Grant Money to Start Beekeeping?
Is there actually grant money for beekeepers?
A common question we receive at the Extension office is whether there are government grants available to help individuals start keeping honey bees, and how to tap into those funds.
Government agencies, private entities and virtuous citizens have all been concerned about the plight and peril of pollinators for over a decade now. Since the first news about Colony Collapse Disorder in 2006, we have been seeing alarming headlines with gloom and doom predictions for the disappearing honey bee, and by extension, the end life as we know it. This has led a lot of people to consider picking up a hive tool and try their hand at beekeeping.
But getting started in beekeeping is not cheap.
Most of the expenses are on the front end, leading to sticker shock for some who just want to do their part to help protect and promote a valuable pollinator. Of course, no agricultural venture is going to be cheap. Want to start with chickens? Price out the feed, watering trays, heat lamps and a good coop. Now see how much each of those delicious farm fresh eggs is actually costing you. The same goes for bees. You may have seen the price on a jar of fresh local honey at the farmer’s market and thought you could just bottle your own liquid gold, but most bee hives won’t even produce a surplus crop of honey until their second year. It can take you a while to see a return on your investment in beekeeping, but it can happen if you stick it out.
So can we turn to the government for help?
People like to complain about having crooks in charge, and about the taxes we pay, but many of the same people will line up with their hands out when money is being passed around. You might be curious if is there really free cash available for bees. And how much? And how can you get some of that?
The short answer is a resounding no.
There is no large fund writing blank checks to pay you for your new bee colonies. Despite increased awareness of the plight of the humble bee, and the imperative need to maintain a healthy pollinator population, the government simply isn’t going to fund your hobby interest in a handful of backyard beehives any more than they will pay you to grow a small vegetable patch, learn to knit, or collect rare stamps.
But shouldn’t they fund beekeepers? Pollinators are important!
Bees do benefit the environment in countless ways. And there is certainly a vested public interest in keeping honey bees around. But given the economic state of our country in the wake of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, don’t hold your breath for a bee hive bailout.
“I heard there was a program…”
We get this a lot, and we’re not sure where folks are hearing that. There are some vague rumors circulating online, but trying to track them down to their source will lead you in a circle of web pages and social media posts that link to each other and back around to where you started, with little useful information. Some articles you'll find (like this one) are full of promising material, but are short on details. So after a round of frustrating clicks, many people eventually call their Cooperative Extension offices for clarification. And unfortunately, folks may not find the answer they hoped for.
That doesn’t mean that public funding for beekeeping hasn’t been tried.
In 2005, Dr. David Tarpy, a honey bee researcher at North Carolina State University, received a grant from the Golden LEAF foundation, which funded agricultural development projects in North Carolina through their state’s tobacco settlement. Under this program, they were able to provide pairs of hives and package bees to new beekeepers who took an introductory class and joined a local beekeeping association.
Participants still had to purchase their own protective clothing and other accessories, but that was a relatively minor expense by comparison. A couple of standard bee hive kits and two spring packages of honey bees can easily run you $700 or more in today’s money. Dr. Tarpy estimates that the half-life for new beekeepers sticking with it runs about 2 ½ years. That is, every 2 ½ years, about half of those who take up beekeeping will quit for one reason or another. Another half of those who remained will be finished in another 2 ½ years, and so on. The initial program funded 250 individuals. So by his estimate, there may be about 4 of those from that original group who still light their smokers today.
Another program administered through the Virginia Department of Agriculture has tried to promote beekeeping by providing up to three free bee hives to households that apply for them. Recipients were selected randomly from a pool of eligible applications received each year, and the number of hives available was contingent on annual funding from their state's legislature. While bee hives were distributed, honey bees and other tools were not provided, and recipients were required to establish bee colonies in their new hives within one year of receipt. No data was available about the success of the Virginia program to increase the number of bee colonies in their state.
Everybody's doing it, so why don’t you?
It seems like everyone wants to save the bees, and beekeeping is now seen as a trendy leisure activity to keep you in touch with nature. Celebrities like Morgan Freeman, Scarlet Johansson and Leonardo DiCaprio keep bees. Guitar wizard Steve Vai, funky bass man Flea and even the fictional sleuth Sherlock Holmes have helped popularize the hobby. Writer Leo Tolstoy drew on his personal knowledge of beekeeping to compare the listlessness of a queenless hive to the state of Moscow after Napoleon’s invasion. Michelle Obama had a hive installed at the white house vegetable garden, and even Pope Francis has a number of bee hives at what has been the pope’s summer residence since the 16th century.
Fortunately for the bees, there are always more people who want to join the noble ranks of beekeepers every year. Unfortunately, many of them will also give up on it after a short time.
But why the exponential drop off?
There have been some other attempts to jump start beekeeping with other programs similar to the one in North Carolina, but most have had similar results. Why is that? Well, it tuns out that beekeeping actually involves work. Some chores have to be done on the bees’ schedule, and not at our leisure. We have to endure hot weather in a bee suit, heavy lifting, and of course there are those pesky stings. People don’t seem to like those. Generally speaking, when people have to invest their own funds into something, they are more likely to put in more effort. But when they have no financial skin in the game, it may be easier to simply shrug it off and say we tried, but it really wasn't for me.
Many beekeeping books and blogs, like gardening books and cookbooks, tend to present the most encouraging information… pretty flowers, smiling beekeeper families holding frames of honey, and jars of freshly bottled and neatly labeled honey that suggests a free gold mine. And like the California gold rush, people have flocked to beekeeping only to find out they can’t simply pick up big nuggets from a stream by the shovel full.
Cookbooks show beautifully staged photos of delicious looking meals, with a note that says “feeds 4, prep time 20 minutes, cooking time 10 minutes. But they conveniently omit showing you how many pans and measuring cups you’ll have to scrub. We love garden-fresh veggies, and many have been known to plant in the spring with the best intentions, but before long we are overwhelmed with many other summer duties and fun activities, and before we know it the weeds are higher than the corn.
Likewise, modern beekeeping has many challenges.
There are mites and viruses, bacteria and beetles, fungi and failing queens, pesticides and pollution. And there are scores of books, blogs and online videos that often seem to give conflicting advice. Someone new to the craft will just have to dive in and claw their way up a very steep and confusing learning curve for the first couple of years. Which is why so many will throw in their veil and try other pursuits. If you can stick it out, though, without losing your shirt, you might have what it takes to succeed with honey bees.
Sure, but what about some of that free money?
Most granting agencies prefer to fund projects that produce results – either practical solutions or “pure science” endeavors to increase knowledge for its own sake, which will (hopefully) eventually lead to practical uses. And they want you to include a statement about how your will share and publicize those results (with a little credit to themselves for their funding). Even the most generous grants rarely fund “brick and mortar” structures for you. They may help you with equipment and supplies, salary or labor, but will not simply pay you to build yourself a barn or honey house or other structure – including those relatively small structures we call bee hives. Those types of real estate improvement are generally going to require your own capital since they are ultimately for your own use and convenience. And for a hobby beekeeping operation, you will have to find a way to fund your own fun.
What about business loans?
However, if you are considering beekeeping on a commercial scale (large or small), you can look into a small business loan. The USDA offers a farm loan program specifically to help farmers and ranchers start up an operation, or to expand or maintain a family farm, often with low interest rates and credit terms. Adding working pollinators to an existing operation, or producing honey as a specialty crop, can qualify for this type of farm expansion. These loans can help with operating costs such as livestock and feed, new equipment, or even family living expenses while an operation gets up and running. Farm Ownership Loans can be used to purchase a farm or ranch, to expand an existing one, or to construct or improve buildings, or even help conservation efforts to protect or improves soil and water resources.
Microloans are particularly intended for small operations and non-traditional or specialty crop operations. They may be smaller in scale, but often require less daunting paperwork. There are even special categories of funds earmarked to help Native American tribe members, youth agricultural projects, or to assist women and minorities to purchase and operate a farm or ranch. The USDA’s Farm Service Agency has a Beginning Farmers and Ranchers program that can provide guaranteed credit to assist a new generation of farmers and ranchers to purchase land and begin to operate. Go to https://www.farmers.gov/fund/farm-loan-discovery-tool to see what options are available, or visit with your local FSA office to talk to a representative in person.
Boost your bees by improving their habitat
Honey bees are most productive when they are healthy and have access to good, diverse forage. There is only so much that beekeepers can do in the hive to help our bees (controlling mites and diseases, for instance). A lot of what happens to bee colonies is dictated by outside conditions, literally from the ground up. By improving habitat in areas around an apiary, we can increase the bees access to a greater diversity of flowering plants. When done right, these plants can provide pollen and nectar all season long. This is especially important in the early build-up period before the main nectar flow, as well as late fall building up of winter stores. Ideally bees should be self-sustaining, but humans have often modified the environment to make that harder.
The USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) provides financial and technical assistance to agricultural producers to address natural resource concerns and deliver environmental benefits. This voluntary conservation program helps producers make conservation work for them. Each state has specific priorities and geographic regions they wish to target.
Their Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) seeks to help landowners build on existing conservation efforts while strengthening existing agricultural operations. By improving grazing conditions in pastures or establishing and improving wildlife habitat landowners can improve safe foraging conditions for bees.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is a branch of the USDA that works with agricultural producers and landowners to improve the quality of soil, water and air by implementing conservation practices that also enhancing habitat for pollinators and other wildlife. These programs can potentially benefit beekeepers by improving the forage available to honey bees. NRCS programs can provide technical and financial assistance to help producers provide safe and diverse sources of nectar and pollen for bees. This can be accomplished through planting cover crops, planting native wildflowers and grasses in buffers and other areas not in crop production, and improving the management of grazing lands and timber lands. More than three dozen NRCS conservation practices currently provide benefits to pollinators. Contact your local NRCS office to learn more about what you can do on your property.
Resources for Arkansas beekeepers
Here in Arkansas, landowners can enroll in the Acres for Wildlife program administered by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. Citizens and wildlife biologists work together in this program that improves wildlife habitat and encourages landowners to consider the needs of wildlife (including pollinators) in conjunction with good farming, livestock production and forestry practices.
Another program called Project Wingspan is administered through numerous cooperating government agencies and private organizations to promote and improve pollinator habitat on public and private land. In particular, they are seeking to connect fragmented habitats along the monarch butterfly's annual migration route with more suitable native wildflowers. Of course, these habitat improvement efforts will make the world a better place for the birds and the bees as well the butterflies.
Beekeepers and landowners can also benefit from talking to a Farm Bill Biologist. These specialists are trained to assist private landowners and farmers in navigating these numerous government programs. They can also help tailor conservation programs specifically to your needs, and can assist you after programs have been implemented. Visit quailforever.org to contact your nearest office. Their one-on-one consultations are free of charge, and these experts can even make site visits and specific recommendations for your situation.
Even if landowners don’t want to enroll in a government program or don’t qualify, they can still take advantage of free technical advice and resources from the NRCS and many other agencies to help plan and implement their own conservation efforts.
The government has deep pockets and they bail out everyone else, why not beekeepers?
Well, actually they do, under some circumstances. The USDA's Emergency Assistance for Livestock, Honey Bees, and Farm-raised Fish Program (ELAP) provides emergency assistance to eligible producers of livestock, honeybees and farm-raised fish. It helps cover a portion of eligible losses due to an adverse weather or other disasters, including blizzards and wildfires, as determined by the Secretary of Agriculture. ELAP covers losses that are not included under other disaster assistance programs, such as the Livestock Forage Disaster Program (LFP) and the Livestock Indemnity Program (LIP).
ELAP is also administered by the FSA. For more information on this and other programs, visit farmers.gov/recover or contact your local FSA County Office to see if your claim qualifies for this program. Good record keeping is vital to processing a claim. Arkansas beekeepers are encouraged to take advantage of the Arkansas Department of Agriculture's Apiary Inspection Service. An on-site colony inspection will help you maintain clear records of colony numbers and health. Without a reliable paper trail, ELAP claim processing could be delayed or denied.
So, while the government may not provide you with direct funds specifically to start keeping honey bees, there are some grant programs that beekeeping can fit into. The federal Rural Business Enterprise Grant Program fund projects that will start businesses, create jobs, and inject cash into a local economy, and often center on improving community access to produce and other food. Conservation Innovation Grants focus on sustainable agriculture, so you will need to demonstrate a pioneering approach to beekeeping and promoting conservation efforts. This may be an area to consider for organic farmers looking to improve production with the addition of a pollinator workforce.
Grant programs come and go over time, and different agencies offer different types of assistance to different people and groups.
While there are technically no federal “beekeeping” grants available, there are many other types of grants and programs that can include an aspect of beekeeping. All federal grants are advertised and administered through the website grants.gov. Users can search categories and look for things that may apply to their situation. Be prepared for a lengthy application process. Grant applications can be simple to understand, but may be very detailed in structure, and can be time-consuming to complete.
If you are still reading this, you must really be interested in honey bees.
I would encourage you to try bees, if you think they are right for you (and you are right for them). But read and study up on it first, and understand the long-term commitment you are about to make. Decide if bees will be a hobby or a business, and plan your budget accordingly.
So clip your coupons and save your pocket change. Getting into beekeeping ain’t gonna be cheap. Consider, though, that the initial equipment you purchase should last you for many years if properly cared for. Think of your purchase as an investment, and average those startup costs over the next 5 years. If you aren’t prepared for that kind of commitment, then beekeeping may not the casual hobby you were looking for. It’s a challenging activity, which is why many who take up a smoker will extinguish it within the first few years. But it can be richly rewarding. And doing it yourself will make your first jar of honey all that much sweeter.
A version of this article was also printed in the June 2021 issue of Bee Culture magazine.