In the past, most people have seen beekeeping as a rural vocation. Today it’s producing revenue streams in cities across America. New pioneers are selling honey via websites and social media and at farmer’s markets: Making products like lip balm, hand salves and others from beeswax; placing and servicing hives in subdivisions, on golf courses and at colleges with nutrition departments; teaching beekeeping classes, selling and setting-up beekeeping equipment.
For 60 years, my brother Archie Phillips has been keeping bees in Birmingham, Alabama, since studying etymology at Auburn University. After college, Archie used beekeeping to supplement his income for his growing family with 57 hives that produced honey he could sell. Today he’s passing his love of beekeeping down to his son, David, who captured three swarms to add to their hives last year, using new technology. Like many people around the country, the Philips enjoy recreational beekeeping and having honey to give to friends and family. Two urban beekeepers in Birmingham have taken their hobby a step further and are selling not only honey from their hives, but also products that utilize it or are needed to keep bees.
Beekeeping In A Loft
Chuck Strahan has been keeping bees for the last eight years. “About 10 years ago, I moved from the suburbs to a two-story loft in downtown Birmingham that my partner and I renovated. It was originally built in the 1800s for a cigar company,” he said.
Strahan’s container garden contained annuals and perennials and eventually gorgeous vegetable plants, but no vegetables. That’s when he realized he needed bees to pollinate his vegetables though he was reluctant due to his low pain tolerance. His partner, on the other hand, was enthusiastic and ordered a hive. That following summer, they had a great crop of vegetables.
They bought three more beehives and started harvesting honey for themselves and to give away. A ground swell of demand for local honey built, and people they’d given honey to said, “You guys need to start selling it.” These folks had found that the raw, unpasteurized, local honey gave them some relief from their allergies, along with its other health benefits. That was the beginning of City Bee Company.
Strahan extracted the liquid honey and sold it, placing the comb back in the hive. Then the bees continued to produce honey, instead of spending time building a comb. “I’m a treatment-free beekeeper and don’t use any chemicals to manipulate honey production or my bees in any way,” he reported. “When my partner no longer had time to work with the bees, I took responsibility for the bee business.”
Next, Strahan learned he legally couldn’t have more than three hives at his loft, due to city code. He and a beekeeping friend acquired some property and moved some of their hives to the suburbs.
Grow The Biz
Once Strahan decided to make money with his bees, he applied for a space at a well-known downtown farmers and crafts market, Pepper Place, where large crowds of customers came. He also built a website. “I had a large amount of beeswax left that I’d put in Ziploc bags and placed in the freezer,” he mentioned. “I discovered beeswax was in natural skin care products and commercial lip balms, hand and cuticle salves, body butter, furniture polish and moustache wax.”
One of his earliest occupations had been in the food service business where he learned how to develop new recipes. With that knowledge, he created and tested products with his freezer’s surplus beeswax. Next he gave product samples to focus groups and asked them to use the products and honestly tell him what they thought. “I had to throw many products in the garbage,” Strahan recalled. “After making lip balm, I followed with a hand salve, body butter moisturizer, moustache wax and beard oil—all products I took to Pepper Place and sold, along with my honey. That created my client base.”
At about that same time, retail sales on his website grew. He started working with 12 Birmingham retail stores, several others on the Upper Gulf Coast and Frenchtown, New Jersey, as well as the Alabama Rural Heritage Center that sells traditional Alabama food products. Strahan began his business in downtown Birmingham and then reached out to local and out-of-state retailers.
City Bee Company is very active on social media, including Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, all of which have been, according to Strahan, “Absolutely incredible platforms for carrying our message about the benefits of raw honey and beeswax.”
Keeper & Teacher
Adam Hickman was in middle school when he first saw his great grandfather’s beekeeping equipment. When he was 23, he decided to give beekeeping a try and began Foxhound Bee Company (foxhoundbeecompany.com).
“Today I have three apiaries,” he explained. “I have one hive at the urban site of Samford University connected to its nutrition and dietetics department. Another apiary is a quarter mile from my home, which is where I put swarms of bees that I catch and nurse back to health. My third is at the Shoal Creek community, part of my Host-A-Hive business. Often companies, businesses and communities want to have bees on their properties, but they don’t want to maintain or service the hives.”
Shoal Creek, just outside of Birmingham, has homes with large, private lots and hired Hickman to bring in and manage three hives, gather the honey and give it to the homeowners’ association to distribute. The bees pollinate the abundance of plants and flowers there and the residents want to help their environment by having honey bees. In Host-A-Hive, Hickman charges prices depending on how far he has to travel, and how many hives the client wants on his property.
“My base price is $1,750 per year paid annually to service a hive,” Hickman explained. “Beekeeping is fairly labor intensive, especially in the spring of the year, when I visit each hive every 1-2 weeks.”
On his website, he sells several different sizes of boxes and frames in which the bees live, based on the goal of the beekeeper. For example, a traditional box is called a 10-frame box and is very heavy—about 80 pounds when full of bees and honey. If you’re disabled, have bad knees and can’t lift very much weight, you’ll need a lighter box. One beehive sells for about $400 to $500. The price includes necessary items and the bees. If everything is working correctly, a hive should produce, depending on its size and location, from three to six gallons of honey a year. The market determines the price of the honey, and you’ll make $300 to $600 a year selling it.
Hickman also speaks to Samford’s master level students in nutrition and dietetics about how bees pollinate crops and flowers. “A conservative estimate is that one third of the food produced in the U.S. is 100% dependent on honey bees for pollination. Although butterflies, bats and bumble bees also are considered pollinators, they can’t pollinate as many plants as honey bees do. A colony of bumble bees in the ground may only have 24 bees and send out a dozen bumble bees at a time to pollinate. A honey bee hive can have a population of 60,000 and send out 40,000 honey bees at one time to pollinate. Without honey bees, we’d have less food, and our food would be very expensive, due to having to hand pollinate.”
Hickman teaches classes on beekeeping through the local beekeeping club and has discovered that more people want to learn about bees, keep bees and have raw honey than there are beekeepers to teach them.
Notes For Urban Wanna Bees
- Learn zoning and codes for your area.
- Realize you can’t put bees, which generally travel up to 3 miles from their hive, just anywhere. Part of being a good beekeeper is being a good neighbor.
- Invest in two hives so you can compare them to determine if one hive isn’t doing well.
- Recognize that the first and second years as a beekeeper are critical. You’re learning about each hive, and the bees are growing the hive and building comb, which requires them to expend energy and time. Then, the bees will have all the comb they need to raise brood, store pollen and honey and provide a place to lay eggs.
- Join a beekeeping club by researching a nearby city, your county or your state. Check out the Cooperative Extension Service. Look into the Back Yard Beekeeping Association.
- Watch YouTube videos to learn about new technology and products that may help increase your honey production.
- Buy the books, Beekeeping for Dummies and Building Bee Hives for Dummies.
- Purchase four items as a beginner: the hive, which includes the box, the frames and the bees; a hive tool; a smoker; and protection equipment: gloves, a head net, boots and long-sleeved pants and shirt.
- Know that not all foods require honey bees for pollination. Tomato plants have the ability to pollinate themselves. Corn is pollinated by the wind.
This article is from the spring 2018 issue of The New Pioneer Magazine. Grab your copy at OutdoorGroupStore.com.
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