Erin Masterson Holko got into beekeeping by accident when she found an old birdhouse in her backyard filled with honeybees. She noticed “more lemons on the lemon tree and more tomatoes on the tomato plants” — and, best of all, “no one got stung.”
By the time Holko found a beekeeper to move the bees into a hive, she was hooked. When news of dwindling bee populations hit the mainstream media in 2013, she wanted to get involved. Unable to find a local source for beekeeping supplies in San Diego, she opened her own store instead.
Holko shared her apiary passion with her family back at Masterson’s Garden Center Inc. & Aquatic Nursery in East Aurora, N.Y., convincing them to install a couple hives there. That gave way to an entire department as interest (and sales) grew. A year ago, Holko sold her shop and moved back home to manage Masterson’s burgeoning beekeeping department — which made up 27 percent of the garden center’s gross sales last year.
Holko and other beekeeping experts shared advice to help independent garden centers find success with bees.
To sell this category successfully, Holko says, you need a full inventory, not just an endcap. Before diving in, gauge your market’s interest — perhaps by inviting a local beekeeper to speak, then assessing the turnout.
“A great place to start is your local or regional beekeeping group,” she says. “When my dad and brother had questions, they went to the bee club for help. Part of the reason Masterson’s started stocking beekeeping supplies is that, at these meetings, they realized that local beekeepers didn’t know where to get supplies.”
With an initial investment of $10,000 to $12,000, Masterson’s stocked “everything a new beekeeper would need to get started and continue beekeeping as a backyard hobby” — including all the wooden boxes, frames and covers that compose a traditional beehive, as well as basic tools, smokers and safety gear like veils, gloves and suits.
Supplies are just the first step, though. “Beekeeping doesn’t sell itself,” Holko says. “People need to learn everything about keeping bees, and they have lots of questions, so you need knowledge to back up what you’re selling. That’s an advantage and disadvantage for small garden centers.”
Developing this knowledge can be time and labor intensive. But it can also differentiate IGCs.
“There’s nothing we sell [in this department] that you can’t find cheaper online,” Holko says, explaining that, until recently, the only way to buy beekeeping supplies was directly from manufacturers’ catalogs or websites — which can overwhelm new beekeepers. “The only reason we make any margin on it is that we’re offering an educational component. We spend a lot of time teaching customers about pollinators, and once you spend that time, people typically purchase from you because you’ve developed a relationship.”
Holko teaches beekeeping classes almost weekly between March and October. For more hands-on training, customers join Masterson’s Beekeeping Apprenticeship Program, which meets weekly during three-month sessions each spring and fall. Now in its third year, the apprenticeship, which costs $150, is limited to eight participants per session so everyone gets individual attention at the apiary.
Apprentices return for Masterson’s Honey Harvest Festival in October to spin and bottle honey, while sharing their knowledge with hundreds of festival attendees.
Overcoming fear of bees
The educational goal of beekeeping is to “let people know that bees are docile, not something to fear, and show them how uninterested bees are in us,” says Erik Dietl-Friedli, garden center manager and buyer/merchandiser at Flamingo Road Nursery and Farmers Market. He’ll even “pet” bees on flowers to prove this to skittish customers (and he’s never been stung).
Having hives at your IGC — at least 15 feet away from customers or on the rooftop — helps overcome this fear. Masterson’s and Flamingo Road each have 20 to 30 hives outside and one observation hive inside, with plexiglass sides to let customers watch the bees safely.
“It’s neat to let people get up close and realize that the bees aren’t paying any attention to them,” Holko says. “Seeing the inner-workings of a hive sparks fascination.”
To really combat the fear of bees, Dietl-Friedli says, get customers hooked on butterflies first. Flamingo Road has promoted butterfly gardening since it moved into its facility in Davie, Fla., in 2005, and sales in this category have grown every year.
“Nobody’s afraid of butterflies,” he says. “If you have butterfly plants, you’re going to get bees, so then you can talk about bees.”
“The first step,” Dietl-Friedli continues, “is to create an area dedicated to pollinator plants.” Native plants are an easy transition into pollinators for most IGCs; plus, display gardens create opportunities to educate with signage.
Signs shouldn’t indicate danger, which could perpetuate fear. Make it fun by encouraging photo ops and activities. For example, a sign in Masterson’s kids’ garden asks children to find a bee and figure out whether she’s gathering nectar (by sticking out her tongue) or pollen (by stuffing powder in her pouches). As kids investigate, they forget to be scared.
Flamingo Road has a 100-square-foot butterfly area full of pollinator-friendly plants and enclosures, with signs featuring tips about which plants host/attract certain pollinators. Milkweed — the host plant for monarch butterflies — is one of Flamingo Road’s top ten best-sellers, selling between 7,000 to 9,000 one-gallon units annually. “The milkweed that’s half-eaten with caterpillars on it, those are the plants people want,” Dietl-Friedli says. “We don’t sell caterpillars, but they’re plentiful, so we don’t mind if customers take some when they buy milkweed.”
Don’t even think about spraying these pollinator gardens. Speaking of which, you should stock natural, organic pesticide substitutes if you promote bees and butterflies, Dietl-Friedli says.
“Chemicals are not compatible with butterfly gardens, so you have to commit to offering organic solutions,” says Dietl-Friedli, who sells natural pest controls like ladybugs and lacewings. “There truly is an interest in gardening more naturally, if not organically; so once you become the source for that, then you can expand into beekeeping.”
The key is not to isolate beekeeping, he says, “Reinforce pollinators throughout the garden center.” Display pollinator-friendly plants next to fruit trees and vegetables with signs reminding customers what role bees play. Fill birdbaths with fruit to attract butterflies to your statuary area. And don’t forget the giftshop — Holko and Dietl-Friedli agree that any products patterned with bees and honeycombs are on trend, from wall décor to bumblebee socks to honeycomb napkins.
“Garden centers are well-positioned to offer solutions for customers to help the bees,” Holko says, and by taking advantage of these trends and cross-promotional opportunities, IGCs can tap into the revenue potential and environmental benefit that pollinators bring.