As a part of our Sustainability Side Hustle series, we are interviewing people passionate about our planet and who have explored their own skills and talents to share with their community. As our planet continues to suffer under human-caused climate change, pollution, and overall environmental degradation, we hope more people find pleasure and financial fortitude in a sustainability side hustle or small business.
Steve Occhiolini is one of the three beekeepers running Revolution Bee. “The difference between a weed and a flower is judgment”. To many, the dandelion is a weed to be removed. To a honeybee, it is a great source of early Spring nutrition, providing a food source before many other plants are in bloom. With their Meet a Beekeeper + Honey Tasting programs, Revolution Bees is educating people on the essential role honeybees play in our environment and food production.
What is Revolution Bees?
Revolution Bees is three beekeepers from Chester and Delaware counties that work together to promote and educate the public on sustainable beekeeping and its practices. We do presentations in public forums and schools and provide education to our customers at farmer’s markets.
We are continually amazed at how intrigued people are by honeybees. The conversations we have with the general public and our customers drive us to continue educating. We also take on new beekeepers as apprentices every Spring to provide them with a hands-on education on how to keep honeybees.
How did you start the business?
There are three beekeepers in Revolution Bees, and we’ve all been keeping bees for varying lengths of time – up to 20 years for our most seasoned beekeeper. One day after doing a hive inspection, the three of us got together over (several) beers and started talking about how to turn our hobby into a business. Revolution Bees was borne from that conversation
Is it full-time? Was it ever not?
Revolution Bees has never been full-time. Two of us have full-time jobs and our third member is retired. We work early mornings, late nights, and weekends to care for our bees, make and sell honey, and speak to the public about the importance of honeybees.
What are the sustainable practices you use in your business and why do you think it is important to make these choices?
The two critical practices we employ to keep our honeybee colonies sustainably are treating for Varroa destructor and swarm management. Varroa is a species of mites that parasitize honeybees. They made the species jump from Asian honeybees to European honeybees (the type of bees kept in the US) in the 1950s and became a widespread problem in the United States in the late 1980s. By treating our hives for these pests with honey safe treatments we dramatically increase the likelihood that our colonies survive year after year and we can continue to produce high-quality local honey.
Swarm management is the second critical sustainable practice. By managing our hives in such a way as to reduce or eliminate swarms, we ensure that our honeybees remain in their original colony producing honey. When a hive swarms, approximately 50% of the bees leave and find a new home. This naturally reduces the amount of honey the original colony will produce as the workforce is halved. It is also a nuisance to neighbors as sometimes the honeybees will decide that your attic or wall of your house is where they want to make their next home.
Where are some traditional and nontraditional places you sell your products?
We sell our honey at farmers’ markets, permanent farm stands, garden centers, an arboretum, and at roadside stands. For permanent locations, we maintain honeybee colonies at those sites so we can offer honey produced from the same property.
Our roadside stands are self-service and 24/7. People often ask if we experience a lot of theft at the stands. Sometimes we notice a bottle or two missing, but overall we are always impressed with the level of honesty of the people that stop at our stands. It gives you hope that people are better than you might think.
What are some difficulties you have run into on this journey?
Since this is not a full-time endeavor for any of us, and because the bees don’t care about our day jobs, finding the time to work with the bees is the most difficult thing for us. Beekeeping is largely a seasonal endeavor with the heaviest time commitment in the Spring. That is to say, in April, May, and June we are usually running around like crazy trying to keep our bees from swarming while simultaneously making sure they are set up to produce the maximum amount of honey.
What has fulfilled you the most on this journey?
It’s really a toss-up between working with the honeybees (they are just so charming) and getting to talk bees with our customers. We love it when people engage us at farmers’ markets and their level of enthusiasm for our six-legged friends is always a jolt of energy for us.
When going against the mainstream when it comes to honey production, how do you communicate the value or worth of the work you do?
We produce hyper-local, high-quality honey that you can’t buy in a regular grocery store. All of our honey is produced in Chester and Delaware counties and is harvested every two weeks so as to produce varietal honeys that reflect the various trees, shrubs, and flowers in bloom at any given time. Our honey reflects plants that are in bloom in your neighborhood, and you get an incredible variety of flavors by sampling our seasonal honeys.
If someone wanted to replicate this business in their community, how would they go about it?
There are two parts to being a honey producer: making honey and selling honey. Making honey involves managing your own honeybee colonies successfully and for an extended period of time. When selling honey you are really running a business, you can’t look at it as a hobby. It takes commitment, follow through, and being told “no” often.
The best way to get your foot in the door is to manage a few honeybee colonies for a few years to learn the production side, and then start scaling up and selling the honey once you’re producing enough to sell consistently. Reading a few beekeeping books before you start is also helpful.
Starting small will limit the scope of the inevitable setbacks and failures you have managing honeybees. They have a mind of their own and as we like to say “the bees don’t read the same books that you do”.
What have been one or two of the most enjoyable or most effective ways to spread the word about your business and find new customers?
Really just talking to people that stop at our stand at farmers’ markets. People love to engage with us, especially when we have the opportunity to bring live honeybees with us which we can do in the warmer months. We have a fully contained, clear-sided hive so people can see the bees but they can’t get out.
What do you think the future of beekeeping/ honey production could look like? How do we get there?
Like many other local farmers, we are producing small quantities of locally produced food for our surrounding communities. By purchasing produce from local farmers, you will encourage more of us to get into the game or to expand existing operations, increasing the quantity of locally produced and available food.
Where else can we find more information about you?
Thank you Steve for being a part of this series and sharing your honey bee passion with us!
All photographs courtesy of Revolution Bees.
About The Author
Rupa Singh is an ex-social entrepreneur and mom of three kids connecting them to their South Asian (Indian) roots + sustainability. Organizational wife to an altruistic architect. Advocate for low waste + thoughtful consumption. Continually unlearning + learning. Her bullet journal + audiobooks + morning ritual feed her spirit.