Lincoln-based computer programmer Dustin Scholl always dreamed of having his own hive of honeybees.
“I thought I would make beekeeping my hobby when I’m an old man,” he laughs. “My wife, Kat, thought I was crazy.”
But after taking a beekeeping class for fun together in 2009, the couple agreed to give it a try.
“The class was fascinating – we were hooked,” Scholl recalls. “After the very first class, my wife said, ‘We’re getting bees.’”
Nebraska Honey Producers
Beekeeping is a niche market in Nebraska agriculture, with more than 300 active members of the Nebraska Beekeepers Association across the state. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there were 46,000 honey-producing hives in Nebraska in 2013.
For most honey producers, beekeeping is a hobby or side job.
“It’s difficult to make a living as a full-time beekeeper. There are some around, but the larger number of beekeepers have a day job and keep bees on the side,” says Buzz Vance, who owns Buzz’s Bees in Lincoln. “Like farming, beekeeping is expensive to get into and requires a lot of know-how and hard work to make a living doing it.”
Vance, who acquired the nickname “Buzz” in college while pursuing a degree in entomology, has been keeping bees for more than 30 years. He started in college with two hives and now has 50.
“I’ve always had an interest in insects, and I have a master’s degree in entomology, so this is right up my alley,” Vance says. “I love being outdoors and like gardening; I enjoy having produce – honey – to show for my labor. Also, bees are incredibly fascinating. I never stop learning about them.”
How Bees Make Honey
The honey making process begins when worker bees collect sugary nectar from flowers to feed their colony. They suck the nectar from the blossom and store it in their honey stomach, which is different from their food stomach. When their honey stomach is full, the bees return to the hive and expel the nectar into honeycomb cells.
Hive bees then beat their wings rapidly to fan the nectar and evaporate its water content. Once the sugars in the nectar thicken into honey, bees cap off the cells with beeswax, sealing the honey into the honeycomb to eat later.
“In our part of the country between late October and March, there are no flowers in bloom, so a colony must store up food – mostly honey – that will feed them in winter months,” Vance explains. “Roughly 60 pounds of honey or more is needed by an average colony to survive the winter.”
Bees tend to store up more honey than they need for themselves, giving beekeepers the opportunity to harvest some of the honey in late summer.
“The beekeeper needs to be sure to not harvest too heavily, or the bees may come up short of food to survive the winter,” Vance says. “Harvesting and extracting honey is a lot of work, but it is rewarding.”
Beekeepers must check their hives at least every two weeks in spring and summer to monitor the health of the hive and add storage space if needed.
“To become a good beekeeper, a person needs to be able to spot predatory mites, evaluate signs of healthy versus diseased bees, understand how to respond to hive health issues and be hopeful,” Vance says. “A background in biology certainly helps.”
Nebraska Beekeepers Association
Vance says that few franchised grocery stores have local honey due to the small number of beekeepers who have access to commercial kitchens for the processing.
“The standards for selling face-to- face are easier to meet, so most beekeepers sell from their homes and farmers markets,” he says.
Scholl is information director for the Nebraska Beekeepers Association, which has monthly meetings with speakers who help beekeepers better understand their craft. Scholl’s favorite aspects of beekeeping are educating the public about honeybees at vendor booths and being out in nature.
“My wife and I both say when we’re out working with bees, it’s like an escape,” he says. “Honeybees are the most studied insect in the world, so we always discover something new.”