Beekeepers Need a Living Wage

Don Studinski works the bees for customer Jamie Ngo. This colony is called Sugarloaf 13. Jamie pays an annual pollination fee which helps keep the beekeeper alive. (Photo by Jamie Ngo)

I love my fellow beekeepers. Of course we disagree on small, unimportant details, but overall this is a wonderful bunch of people whose hearts are in the right place. We’re on the team trying to save the bees. I find beekeepers, as a community, are more environmentally conscious than the general public. For the most part, they’re more aware about poisons and more likely to recycle, compost, and all the rest. The bottom line is that mostly they “get it” that we’re all dependent on our habitat, and we need to take care of it. There’s something about getting intimate with the bees that helps us internalize these lessons.

Because beekeepers get it, we’re quick to give when it comes to environmental needs—especially where honeybees are concerned. We want to save the bees. Unfortunately, we’ve taken it too far.

Today I got a call from a lady at a cemetery here in the Denver metro area. A tree with a hive of honeybees inside had come down in front of her chapel. She wanted to know if I would save the bees. “Of course,” I said, “but there’s a charge for that service.”

“Well,” she replied, “then I’ll call around and find someone else.”

And she will. And that someone else will probably do the work for free. He will probably be a hobby beekeeper who may or may not know what to do, and who may or may not have the proper tools to get the job done and keep the bees alive. This beekeeper will think he’s doing a service for his neighbor. And this is true. But he’s not stopping to think that he may be doing a disservice to the beekeeping community. Unfortunately, this is also true. Would it have hurt him to demand payment for his effort?

How can beekeepers continue to perform wonderful services for our community if we’re going hungry ourselves? Society has become programmed to think of our services as worth nothing…because we charge nothing.

This attitude is ubiquitous.

Yesterday I was having lunch with visiting relatives from another state. Here comes the confession: When the time came to get out the honey, it was accepted with the assumption that there would be no charge. There was never a moment of consideration that this product was how I made my living. Yes, it’s family. Of course I should be allowed to give a gift that has value. But I couldn’t help but notice the prevailing attitude—he has honey, he gets it for nothing, he can afford to give some away.

A few weeks ago I got an emergency call around 7 p.m. from a nearby town’s police dispatch. A tree had come down on someone’s house and honeybees were flying everywhere. Would I come immediately? “Sure,” I said. I hopped into the truck and drove 30 minutes to the scene. With dark approaching and the family obviously not able to enter the house anyway, we all agreed it would be best to come back early the next morning to remove the bees. The next day, I performed the work—my second trip. And later, I made another stop to get the last of the returning foragers—my third trip.

Now, how many of the police there were working for free? What about the firemen? The tree removal guys? How about the trash removal guys who cleaned up the tree rubble in the street? The built-in assumption was that they would all be paid for their services. But you guessed it— when I submitted an invoice to the city for my services, they informed me that they thought I was working for free!

Who creates this attitude? I think we do, the beekeepers. We know the bees are in trouble, and we go out of our way to help. But when we do this too often without any pay, we build the perception that our work is worthless. That’s no way to create a vibrant, healthy beekeeping industry. We can’t be the bad guy just because we expect reasonable compensation for our work. That’s messed up.

If you know your beekeeper, and you can get your honey in 2014, count yourself lucky—and please expect to pay a premium price. Not because your beekeeper is selfish and trying to rip you off. It’s because that honey didn’t come easy, and it certainly didn’t come free. The honey represents a whole year’s worth of trips to the hive, plus labor monitoring the bees and adjusting their hive equipment appropriately. The price of all that effort is subject to the economy, weather, and blossoms, all of which are outside the control of the beekeeper. It’s a risky business that always has losses.

Check out these news items from recent months:

Statistical Overview of the Canadian Honey Industry, 2012

  • “Total Canadian honey exports increased from $38.5 million in 2011 to $73.2 million in 2012, up 90%. This can be attributed to an increase in exports to the United States and higher prices for honey in 2012.”

Honey Production Sharply Dropped in Ohio Last Year” by Lyndsey Schley (April 21, 2014)

  • “Ohio beekeepers are reporting about a 70 percent loss of bees over the harsh winter.”

Fifty Percent Reduction in Honey Production Expected” by Lydia Burton (May 28, 2014)

  • “This has happened Australia wide this past season. Honey production will probably be down by about 50 percent on what we would normally expect.”

Iowa Honey Production Falls 17 Percent” by USDA NASS (June 9, 2014)

  • “Yield per colony in Iowa averaged 48 pounds, down from 61 pounds per colony in 2012.”

California Drought Affecting Bees, Honey Production” (June 24, 2014)

  • “In a good year, we’ll have 50 or 60 barrels of honey in the warehouse that I’ve produced. This year, I have four.”

National Honey Report (July 22, 2014)

  • “Good brood patterns and increasing hive numbers certainly is a good recipe for some good honey yields this season in Colorado. …Currently, wholesale and retail demand for honey in Colorado exceeds the available supply.”

There you have it. Wholesale and retail demand exceeds supply. People want and need their honey. They may not realize it, but they also want and need those honeybees and their keepers working behind the scenes. We all need a vibrant and healthy beekeeping industry where a skilled person can make a living wage. It’s a big deal.

If you find yourself in need of beekeeping services, please pay your provider a reasonable compensation. Do it even if that beekeeper says he’ll work for free. Don’t let decent, innocent, hobby beekeepers damage the very industry they want to help. After all, do you work for free? If the answer is yes, should you be? If it’s charity work, then sure. But if not, it’s time your work was compensated.

Don Studinski

Don Studinski, dba Honeybee Keep, is a permaculture enthusiast and member of the board of directors at Living Systems Institute (LSI) where he applies permaculture philosophy to beekeeping. Honeybee Keep manages Colorado’s first Certified Naturally Grown (CNG) apiaries: LSI in Golden and Cottonwood Farm in Boulder. As a beekeeping mentor, Don provides advice and counsel for students throughout the United States, teaches classes and performs public speaking events. He authored Beekeeping Mentor in a Book and writes extensively about beekeeping on his own website and for a variety of others, including Bee Culture magazine, Peak Prosperity and Honeybee Haven.

Related Topics

backyard farming | food politics | honeybee health | sustainable agriculture

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