Growing and sustaining commercial beekeeping operations in the US was one of the hot topics during the 75th annual conference of the American Beekeeping Federation (ABF) in Reno, NV. With the growing demand for pollination and the increasing prices of this service, there is a sparking interest in mobile beekeeping. Many mid-sized beekeepers are researching means to grow their operations and start offering the service of “pollination-on-demand” which leads to a rapid increase in the numbers of beehives across the states. According to Gene Brandi, President of the ABF, there are about 3 million beehives in the US at the moment and this calls for development of sustainable practices in beekeeping if the industry is to keep up with the demand.
In a series of blog posts, we will try to provide an answer to some of the most popular questions that commercial beekeeper wannabees may have.
Key topics in this post:
Locations, locations, locations: migratory/mobile beekeeping will only make economical sense if beekeepers are able to secure enough contracts with farmers in order to run a sustainable business
Staff: seasonal workers, drivers, administration
Dealing with theft: simple tricks to avoid big costs
How do I become a migratory beekeeper? How do I get pollination contracts?
While it is true that it is unlikely for farmers to knock on your door and request your services, you might want to start by doing just that. Many huge commercial beekeepers have begun their journey just like that, including David Hackenberg from Hackenberg Apiaries. It is a time and labour intensive task but it really does pay off as a face-to-face meeting promotes a healthy business relationship. If you decide to adopt the ‘door-to-door’ principle, make sure that you do your homework in advance:
Map out all the farms in a region which grow flowering plants (you might want to focus on a particular culture like almonds for example);
Call in advance and request a short meeting with a decision maker – be upfront about your agenda. Farmers are businessmen, so they do expect you to promote your services. Don’t waste their time. Have a readily available proposal and make sure you include some wiggle room for price negotiation.
Another great idea is to attend agriculture conferences and simply network with the other attendees. You will be amazed by how much valuable contacts can be made within just a day. Use your time wisely and try to create a wishlist of contacts in advance. This way you will be able to draft specific proposals and show that you really mean business. If you are able to create more meaningful contacts than you can service within an year, do not neglect the rest of the list. Keep those as a safety net. Send them a note, a few jars of honey and a brief report on your operations in the current season. Be sure to appear professional. Everybody values that.
How do I find employees?
Most beekeepers are terrified of hiring personnel, especially the employees dealing directly with their bees. Even some of the huge commercial beekeepers we have met exhaust themselves during the active season because they are too afraid of making the wrong hire. After the 9/11 events, the security protocol limits the access to emigrant workforce and this was a major challenge for years, for the commercial guys. Nowadays they are growing to be smarter and smarter in hiring and managing their staff. Here are a few tips we were able to pinpoint in our interactions with beekeepers.
Be prepared to evaluate a lot of candidates. The rule of thumb is “one in ten is going to be a right fit for the job”.
Consider hiring people with close to zero experience and investing a few weeks in training.
Always try to look for students who are seeking a summer job. If you manage to motivate the young generation the right way, you are doing something more than just getting quality staff – you are promoting the craft of beekeeping.
Hire the best full time. They will not only take a lot off of your workload but will also become your advocates in the beekeeping community. This will help you in both hiring and training new employees.
Prepare your own procedure. Make sure that you clearly communicate what data should be received from the on-site inspections and how it will be stored and managed. Remember: Keeping clean records will allow you to plan your next season better and will ultimately improve your business operations.
Truck drivers are not that hard to find, but identifying the right ones is a hurdle. Once you do find them, make sure that you create some sort of a bonus program, pay well and provide benefits. There will be times when those guys will be expected to go out of their way to do the job and this is when it really pays off to have them motivated and devoted to their work.
How do I deal with hive thefts?
This is a growing issue all around the US and especially around the almond fields in California. Although some beekeeping organizations including the ABF are pushing for harsh penalties for this kind of criminals, the theft of a beehive nowadays is considered to be a small crime. In order to lower the chance of becoming a victim of a beehive theft, commercial beekeepers advise the following:
Brand your equipment. It will make it easier to recover your gear if the police manages to find it.
“Out of sight – out of mind”. Don’t be lazy. Make sure your workers do not position the beehive pallets right next to the road.
Install dummy cameras at your locations. Thieves may assume they are not functional but it is a red flag in their minds and some say that 9 out of 10 times, it does the job. Equipping yourselves with hunting camera traps is also valuable, but those require GPRS internet connectivity, which you will have to provide.
Install signs. “Warning! These beehives are monitored by trackers!” – Hey, it may be a hoax, but thieves will think twice before stealing from you.
Buy actual tracing equipment. There is a wide choice of GPS trackers which are becoming more and more affordable. You substantially increase your safety by installing just one of those per location.