Bulletin #2021, Why Beekeeping in Maine Might Be a Suitable Enterprise for Persons with Disabilities

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By Richard Brzozowski, Food System Program Administrator, Leilani Carlson, Maine AgrAbility Coordinator, University of Maine Cooperative Extension and Jennifer Lund, Apiarist and Bee Inspector, State of Maine

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Disabilities and Farming

Apiary at Tidewater FarmsHaving a disability or chronic illness might prevent or limit opportunities for employment. With appropriate planning, assistive tools, and safety measures, farming could be a way to generate income for a person with limitations.

In farming, you are your own boss. For many farm enterprises, you can set your own schedule and plan necessary tasks around your abilities and availability. Many tasks in farming can be performed with special tools, machinery, adaptive technologies, or can be automated. These work modifications can save time, reduce physical stresses, and allow the farmer to work more efficiently and safely. In addition, farming can be therapeutic; the experiences allow you to be outdoors, growing and caring for animals or plants, be a good steward for the land and provide food or fiber for yourself, your family, or others.  Well managed farming enterprises can also generate an income.

This fact sheet is designed as an informational and exploratory tool to help you determine if beekeeping might be a good fit for you.  As you read this fact sheet, make notes, or highlight the sections you see as important or that you want to learn more about.

Keeping Bees with a Purpose

As with any farming enterprise, determine what product(s) or service(s) you would like to provide for sale and identify reliable markets for your products or services before making monetary investments in bees, equipment, and supplies. In general, beekeeping may be an appropriate choice for you because:

  • The work can be compartmentalized. Specific tasks can be managed by season and broken up throughout the day or week. You can also control how you lay out the apiary and workspace. By compartmentalizing your work area, the tasks you want to accomplish can be focused and sized to your abilities.
  • The production cycle of honeybees can be relatively short (5-6 months) but it will be at least 18 months before there are products to sell.  Depending on your goals these characteristics may allow for a quicker return on investment than some other farming enterprises.
  • Some tasks in keeping bees can be automated such as lifting hive bodies or supers and extracting honey. Thermostats or sensors can be used to monitor the temperature and moisture.  A strategically placed video camera may be used to view the hive or apiary remotely.
  • Managing bees is typically performed from the ground. This allows increased access for a person with mobility issues or one who uses a wheelchair.

In contrast, beekeeping may not be an appropriate fit for you because:

  • Keeping bees is not cost-free. A new beekeeper will need a beginning woodenware kit, bees, tools and veils. A total start-up cost may be $300 to $500 per hive.
  • With beekeeping, there is an increased need for good organization and management skills to maintain healthy bees that will produce honey, pollen, wax, or other products.
  • Honeybees must be managed and maintained on a regular basis. This maintenance may include observation, feeding, pest management, health monitoring, adding supers, harvesting honey, and sometimes in the winter months snow removal. You need to be around in nearly every month of the year to inspect and manage your bees.
  • You get stung if working around bees.  Other people, pets, and livestock on the property may also receive stings. Some people are allergic to bee stings so caution is necessary.
  • There is no guaranteed yield.  Climate, forage availability, water availability, disease, and pests may limit the yields your bees are able to produce.

Pre-Planning Considerations

Think about these factors before you obtain bees or equipment.

  • Take a class to learn about beekeeping.  There will likely be a fee for such a class.
  • Develop a business plan or a purpose-driven plan for keeping bees; within this plan, identify specific products and markets to determine the feasibility of such an enterprise.
  • Identify adequate funds or obtain a loan.
  • Consider the site location and needs of the apiary:
    • access to the hives via foot, truck, van, 4-wheeler, or tractor in all seasons
    • slope of the land
    • orientation of apiary to the sun and from prevailing winds through every season of the year
    • access of the hive to a water source
    • safety of people (neighbors, farmworkers, livestock, pets, and visitors)
    • the possible need for electric fencing (to deter bears)
  • Develop a plan for entry.  Spring or early summer is typically when colonies are started. However, bees are typically ordered in the winter months.
  • There are different strains of bees that are better suited for different management goals so it is important to determine what types of bees you want.
  • Identify source(s) to purchase package bees or nucleus colonies (nucs).
  • Determine if you are going to manufacture the hive equipment, assemble purchased parts, or purchase them already produced.
  • A honey processing license is required if you plan to sell honey in Maine.  A certified kitchen is required for the license.  For more information contact the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Quality Assurance & Regulations.

Typical Operational Tasks and Chores

Physical tasks are typically necessary for any successful farming enterprise. At a minimum, a beekeeper will have to be able to lift 10 pounds (the weight of one full honey frame) – this physical aspect of the process cannot be modified.  Depending on your specific set up and goals, some chores listed below may not apply. As you view the list, consider each chore and how it might be performed or if the chore is necessary for your situation. Add chores that are missing.  Look at a possible beekeeping enterprise critically, considering your own strengths and limitations.

Pre-Season

  • Assembling wooden hive bases, bodies, supers, and covers
  • Installing foundation comb into hive bodies and supers
  • Transporting hive bodies to the apiary
  • Setting up hives in the apiary

Spring

  • Set up electric fencing
  • Installing new bees into equipment
  • Registering hives with the state
  • Unwrapping overwintered hives and rotating hive bodies
  • Hive inspections (monitoring for health, strength, pests, and diseases)
  • Collecting specimens for disease testing
  • Check food supplies in the hive
  • Mixing and feeding sugar syrup when necessary
  • Splitting hives
  • Adding supers (lifting empty supers)
  • Maintaining water source
  • Separating and swapping supers (lifting full supers)
  • Apiary maintenance (weed control for electric fencing and mowing for ease of access)

Summer

  • Hive inspections (monitoring for health, strength, pests, and diseases)
  • Collecting specimens for disease testing
  • Check food supplies in the hive
  • Transporting supers
  • Adding supers (lifting empty supers)
  • Maintaining water source
  • Apply necessary pest disease treatments
  • Removing or swapping supers (lifting full supers)
  • Honey processing including uncapping, extraction, bottling, and labeling
  • Apiary maintenance (weed control for electric fencing, mowing for ease of access)

Fall/Winter

  • Hive inspections (monitoring for health, strength, pests and diseases)
  • Collecting specimens for disease testing
  • Check food supplies in hive
  • Transporting supers
  • Adding supers (lifting empty supers)
  • Removing or swapping supers (lifting full supers)
  • Honey processing including uncapping, extraction, bottling, and labeling
  • Maintaining water source
  • Winter preparation of hives
  • Apiary maintenance (snow removal)

Multi Seasonal

  • Record keeping (sale of products or services, movement of hives, pest management actions, inspections, harvest yields, and sales)
  • Selling honey (or other products)
  • Collecting swarms (when and if applicable)

Beekeeping Enterprise Opportunities

The production and marketing of honey is the most common beekeeping-related enterprise for U.S. farmers. Other beekeeping enterprises include:

  • Providing pollination service (renting hives to tree fruit, small fruit, and vegetable growers)
  • Beeswax or the sales of their products (candles, cosmetics such as lotions, salves, lip balm, etc.)
  • Pollen sales
  • Propolis sales
  • Nucleus colony (nuc) or package sales
  • Queen sales
  • Beekeeping equipment sales

These alternative beekeeping enterprises may require additional knowledge and skills but could be a suitable opportunity for persons with physical or developmental limitations.

Adaptive Tools and Technologies

Adaptive tools and assistive technology can enable a beekeeper to manage their apiary and farm business. Planning ahead with site location, access and pre-design can enable a farmer, with or without a disability, to work safely and successfully.

  • Seating options can be built-in or located near the apiary for those individuals with endurance issues.
  • Smaller hand tools or telescoping tools can be used if strength is an issue.
  • Wireless video cameras can be used to monitor apiaries remotely. This technology reduces the need to be ever-present.  However, this technology does not eliminate the need to open and inspect the hives.
  • Hive/super mover – whole hive or individual super movers are available to make lifting easier.
  • Production and financial records can be kept using voice recognition software. This allows someone with sight or hand use limitations to be actively involved in the record-keeping aspect of the enterprise.
  • Honey extractor – electric, battery-operated or hand-crank extractor and heated knife options.  Wheelchair accessible extractors are also an option.

Consider using Universal Design and ergonomic concepts when planning your apiary and inside work area. Universal design is a method of designing tools, buildings, and environments to be usable by all people to the greatest extent possible. For more information, see Principles of Universal Design.

  • Ease of access to and from the apiary
  • Pathways should be firm, smooth and level with adequate drainage
  • Use contrasting colors and texture for pathways
  • For wheelchair or walker users, the pathway should be wide enough and sloped no more than 1:12.
  • For the mobility impaired users, be sure to have clear pathways, no overhead obstacles, and all tools should have a suitable storage spot.
  • For the visually impaired, use contrasting colors and textures and use wind chimes to provide location cues.
  • When deciding on the layout of the apiary, consider morning sunlight, prevailing winter winds, windbreaks, hive spacing, hive height, and fencing.

Conclusion

Keeping bees might fit you and your situation. Invest adequate time in the exploration process and in considering the advantages and drawbacks. Speak with others who keep bees and sell honey.  Visit a successful beekeeper during different seasons of the year. For more information on beekeeping, contact your local UMaine Extension county office, local beekeeping club, or State of Maine Apiarist and Bee Inspector, jennifer.lund@maine.gov

This material is supported by a grant from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) under sponsored project number 2018-41590-28715. Maine AgrAbility assists farmers, fishermen, and forest workers to overcome disabilities, injuries or other barriers so they can continue to work safely and productively in agriculture.

Additional Beekeeping Resources

Maine AgrAbility assists farmers, fishermen, and forest workers to overcome disabilities, injuries or other barriers so they can continue to work safely and productively in agriculture. This material is supported by a grant from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) under sponsored project number 2018-41590-28715. For more information visit Maine AgrAbility or email maine.agrability@maine.edu.


Information in this publication is provided purely for educational purposes. No responsibility is assumed for any problems associated with the use of products or services mentioned. No endorsement of products or companies is intended, nor is criticism of unnamed products or companies implied.

© 2020

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