c an hour, interest on the investment at 6% and average prices of 6 3/4c a pound for honey and 27c for beeswax. Hour-returns for labor and management ranged from, $1.61 to $11.78. The net income ranged from a loss (four out of 39 bee-keepers) up to a profit of $16 a colony. Costs for extracted honey were as low as 5.4c a colony but averaged 7c a pound for apiaries smaller than 400 colonies. Good yields are usually characterized by low costs and vice versa.