How many of us have thought how nice it would be to keep bees for a living? How many have seen the initial one or two hives escalate into ten, then twenty, then more? Me, for one! After a couple of years in the school beekeeping club, my interest lay dormant until almost twenty-five years ago when my eldest lad, then in his school beekeeping club, asked if he could have a beehive in the garden. Instead of saying “no” I said - in the best tradition of positive parenting, “We need to find out more about it.” We went to an open day at Sparsholt Agricultural College, and that was that. I now run something over one hundred colonies and call myself a bee farmer.
In brief, my point is that most bee farmers are simply ordinary beekeepers who got carried away. Certainly, some of the members of the BFA have been in bee farming all their lives. For example, Willy Robson from Northumberland who is a third generation beekeeper keeping around 1,800 colonies and employing a lot of people. Robert Field, our vice-chairman, is second-generation. Many of the members keep several hundred colonies and make it their livelihood. For many however the bees provide just some but not all of the income. For example, I retired early and bought a small set-up to add to the twenty colonies that I’d built up to in fifteen years of my spare time; the profits now augment my company pension. The BFA numbers ex-professional people, ex-county bee keeping lecturers, bee inspectors, as well as those who have done nothing else in their working lives.
Over fifty years ago the BFA was formed by a number of commercial bee keepers who recognised that together they would be better able to resist the pressure of imported honey, and to support the slightly different needs of large-scale bee keepers. The BFA of today affords its members numerous benefits, many unavailable elsewhere, in the fields of communication and social networking with other commercial and semi-commercial bee keepers, financial, training and support.
The annual AGM followed by a business meeting, is held at Stoneleigh to coincide with the BBKA Spring Convention (purely for logistical purposes). The usual business of any association is conducted, followed by reports on the areas of interest to our members. This also gives everyone the chance to catch up with old friends from across the country.
A Spring convention is held in March, in a 3* hotel in a different part of the country each year. We have also visited France, Ireland and Denmark. Talks mixed with trips to local bee farms, packers, suppliers, research stations, museums, distilleries, or whatever is of interest in the area take place, with alternative trips arranged for partners who might not wish for a long weekend of undiluted bee talk.
Twice-yearly Regional meetings are held in the south and east, which cover items of national and more local interest to the members present. We hope that other areas will start these meetings soon.
There is a members-only email where information, comments, adverts and so on can be circulated instantly to those that use email.
The Bee Farmers Bulletin, produced six times a year, provides up-to-date news and information, reports, articles written by members, and advertisements (personal lineage free to members) for equipment, honey, bees or whatever else, for sale or wanted.
The Bee Keepers Quarterly is provided to full members as part of their subscription.
Many foreign bee magazines (American Bee Journal, Gleanings, Australasian beekeeper, to name a few) are circulated to members on request.
Services and Products
Free Insurance cover for third party and products liability up to £5m; Employer’s liability cover up to £10m at a fraction of the usual rate. (The annual value of the savings on these alone pays for the subscriptions of many members).
Advisory services – members requiring advice on any subject connected to bees and honey production, legal and planning business and other matters can usually be put in touch with someone to help. The BFA is affiliated to the NFU and so has access to them for advice and guidance.
Training – courses on bee disease recognition are arranged from time to time. In 2005 a party attended a five-day course on advanced queen rearing in Denmark.
Pollination: Subject to availability, annual contracts are arranged between members and growers at good rates of hiring. Payment is guaranteed. The pollination secretary actively searches for new contracts for members.
Code of Practice, including HACCP analysis is available, which members undertake to follow. This means that in the event of an inspection by Environmental Health Officers, a defence of “due diligence” may be exercised if the need should arise.
Products – an annual list of suppliers of equipment not readily available from the normal bee trade suppliers is provided to members, including sugar, plastic items, etc. Offers from suppliers are published in the bulletin. Bulk purchase arrangements are made for cut-comb containers and sleeves, polish tins, frame wire, disposable gloves, carrier bags and medication. These are all available to members at very competitive prices. Subject to demand, other items may be obtained on an ad-hoc basis and will be passed on at cost price plus delivery plus a small administration charge.
From my point of view, although all of the above are valuable, the most important thing must have been getting to know people who have made a success of large-scale beekeeping and learning from them their methods and attitude.
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Finally, a little about commercial bee keeping. It is very hard work for low – and unpredictable – returns. Investment costs are quite high, particularly when extra room is required. It is surprising just how much storage space is needed (equipment, jars, wax, extracted honey awaiting bottling….) not to mention the dedicated extraction and bottling unit that will be required, and maybe a 4x4 pick-up for difficult sites.
The nature of your beekeeping is different. No longer the hour-long inspection of one hive. When there are hundreds of bee hives awaiting their eight-day swarm inspection there are not enough hours in a day. (e.g. 300 hives / 5 days = 60 per day). (On my holiday in Australia last year I visited a bee farmer, and we went through 80 colonies for their spring inspection in one day, less than five minutes each. This included having to find the queen in most of them as he over-wintered in dual or even triple standard Langstroth boxes. The queen had to be found in order to have her in the brood box, leaving the other(s) as a honey super.) Don’t forget that deliveries still have to be made, kit must be sorted out, and it rains. Not that bad weather can be allowed to put off the inspections! Then, in a good year, there are several tons of honey to extract, bottle, label, and sell. Oh yes, and the family expects to see something of one from time to time.
But don't let this put you off. It’s a very satisfying life if you can stand it, much more pleasant and much healthier than sitting in an office all day.
To download the Membership Pack visit: http://www.beefarmers.co.uk/join