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Profitability, productivity and sustainability in beekeeping

Janet Lowore and Nicola Bradbear, Bees for Development, 1 Agincourt Street, Monmouth, NP25 3DZ, UK

In many agricultural systems there is trade-off between profitability, productivity and sustainability. For example, spending money on inorganic fertilisers boosts productivity but sometimes (unless the fertiliser is subsidised) high input costs erode profits. Irrigation systems have been widely developed to boost crop productivity but salinization of the soil may lead to total loss of production. For example, salinity levels in the Western San Joaquin Valley, California (USA), have reached a point where the long term productivity of the area is threatened 1 . Productivity increases were achieved for some time, but in the long-term the irrigations systems were non-sustainable.

In this article we discuss how the considerations of profitability, productivity and sustainability apply to beekeeping. In subsequent articles we will use this approach to analyse different beekeeping systems.


Profitability is relatively easy to measure: it is the difference between cost and income. Costs in beekeeping may include hives, protective clothing, buckets, smokers, foundation, hire of an extractor – and in some systems – feed and medicines. Income is derived from the sale of bee products or pollination services. To give one example, a recent study carried out by SNV in Uganda 2 compares a local Ugandan hive, costing UGX20,000 (US$8; €6) with a top-bar hive UGX100,000 (US$38; €28). Given that the selling price of honey per kilogram is the same regardless of hive type, the local style hive is more profitable with a yield of 10 kg of honey per annum. Even if the top-bar hive achieves a higher honey yield of 15 kg per annum the profit generated is still lower than with the cheaper hive. With a very low-cost hive, the beekeeper can increase profit by having more of them.

It is important to take a systems approach with beekeeping because rarely does a beekeeping system consist only of a bee hive. Labour is a cost and the wider honey bee population is an asset. Hives which are designed to involve management procedures by the beekeeper, such as top-bar hives and frame hives, will create higher labour costs than fixed-comb hives. Conversely the extensive forest beekeeping systems of Angola and Zambia have low input costs but it takes time for beekeepers to travel into the forest where hives are sited.

Naturally healthy bees cost less to maintain than colonies prone to pests and diseases. In some parts of Asia the lower yielding – but better adapted – local honey bee Apis cerana may be more profitable than using the higher yielding, imported Apis mellifera because beekeepers using this bee species must spend more on transport, feed and medicines to keep these bees producing at maximum levels. This high input cost type of beekeeping will be more profitable when practised on a larger scale.


Productivity is a measure of yield per unit of production and is much to do with scale and efficiency. Sometimes productivity and profitability coincide (the ideal system), but not always. For example, honey hunting can be quite profitable. Costs are low and comprise little more than some hours of hard (and dangerous!) work and when the honey is sold most of the income is profit – and in the case of stingless bees there can be a handsome profit. For example the Kani people of the Western Ghats, India sell stingless bee honey at twenty times the price of honey bee honey 3 . However, honey hunting is not easy to do at scale – it can be unreliable and in today’s environment may be considered an unproductive system.

Now consider a hobby beekeeper in the UK who typically uses the latest equipment and spends many hours checking, feeding and managing a few honey bee colonies. Each colony may be relatively productive: yields of 27 kg per colony can be achieved in a good year 4 . However many of these beekeepers will admit that their enterprise is being run at a financial loss5, if all input costs are considered.

In beekeeping there are different ways to calculate productivity. First let us dispel the myth that a hive is a unit of production. A hive is a container – of sorts – and produces nothing. In beekeeping – depending on the system – the actual units of production may be:

• The land area: (hectares) of available bee forage;

• The bees: either one honey bee colony, or an apiary, or a population of many honey bee colonies.

Let us examine each in turn using some examples to explore meaning. Natural habitats such as mature miombo woodlands with a high density of large flowering trees, heather moors, chestnut forests or fields of sunflower are habitats that will produce an abundance of nectar. One hectare of these resources, well-stocked with a good number of colonies will be highly productive. It has been estimated for example that one hectare of mature chestnut trees can yield 500 kg of honey per year, whereas one hectare of mature lime trees can yield one tonne of honey per year 6`. Productivity can be increased by increasing the density of good nectar yielding plants.

Honey bee colonies vary in their yield and many factors influence the volume of honey they make each year: genetics, age of the queen, race, environment, colony size and swarming tendency, are among the many variables. Some of these factors can be controlled by the beekeeper and, depending upon on their experience and skills, beekeepers vary in their interest and ability to manage bees to increase honey productivity. Management is a careful balancing act between profit and productivity. Feeding is expensive: sometimes it is worth it and sometimes not. Controlling (ie reducing) swarming may increase honey yield but there is a cost in terms of time spent checking and managing that may not always be worth it – especially in extensive systems where the swarms are assets for the beekeeper.

Considering an apiary (or an entire population of honey bee colonies) within a local area as the unit of production makes the analysis look different again. An extensive beekeeper does not count the yield per colony, but instead works with totals. A beekeeper in Manica Province in Mozambique places over 100 local-style hives in a forest and at the end of the year harvests from a proportion of the hives, achieving up to 500 kg of honey per year 7 . Is this a productive system? Productivity as a concept is about efficiency

and scale: therefore it is more pertinent to ask: is this system efficient and scalable? The answer looks positive: it is efficient because the Mozambican beekeeper has achieved a high rate of return for time and money invested, and this is scalable. The system is easily expanded and replicated and can be undertaken on a large scale, allowing very good use of the available nectar resources.


Any gain in productivity and/or profitability achieved to the detriment of sustainability is not progress. Where sustainability is compromised it is possible that the system as a whole may collapse after a period of time. Sustainability may be social, economic or ecological and there are a number of scenarios where beekeeping systems have been shown to be non-sustainable. For example in parts of Ethiopia frame hives have been introduced for use by rural beekeepers. However beekeepers found that they had no access to an extractor, they could not afford or find foundation to buy, and drawn comb was destroyed by wax moth. This frame hive system was unsustainable and the beekeepers reverted to other, more sustainable systems.

Ecological sustainability is compromised when the activities of beekeepers inadvertently spread diseases, pathogens and pests, or the activities of farmers and land users destroy forage. For example, in parts of Argentina beekeeping is no longer sustainable on the same scale as previously because millions of hectares of wild flower meadows have been converted to soy bean production with a huge loss of available nectar 8 . Also beekeeping systems in parts of the USA rely on continual replacement of honey bee stocks from Australia, a practice of questionable sustainability. Honey hunting in parts of Asia is non-sustainable when colonies are destroyed at a greater rate than natural colonies can reproduce.

Ideal beekeeping system

An ideal beekeeping system for income generation in any context must be profitable, productive and sustainable. Beekeepers need to use their skills and experiences to make decisions on how to develop and improve systems within the constraints of their environment. In forthcoming editions of this Journal we will analyse a range of beekeeping systems by considering these three dimensions.

Low-cost hives are affordable and productive

Beekeeping system This refers to the bees, the technology, the management approach and the wider environment which a beekeeper manages, uses or interacts with, as they work to secure their yield of bee products.

Profitability is a measure of cost and income.

Productivity is a measure of yield per unit of production. In beekeeping the unit of production could be a colony, a population of honey bees or a hectare of forage,

Sustainability concerns the capacity for endurance and requires the reconciliation of environmental integrity, social equity and economic demands. It is often helpful to define sustainability within context. Therefore one can find definitions for sustainable development, sustainable forest management and sustainable energy. Here we are considering sustainable beekeeping systems.


1. LETEY, J. (2000). Soil salinity poses challenges for sustainable agriculture and wildlife. California Agriculture. March-April: pp 43-48.

2. DATHINE (2012). Appropriate hive technology: towards resolving the appropriate hive technology debate. SNV Uganda.

3. KUMAR,M.S.; RANJIT SINGH,A.J.A.; ALAGUMUTHU,G. (2012). Traditional beekeeping of stingless bees by Kani tribes of Western Ghats, Tamil Nadu, India. Indian Journal of Traditional Knowledge. Vol 11 (2).

4. British Beekeepers Association (2013) Honey. [online] Available at http://www.bbka.org.uk/learn/general_information/honey. [Accessed 14 February 2013].

5. BAKER,G. (2013) Personal communication; REES,J. (2013) Personal communication.

6. CRANE,E.; WALKER,P.; DAY,R. (1984). Directory of important world honey sources. IBRA, Cardiff, UK.

7. TOTAL TRANSFORMATION AGRIBUSINESS (PTY) LTD. (2006) Situation analysis of the beekeeping industry. [online] Available at http://www.apiservices.com/articles/us/beekeeping_regional_ situational-analysis.pdf. [Accessed 14 February 2013].

8. REUTERS (2008) Argentine beekeepers no longer in clover. [online] Available at http://www.reuters.com/article/2008/10/07/us-argentinahoney-idUSTRE49606B20081007 [Accessed 14 February 2013].