The sound of bees buzzing in a hive, busy pollinating the garden and producing sweet golden honey, is enough to satisfy the desires of many urban beekeepers. However, if you’ve managed to cultivate one successful urban hive, chances are you see potential for other hives around the city—perhaps near a community garden or in a willing neighbor’s backyard. It’s at this point you may decide you want to go into the honey business. After all, the vendor at the farmers’ market has hit a sweet spot with his supply, so perhaps a hyper-local alternative could be just what your community is after. Before making the leap from urban-beekeeping hobbyist to honey entrepreneur, take these thoughts into consideration.
Like any start-up, launching a beekeeping business means you’ll need to invest in inventory: Here, that means the hives. Beehives are relatively low-cost investments in the long-term: The materials needed to set up a single hive, including hive frames, beekeeping tools, brood boxes, protective gear, bees, food and medication, cost about $600—$900 for two hives—but should last up to 30 years.
As a budding beekeeping business owner, a definite bonus is that you don’t need to invest in real estate: You can set up hives in your urban backyard or a lot near a community garden, and the space needed is not much bigger than the hive itself. “I work my hives from the back—a couple feet behind and to the side to take the lid off,” says Jeff Eckel, who runs We Bee Brothers, an urban honey business in Philadelphia, with his two brothers. “That’s really all [the space] you need.”
Eckel points out that while having a garden or planting bee-friendly flowers or trees can benefit your hives, bees will also fly up to 3 miles in search of food. Having your own garden isn’t a requirement for hive placement, further reducing your start-up costs. Instead, think strategically about where you can place hives for maximum pollination coverage.
Urban beekeeping laws vary from city to city, so before you start a beekeeping business, you’ll need to ensure the practice is actually legal where you live. City and state beekeeping ordinances can include anything from the number of hives you can have in a given area to requiring beekeeping licenses. If you’re unsure where to find this information, a local beekeeping club or cooperative extension office can point you in the right direction.
Doing this research at the beginning of your endeavor will save you a lot of headaches and money in the future. If hives aren’t given the proper distances from property lines or neighboring houses, you could be fined or even forced to remove the hive.
Hive Health Management
The key to getting a robust honey harvest—and subsequently a profit—is keeping your bees healthy. Regular hive checks can take up a lot of your time when you add more hives to your operation, and if you want to make a honey business worth your while, it’s something you’ll want to keep up on. Your bees are at risk for a number of different diseases and parasites, including American foulbrood, nosema, Varroa mites, Tracheal mites and hive beetles. American foulbrood can be particularly detrimental to urban hives, as it’s a highly contagious disease. Caused by the spore-forming bacterium Paenibacillus larvae, it quickly spreads when bees come in contact with contaminated honey or equipment, meaning even if you tend to hives in different parts of the city, all your bees could be at risk.
The beekeeping regulations in some states are set up to help manage the spread of such diseases. For example, in Pennsylvania, where Eckel keeps bees, the required hive licensing fee includes a visit by a state inspector who looks for signs of AFB. However, regardless of whether a mandated inspection occurs in your state, you can do your part by performing regular hive checks.
Harvesting and Selling Honey
The amount of honey you’re able to harvest is influenced by many factors, including your climate, the year’s weather patterns, the hive’s health and its access to forage. Remember, honey is bee food, so the colony should have first dibs on the supply before you take any for yourself. During particularly harsh winters, bees may use up the entire honey supply in order to survive, leaving you with nothing. That’s a gamble you must be willing to take if you want to go into the honey business.
Regulations for selling honey as part of a home-based business vary from state to state. In some states, cottage-food laws dictate honey sales, while other states enact separate regulations. These laws may dictate how much honey you can sell in a given year, how it should be packaged, and where you are able to sell it. Learn more about honey-production laws in your state on Forrager.com.
In Florida, honey sales fall under cottage-food regulations. Urban beekeepers there can sell honey and honey products, such as honeycomb, out of their home, a roadside stand, flea market or farmers’ market, as long as sales don’t exceed $15,000 a year, and are subject to an audit by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Oklahoma, on the other hand, regulates small-scale honey production under a separate law, which states producers cannot sell more than 500 pounds of honey and must sell direct to consumers.
How you price your honey may be dependent on the market in your area, but the National Honey Board’s chart of unit honey prices per month and the Madison County Beekeeper Association’s honey price calculator are good resources to figure out starting points.
In addition to honey, you may be able to sell other products from your hive, including beeswax (and products made from beeswax, like candles and balms), honeycomb and bee pollen, or offer pollination services to gardeners who want to host an urban hive but not tend to it.
Making Your Decision
While there’s no guarantee that urban beekeeping can be a profitable side business, there’s certainly money-making potential if its a hobby you already love. By starting small, taking the time to learn proper beekeeping techniques and putting in the necessary research, you may eventually have enough honey to share or even sell. Start by marketing to your inner circle—your family and friends—and once they find out how delicious fresh, unadulterated raw honey tastes, it will only be a matter of time before others are knocking on your door.