Beekeeper  What They Do

Just the Facts

Insider Info

dotBees play an important role in pollinating fruit trees, farms, gardens and many wild plants. And of course, bees also produce honey.

dotBees are kept and looked after by farmers just like any livestock animal. These bee farmers, also called beekeepers and apiarists, maintain beehives.

dotThe 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.

dotPeople 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!"

dotMany influential people -- Aristotle, Emperor Marcus Aurelius, Sir Edmund Hillary and Henry Fonda -- have kept a hive or two in their backyards.

dotBeekeepers 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.

dotPopulation 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.

dotA 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.

dotIn 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.

dotNot 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.

dotMany 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.

dotA 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.

dotLuckily, 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.

dotAn 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.

dotA 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.

dotThe 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.

At a Glance

Care for bees and harvest their honey

  • This work involves inspecting the colonies for disease
  • You have to be physically fit
  • An agricultural background is helpful