Many West Virginia University students have busy lives, balancing their studies, social activities and family obligations. However, for one student, in addition to all that, there’s 960,000 employees dependent on him to maintain maximum efficiency in his business. The employees? Well, they’re honeybees, and not only is his profit margin at stake, but also an increasingly critical part of ecology — pollination.
By most estimates, bees are slowly disappearing. That’s an important fact since they pollinate roughly a third of all the food we eat, and over 80 percent of crops grown for human consumption need bees and other insects to pollinate them to increase the quality and yield of fruit. It’s not constrained to fruits and vegetables either. Nuts, plants used to produce oils, such as sunflowers, cocoa beans, coffee, tea and cotton are also dependent on pollinators.With 64 hives that cover 170 acres of property, Matthew Byrd’s operation is a serious enterprise that is not only the story of one person helping to restore and protect the bee population — it demonstrates what occurs when you mix a student’s passion with University outreach and resources.
Byrd, the owner of Byrd’s and Bee’s Honey and a wildlife and fisheries resources major at the WVU Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, said he’s always been fascinated by wildlife, and recounted running around his yard as kid with a bug net. He previously raised tilapia and mealworms, and once owned a colony of Madagascar hissing cockroaches growing up.
“Yeah, I know that growing up I probably pushed my parents to the limit by bringing all sorts of wildlife home,” he joked.
But, the dream of beekeeping was sparked by a Facebook post from the WVU Extension ServiceRitchie County office. It advertised a beginning beekeeper course offered at the local 4-H campgrounds, and at that time, Byrd was an ambitious junior in high school with an entrepreneurial spirit. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect.
“I knew then and there I was going to pursue the opportunity and enroll,” Byrd said. “As you can imagine, some of my friends and family were a bit skeptical, but I was determined to become a first-generation beekeeper because I truly wanted to help repopulate honeybees in our area.”
One of the strengths of the WVU Extension Service is the ability to share research-based knowledge to West Virginians with programs and offices in all 55 counties. The information is sound and trustworthy, and in the agricultural realm, producers or aspiring producers can take it and use it to improve their operations. For Byrd, it provided a stable footing to build his business on as he learned the proper ins and outs of becoming a beekeeper thanks in part to WVU Extension Service Clay County Agent, Michael Shamblin who taught the classes.
Once the classes were concluded, Byrd learned enough to start the venture that year, and before he entered his senior year of high school, he had three healthy hives after he got the growing pains out of the way, both figuratively and literally in the case of learning to weather multiple bee stings.
The next year he doubled his success, increasing his total hive count to six, and shortly after graduating from Ritchie County High School, he sold more than 70 pounds of honey in less than a month. It was there that wheels started to turn a bit more and a “what if” turned into an “I could.”
When he came to campus his freshman year, Byrd was met with a familiar face, the former agriculture teacher from his high school had taken a position at WVU and introduced him to the WVU LaunchLab, the University’s free startup resource center that helps entrepreneurial students develop new companies and products.
Byrd recounts a simple question that the director at the time asked him that brought it all in perspective — if you’re already selling honey, why not make a business out of it?
He was hooked. Byrd registered for another class during his first semester at WVU and found himself developing his entrepreneurial skills, including the brass tacks of budgeting, projecting sales and revenue, refining his business pitch and developing a comprehensive business plan.
To help craft the business plan, another WVU academic unit came into play as Byrd was paired with Katie Cook, a master’s student at the WVU Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, who had unique insight as an agribusiness major in helping him carefully consider all financial aspects of his operation.
The exercises didn’t prove fruitless. In fact, the business pitch helped him obtain $21,000 for his business so far in various business pitch competitions, including winning $10,000 as a sophomore in the West Virginia Collegiate Business Plan Competition hosted by the BrickStreet Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, which is housed in the WVU College of Business and Economics.
The money has allowed him to reinvest in his business and plan for careful expansion, including a small building entirely devoted to processing honey in the near future.
“As a child, I had many visions, but being an entrepreneur who owns his own business at age 19 was never one of them,” Byrd recounted. “But, I owe a tremendous amount of gratitude to WVU, both from an academic and outreach standpoint — the resources at my disposal were, and are, incredible.”
He also gives back to the community. He worked with Alex Straight, the WVU Extension Service Agriculture and Natural Resources agent in Ritchie County at the time, to take his exhibition hive to 4-H camps and participate in local agriculture field days.
According to her, Byrd’s exhibition hive helps youths in the community make the connections to the importance of all forms of agriculture, including beekeeping, in a larger scope of why it’s important to society and the environment.
“He’s great with the kids and they love being able to see a hive at work. It inspires some sense of wonder and curiosity, and it’s a lesson that really sticks with them because it’s tangible,” Straight said.
Byrd also touted the experience as worthwhile as he hopes to inspire a few children to follow in his footsteps growing up — catching bugs and guessing about the way they fit into the ecosystem.
“The kids latch onto the demonstration hive immediately, and they like being able to encounter the bees without fear of getting stung,” he said. “A lot of smaller kids are terrified of bees, and I like to teach them about what bees actually do and the fact that they’re nothing to be afraid of. The best part is to see the curiosity of our ecology sparked in a younger generation.”
When asked about his future, Byrd was decisive.
“First and foremost, I want to finish my degree,” he said. “But I also want to continue to build my business and become one of the largest honey producers in West Virginia. Ideally, I’d love to be large enough to hire a couple of employees in an effort to better my community and move the needle in a positive direction for our state’s economy.”
But, it’s not all economically motivated.
“Personally, I’m just really happy to see the bees coming back,” he said.
Byrd’s and Bee’s Honey can be found on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ByrdsandBeesHoney/.
CONTACT: Zane Lacko
WVU Extension Service
304.293.8986; [email protected]