There is a shift happening in the bee industry as old guys (like me) begin to pass the reins to the next generation. It is exciting to see young faces at the bee meetings. But what happens to the old guys? Do we put them on ice flow somewhere? Is there something useful for us to do?
In January 2015, I sold my beekeeping company. After almost 40 years as a commercial beekeeper, I wondered what “life after bees” would be like. Over the last few years, I have had several beekeeper friends ask me for advice about selling their companies. A recurring question comes up…“Can you really retire from beekeeping?”
I started with bees in the mid-1970’s. We had issues with low honey prices and pesticides but nothing like the challenges today. We persevered through the 1980’s battling tracheal mites, varroa mites, low honey prices, and various government restrictions on interstate hive movement. I grew up in Massachusetts around family-run dairy farms that worked hard year around and embraced the farming lifestyle even though they never made much money. For a long time, commercial beekeeping was not much better.
In the last 10+ years (post CCD), beekeeping has changed significantly. The market for pollination services and honey is tremendous. Many good beekeepers are making a good living. Beekeeping is more popular and profitable! We are seeing more beekeepers at all levels.
The real challenges today are keeping the bees alive and healthy. There has never been a formal method to learn beekeeping. Most of us have worked with experienced beekeepers to learn our craft. That is still a viable method to learn commercial beekeeping but not enough to keep up with a changing environment. Beekeeping has gotten more difficult.
Where does the research community fit in? In most other forms of agriculture, farmers have benefited from cooperation from universities and industry research. Beekeeping seems to be in the early stages of building better relationships with the research community. But we are not an easy crowd to work with…
I can anticipate laughter from many of you when I tell you that “retirement is not as easy as it looks!” Our jobs provide structure and meaning to us. From an early age, we learn to equate our success with how much money we make or how many hives we run. That paradigm shifts when you leave the workforce. We need to find new ways to measure success, and that is a challenge.
I have spoken to many older commercial beekeepers that are in the process of turning their business over to their sons or employees. I have seen real pain in their faces as they think about giving up control over their companies. Beekeeping is not just a job but more of a lifestyle. It has never been easy in the bee business. Our brains and bodies are constantly challenged to perform. We work hard and take pride in our performance when we make the right decisions and kick ourselves when we don’t. Most of the successful beekeepers I know are very driven people. What happens to that drive when you no longer are in the driver’s seat? It does not go away…
So, once again, can you ever retire from beekeeping? I don’t think so. You may not oversee thousands of hives anymore but that does not mean you don’t notice when local flowers or trees are in bloom or a good spot for a new bee yard. You still go to the bee meetings to hear what is going on. But most importantly, if you are lucky, you still continue to advocate for bees and beekeepers whenever you can.
You are reading this opinion piece in the Project Apis m. newsletter. I have been on the PAm Board for several years. I have been active in honey bee research and advocacy work in other capacities through ABF, BIP, working with University of Florida, US EPA, USDA, and many other groups while I was operating a large company. I don’t use the term retirement to describe the next stage of life. I am calling it “Phase 2” of beekeeping when I can utilize 40 years of experience to advocate for bees and beekeepers.
Please take a look at the accomplishments of the last 10 years from Project Apis m, now posted on our website. PAm has funded many bee research projects that would not have been possible otherwise. Our steady growth and partnerships have enabled us to fund more research and forage projects, we have hired new staff, and I foresee much more progress. I am proud to be involved with Project Apis m.
For those of you thinking about “retirement” from beekeeping, we can visit and talk about “Phase 2” of your career. Hopefully, you will consider sharing your knowledge and experience with the next generation of beekeepers. There are lots of opportunities to give back to the beekeeping community. And it is not so bad to have a few hives in the backyard to play with…
Board of Directors