According to Chinese astrology, the 2021 Lunar New Year on 12 February ushered in the Year of the Ox. Yet, just five minutes of scrolling through social media will tell you that this year could more accurately be described as the year of the Bee.
Whether it’s A-list (or Bee-list…ahem) celebs like David Beckham posting about his own backyard beekeeping endeavours, or TikTok megastar Erika Thompson aweing her 5 million plus followers with clips of her saving the bees, our buzzing buddies have officially entered the mainstream.
In fact, bees have become so in vogue over the past 12 months that Google searches for beekeeping-related terms have rocketed by more than 150%. And according to Eventbrite, attendance of online beekeeping courses grew tenfold in 2020 and show no signs of stopping.
More and more people are taking up beekeeping as a hobby and sharing their escapades on social media. But what some people aren’t aware of is that commercial beekeeping – also known as beefarming – can be a full-time profession. While traditionally associated with the older generations, a growing number of millennials and Gen Z are bucking the trend and joining the industry.
One of these is Amanda John, a 27-year-old professional bee farmer based near Brackley, Northamptonshire. At her apiary, Amanda currently keeps 25 hives, meaning that in the summer there are around 1 million bees! She’s one of 15 graduates from the Rowse Bee A Bee Farmer apprenticeship scheme, which aims to equip young people with the skills and knowledge they need to make a successful career in bee farming. Part of our Hives for Lives programme of vital initiatives designed to protect bees and beekeepers, the scheme has provided training to 32 youngsters to date.
Yet, behind the glamour of social media and viral bee content is one of nature’s greatest challenges. Wild honey bees are nearly extinct in the UK, and the precious colonies we do have rely on amateur beekeepers and professional bee farmers to survive. What’s more, most of the bee farmers are close to retirement, so the industry desperately needs to attract more young people.
Fortunately, it looks as if things are heading in the right direction. Back in 2014, the average age of a bee farmer was 66 years old, according to the Bee Farmers Association (BFA). But now, a growing number of young people like Amanda are trading in their office jobs to save the bees.
Here, Amanda takes us behind the scenes of what it’s like to be a bee farmer and shares some top tips for those looking to get started in the profession.
Why are bees so important to our ecosystem?
Bees are so important to our ecosystem and our planet because they pollinate a range of flowers, helping them to grow and reproduce. Many of these produce the fruit and veg that we eat as part of our everyday diets.
Flowers and bees have a symbiotic relationship meaning they both benefit from each other. Bees visit flowers to collect nectar or pollen, and in doing so they pick up pollen grains on their hairs. When they visit another flower, the pollen is transferred, pollinating the flower. The nectar in the flower is a reward for the bees for pollinating.
Bees are also a big part of the food chain; birds and spiders for example rely on bees as their food source. So, in other words, bees help the world go round.
Why are wild honey bees endangered?
As more humans inhabit the world, ideal habitat for bees is lost. Sources of food for bees is becoming less as urbanisation grows. This, along with pesticides and climate change, all contribute to the threat these bees face.
What made you want to become a bee farmer?
My fascination with bees grew when I met my partner Chris, who was working with his dad as a bee farmer. At this point, I had no idea about honey bees and was surprised to see that they weren’t big and fluffy like bumble bees. The summer is a busy time for bee farmers, so the only opportunity I had to see Chris was to join him when he was tending to the bees. I found myself learning a lot by watching him work and wanted to further my knowledge. I slowly helped out more in my free time until I gave up my job working in an archive to become a full-time bee farmer.
How did the Rowse apprenticeship help you in your ambition to become a bee farmer?
The Rowse apprenticeship, which is run in partnership with the Bee Farmers Association (BFA), was a great scheme for me to learn about bee farming outside of my employment. When working with the same beekeepers, you learn their techniques and methods but nothing outside of that. However, the apprenticeship helped me to understand the different methods and ways of beekeeping. It also gave me background information about bees themselves including anatomy and behaviours, which I wouldn’t necessarily have learnt on the job.
One of the great aspects of it is you get to meet loads of other young bee farmers like you and build a close-knit community. It’s really inspiring to be around like-minded people in a similar situation to yourself.
What’s the difference between bee farming and beekeeping?
Beekeepers look after bees as a hobby, whereas bee farmers rely on their bees for income. Beekeepers normally have under 10 hives, while bee farmers can have many thousands! What we do with the bees is the same as any beekeeper would do, we just have a lot more to look after and can spend all of our time doing it.
Why is it important for more young people to get involved in bee farming?
Bee farmers in the UK tend to be from older generations. We therefore need more young people to get involved for the industry to be sustainable. Understandably, young people don’t always know that working with bees is a career option, so it’s important that we can get the message out there that working with bees can be an exciting and fulfilling job opportunity.
What are some of the different ways for bee farmers to make money?
Bee farmers can create a living from bees in a number of different ways. One of these is through honey production (in bulk or direct retail sales in jars) – some of the honey I produce at my apiary is supplied directly to Rowse! As with flowers, bees also have a symbiotic relationship with bees for honey. It’s no accident that they produce excess amounts. Bee farmers can also make money through selling beeswax, producing and selling bees and queens or even making and selling hive equipment.
Our process needs to be efficient enough so we can make enough money to sustain ourselves. We rely on local farmers to allow us to put some beehives on their land and in return they may get better pollination on their crops. As bee farmers, we can also carry out paid pollination for crop-growing farms such as those that cultivate cherries, blueberries and blackberries. If there are more bees in the area, then the flowers are more likely to get better pollinated producing more fruit.
What advice would you give to anyone who wants to get involved in bee farming?
Contacting local bee farmers is a great place to start, as well as local associations. Speaking to the BFA can also be helpful as they can point someone in the right direction. Gaining some work experience with a bee farmer can also lead you to the Rowse apprenticeship scheme, which will set you up to really succeed in the profession.
To find out more about Rowse’s Bee a Bee Farmer apprenticeship scheme, in partnership with the BFA, visit: https://www.rowsehoney.co.uk/hives-for-lives/bee-a-bee-farmer/