The sweet life of a bee farmer

Bee farming is not something we hear about every day. Female bee farmers are perhaps even more of an oddity. Black female bee farmers… now that’s pure gold!

Mmabatho “Portia” Morudi is South Africa’s first black female beekeeper. She started her business using what Mother Nature gave her… for mahala! From there, she quickly scaled her business to become the Queen Bee of the honey industry.

Today, Portia empowers others to become bee farmers. She explains that you only need a little start-up capital to buy some bee hives and basic tools, as all the rest is available in nature, completely free.

This is especially true for those in rural areas, where natural resources such as bees and the plants on which they forage can be found in abundance. You also don’t need to have land of your own, as you can go into partnerships with other farmers to place your hives on their land. This, in turn, helps to improve their crops and yields too. It’s this sort thinking that sees so many entrepreneurs kickstart their success. How can I do something that not only helps my business, but others too? What if you saw your community as an ecosystem in which clever, mutually beneficial business models are the secret to sustainable success? Portia not only asked these questions… she found the answers and then built her own business on that very foundation.

There’s a sweet and not-so-sweet side to bee farming.

To become a bee farmer, you need a lot of patience. Bees are not people. You can’t negotiate with them. Sometimes getting bees to settle in a hive can take time. But once they settle, it’s well worth the wait.

The upside quickly becomes evident to beekeepers who are new to the game, as they soon realise the great potential for a viable business. Apart from the fact that you don’t need a lot of money to start and run a bee farm, there is also a high demand for good quality honey in our country. Again, it’s all about seeing your business as a solution to a problem, as a way to fill a gap and seize an opportunity.

In South Africa, we consume around 5 000 tonnes of honey per year, but only 2 000 tonnes are produced here on our own soil – the rest has to be imported. The demand for honey keeps growing, as honey is becoming more and more popular as a healthy replacement for sugar. Honey is also used as a natural remedy for many issues, such as healing wounds, soothing skin irritations, and improving gut health, to name but a few. Plus, there’s a growing demand for anything homegrown and proudly South African, especially those products that come with beautiful stories of success.

Generally, two types of honey are sold, namely commercial honey and raw honey. Commercial honey is heated and processed, which kills bacteria and produces a clear liquid that is easy to spread. Raw honey, on the other hand, is taken directly from the hives and bottled in its natural form. As a result, raw honey quickly crystallises or becomes solid, but it has the benefit of keeping all its natural, healthy qualities intact. Raw honey is also less complex to produce than commercial honey.

Honey comes in different flavours and colours, which range from very light to very dark. Colour, however, has nothing to do with the quality of the honey, but is determined by where the bees forage. Lighter honey usually comes from bee farms close to citrus blossoms, while darker honey typically comes from bee farms close to wildflowers.

The taste of honey is also affected by where the bees forage, which is why there are so many different flavours on the market, such as blueberry, acacia, avocado, citrus and wildflower. Some say variety is the spice of life, and it seems people like variety in their honey as well!

It gets even sweeter. There are other spin-offs from a bee farm that can be leveraged for extra income. A bee farmer can, for example, supply hives to others who are thinking of becoming bee farmers. Plus, there is a constant demand for beeswax, by producers of leather products and manufacturers of skincare products. So, instead of throwing the beeswax away, it can be supplied to industries that put it to good use and unlock its full potential.

Portia’s best advice to all those who are thinking of becoming a bee farmer? “Start with what you have. But even if you start small, always think big.” Whichever way, when you’re ready to explore the sweet life of a bee farmer, be sure to get some training from another bee farmer first. You don’t want to just stick your head into a beehive, at the risk of getting stung.