In the Market for a New Pet? This Man Will Help You Become a Beekeeper
Adopting a pet? Before you head to the shelter to cuddle an adorable puppy or kitten, consider an alternative animal rescue: the honey bee.
Fifth generation beekeeper Jeffrey “The Bee Guy” Johnston runs a bee rescue in St. Petersburg, Florida, removing and relocating honey bee hives to safe locations so they can be adopted by a forever beekeeper family.
“As a rescue, our thing truly is to save the bees, to be able for us to give back and then help other people to have their own colonies,” says Johnston. “The point is for you to learn how to do this so you can have your own money, but also because you’re doing something that’s good for the environment.”
OK, so you might not get to snuggle up with this buzzworthy gang on the couch, but beauty is in the eye of the bee-holder, especially when you consider these flying friends could save you some cash.
Think: That farmer’s market honey you shelled out $12 for this weekend.
“You can get honey the first year, depending on what they call the nectar flow,” says Johnston, who notes that the nectar flow depends on rain totals each season. “In the second season, you should be able to get two gallons, and you should be able to get four gallons out of an established, working hive.”
Kind of takes the sting out of pet ownership, huh? (OK, I’ll stop.)
How to Become a Beekeeper for Beginners (or Bee-ginners)
When Johnston moved to Florida in 1998, he says there was only one other licensed beekeeper in the Tampa Bay area. As of June 2016, there were more than 4,000 registered beekeepers in Florida, according to the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences at the University of Florida.
But becoming a apiculturist (the technical name for beekeeper) is not as simple as looking inside the nearest hollow tree.
Rules and regulations vary by state — in Florida, for instance, a license is required (visit your state’s Department of Agriculture website for details). But all states have a minimum registration requirement and inspection process.
Johnston notes that except for restricted developments (like some deeded communities and apartment buildings), Florida allows anyone to keep at least two hives on their property.
“Anyone can be licensed; it’s just a matter of physically being able to take care of them,” Johnston says. “My oldest client who took care of her own hive was a woman in her 80s, and my youngest client ever was a kid who was about 8 who saved his own money to get a hive.”
The first step to getting your license? Buy yourself some bees.
“It seems a little backward, but the inspector is looking to see you take care of the bees properly,” Johnston says. “Is it the right kind of hive, is it located 6 feet off the property line, are they facing away from your neighbors? All those things that are code related.”
Feeling a bit intimidated? That’s where an expert like Johnston comes in to supply the following:
- The nuc (that’s bee-lingo for a bunch of bees) with a starter hive: $175
- A queen bee: $35
- Installation, which includes you getting to wear one of those super cool bee suits: $40
Johnston estimates you’d get about four pounds of bees, or 12,000 winged buddies, for a per-bee cost of approximately 0.0208 cents.
And like any good new pet owner, you’ll want to invest in a few “obedience” courses, which Johnston says he’ll deliver to you.
“Pretty much anybody can be trained in their own backyard,” Johnston says. “It takes about three to four lessons over the course of a year to learn how to manage your own bees.”
The courses involve learning how to rotate and clean the frames in your hives, as well as how to assess the bees’ health and happiness — because happy bees are productive bees.
“You need to go into your bees about every 21 days, so every three weeks, you’re going to spend about 10 minutes dressed out in your bee suit and go through them.”
Johnston says he charges $40 a class but that after a few classes most people get the hang of it and require minimal help from him.
Beekeeping, not Removal
Where do the bees come from?
Well, we’re not going to get into the birds and the, um, bees, but Johnston collects his hives from homeowners who don’t want bees living in their wall, hanging out in their soffits or simply swarming in huge clumps.
It’s at this point that Johnston emphasizes that being a beekeeper does not make you a qualified bee removal expert. That venture requires proper training, additional licensing and insurance.
If you don’t properly remove and abate, the hive — as well as all those dead bees — can leave behind a distinctive aroma and can irreparably damage a structure.
“I had a lady who had somebody tell her they were going to trap the bees out of her wall, but they ended up trapping them in her wall, and they died and rotted,” Johnston says. “So I had to remove all of the exterior siding and shovel out a 40-foot tall hive with dead, rotting, decaying bee, honey, guts and liquid black goo running down the walls full of dead things — it had a drowned rat in it.
“It was the most horrific, stinking thing.”
Lesson: Stick to beekeeping and leave removal to the experts.
And to ensure your bees have no hard feelings — technically known as being an aggressive or “hot” hive — Johnston “re-queens” them before delivering the bees, which he likens to other pet treatments you may be more familiar with.
“Instead of saying you have to spay and neuter, we’re exchanging your queen out,” Johnston says.
Gimme Some Honey, Sugar
Among Johnston’s clients is Chris Anderson, who has raised two hives in his backyard for a year and says these prolific pollinators have personalities and even the ability to bond with you.
“When they’re new, they’re fairly gentle, but as they grow and have something to defend, they may swarm a little,” Anderson says. “They get to know you by smelling and seeing you, so when I approach they’re like, ‘He’s one of us, he’s cool.’”
Anderson says that although his bees produced plenty of honey for him to give to his neighbors, family and friends, he left much of the honey behind for his bees to consume, until he gets more comfortable knowing how much they need.
“I could have financially broken even the first year” selling honey the bees produced, Anderson says. “If I was really focused on that.”
And Anderson considers the honey only one benefit. He also likes that helping raise bees is good for the environment, particularly in the wake of massive die-offs over the past few years.
Additionally, the bees cross-pollinate the plants in his garden — “We had great tomatoes this year,” Anderson notes — not to mention the simple joy of working in nature with friends.
“There’s also all the fun I get out of it,” Anderson says. “You’re just happy to be with your bees.
“I wish I had started doing it years ago.”
Tiffany Wendeln Connors is a staff reporter for The Penny Hoarder. Other bad puns she was unable to cram in this article include, but are not limited to: bee-student, bee all you can bee, and Bee-yonce.