Small-Time Beekeepers Are Making Honey But Little Money
Nectar is scarce because ‘every hipster in the world wants to have a beehive’. Small-Time Beekeepers Are Making Honey But Little Money (#GotBitcoin?)
In the tiny universe of New York City beekeeping, Tom Wilk is one of the queen bees. He founded the Queens Beekeepers Guild. His business, Wilk Apiary, manages 30 hives in eight New York locations.
His honey, sold in local stores and markets, commands $20 for an 8-ounce jar. He also helps organize NYC Honey Fest, an annual event in Rockaway Beach, Queens, where thousands gather to sample and buy honey on the boardwalk.
Mr. Wilk, however, isn’t planning to quit his day job as a salesman for a wine and spirits distributor.
“I haven’t broken even yet,” he said of his sideline enterprise.
The New York City bee business, it turns out, is no honeymoon.
Upstate, where flowers are plentiful, it’s possible to extract as much 200 pounds of honey a year from a single hive. Here, you’re lucky to get 50 pounds, Mr. Wilk said. And production is only getting more challenging as urban beekeeping grows in popularity and more bees compete for a limited supply of nectar, he noted.
“Manhattan is maxed out unless you’re close to Central Park,” Mr. Wilk said. “Red Hook, maxed out. There’s very little foraging area, and every hipster in the world wants to have a beehive.”
Beekeepers are required to register their apiaries with the city’s health department; officials didn’t respond to inquiries about the number of beekeepers in the city.
Earlier this month, just after dawn, 182 beekeepers lined up in Manhattan’s Bryant Park for the square’s annual bee-distribution event, eager to pay $160 for a 3-pound box of bees—that’s roughly 12,000 insects—trucked in the night before from Georgia.
Many were strictly amateurs, including a New Jersey car dealer, a Brooklyn custodian and a television producer from Queens. But the crowd included a number of folks looking to make a little honey money.
Judi Counts, who manages an Episcopal retreat house on the Upper East Side, was buying a new colony for her rooftop hive. Last year’s colony died during the winter because of the temperature swings. “They were like, ‘Sorry. No. Done.’ ” she said.
Ms. Counts sells her honey at the annual House of the Redeemer garden party. She makes labels for the $20, 16-ounce jars that say “Sweet Redemption.” The $500 she earns just about covers the cost of keeping the bees, she said.
It’s possible, of course, to boost one’s margins with clever marketing. Queens beekeeper Ruth Harrigan, who worked on Wall Street for 20 years before establishing her first hive in 2010, commands $5 for 2-ounce portions of honey packaged in bear bottles bearing messages such as “Don’t Worry Bee Happy Honey.”
“There’s really no money to make in honey unless you are creative about it,” she said.
Her HoneyGramz line sells in 250 shops, including gourmet food stores and hospital gift shops.
It’s been so successful, Ms. Harrigan can’t meet the demand with her own production. She buys honey for the line from commercial suppliers and saves her local honey to sell in city markets. Tourists snap up her Queens and Staten Island honey packaged in travel-size, 2.8-ounce jars for $10. “They are intrigued that there are bees in New York City,” she said.
Andrew Coté, the man who trucked bees up from Georgia to sell at the Bryant Park event, is likely the city’s biggest beekeeper.
President of the New York City Beekeepers Association, he produces several thousand pounds of honey a year from the 108 hives he maintains in 25 locations, including Bryant Park, cemeteries, community gardens, abandoned parking lots and a Buddhist monastery.
But even Mr. Coté refers to himself as a sideliner rather than a commercial beekeeper.
To supplement honey sales, he offers beekeeping classes, provides bees for film and commercial shoots and offers apiary maintenance to outfits like the Durst Organization, which keeps 10 hives on the roof of its 55-story Bank of America Tower in Midtown. The real-estate developer includes honey collected by Mr. Coté in its holiday gift baskets for commercial tenants and in its conference rooms for meeting attendees.
“I’m like a pool boy for the bees,” Mr. Coté said.
Beekeeper, cardiologist and internist Patrick Fratellone gives pollen and raw local honey collected from his three hives to patients in his Manhattan practice. “It’s great for allergies,” he says.
His specialty is bee venom, which is said to be anti-inflammatory. He uses it to treat autoimmune disorders, including arthritis, stinging his patients with bees plucked from the portable hive he keeps in his office. Dr. Fratellone also uses it bee venom to treat his own tennis elbow condition, stinging himself eight times a day.
But like the city’s other beekeepers, he reports that his bee work is mainly a labor of love.
Insurance doesn’t cover bee venom, he says. Rather than charge for the sting, he asks patients to make a donation to the American Apitherapy Society, an association of health-care professionals who use bee products.
And while the venom treatments can attract new patients who have tried other things, it doesn’t ensure repeat business. “Once you sting the patient,” he said, “the patient can order their own bees and sting themselves.”
You’ll Need a Lot More Money to Buy That Jar of Honey
Beekeepers are in a sweet spot as consumer trends shift away from cane sugar and high-fructose corn syrup.
Honey prices are starting to sting.
Global honey prices are at their highest levels in years, due to a new wave of consumer demand for natural sweeteners and declining bee populations that are hampering mass production.
Honey has been used as a sweetener for centuries. But in recent years, it has become popular with people looking for healthier alternatives to cane sugar and high-fructose corn syrup. It is consumed in beverages, pastries, cereals and other foods. In addition, it is being used more as an ingredient in shampoos, moisturizers and other personal-care products that companies market as naturally made.
Retail honey prices world-wide recently averaged $4.69 a pound, according to market research firm Euromonitor International. Prices have climbed about 25% since 2013, while the cost of sugar has fallen around 30% over the same time frame.
And that is being reflected on American grocery receipts. U.S. retail prices averaged $7.66 a pound in May, up 9% from a year earlier, according to data cited by the National Honey Board, an industry group.
Those prices have risen by about two-thirds in the last decade, according to a survey of more than 150 retailers nationwide by Bee Culture magazine, a publication for American beekeepers.
Americans consumed 596 million pounds of honey in 2017, or an average of nearly two pounds per person—up 65% since 2009—according to a report from the University of California’s Agricultural Issues Center. About a quarter of the honey sold or used in the U.S. is produced domestically; the rest is imported.
At Kingsburg Honey, an organic farm in California’s Central Valley, about 100 hives produce roughly 1,500 pounds of honey a year. Its honey is sold at stores in the area for between $9 and $14 a pound.
“Honey really sells itself,” said Daren Hess, Kingsburg Honey’s owner. “It taps into the belief that it is healthy and wholesome and tastes good.”
Mr. Hess said there has been a notable increase in people searching for local honey and alternatives to other sweeteners.
One driver of rising honey prices is increasing demand for premium and raw honey, such as the Manuka variety that is produced in New Zealand and Australia. It has been touted by celebrities—including tennis star Novak Djokovic—for its health benefits and numerous scientific studies have shown it can help heal wounds, ulcers and burns.
A 16-ounce jar of raw Manuka honey sells for $26.49 on American retailer Target Corp.’swebsite, versus $6.39 for a similar-sized container of Simply Balanced organic honey, one of the chain’s in-house brands.
The rising demand for honey comes as beekeepers are struggling to increase production. Global honey production has been relatively stable over the past five years, according to Norberto García, the Argentina-based president of Apimondia’s scientific commission on beekeeping economy. Apimondia is an international federation of beekeepers.
Beekeepers have been particularly afflicted by beehive colony collapses, a situation where a majority of worker bees disappear for unknown reasons.
Workers bees are females that gather nectar and pollen from flowers. They toil inside hives, making wax and feeding larvae, other bees and the queen. The nectar is stored inside a bee’s body and is passed around until it ends up as honey.
Some scientists believe bee populations have declined because of a disease caused by a parasite called the Varroa mite, in addition to pesticide usage.
The conversion of large swaths of land to industrial crop farms has also reduced the amount of food—pollen—that is available for bees.
In the U.S., honey production peaked in 2014 and has fallen 15% since then. Production totaled 152 million pounds last year, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Beekeepers across the country have struggled with colony collapses as well as bee losses in winter ranging from 22% to 36% over the last eight years, the USDA said.
In Austin, Texas, Mark Bradley is a part-owner of a company that produces honey for farmers markets and small supermarkets in the area. He said that while he’d like to expand, it is hard to find areas suitable to house beehives.
“There is nothing but cotton or corn or soybeans for miles,” which means there isn’t much wild forage on which bees can hunt for pollen, Mr. Bradley said.
At The Humble Bee Honey Co. in Watertown, Conn., bees gather nectar from flower beds, vegetable gardens and fruit trees. The company produces honey, raw pollen and a skin care line that uses honey.
Owner Catherine Wolko said she avoids mowing dandelions on her lawn to ensure her bees have enough food.
“My husband is a landscape designer and he hates it,” she said.
Bee Extinction Worries Grow As Species Numbers Drop
The number of reported bee species has dropped 25% from the 1990s.
Fewer bee species have been recorded since the 1990s, raising concerns that rare species might be extinct.
About 25% fewer species were found between 2006 and 2015, compared to records prior to the 1990s, according to a study published on Friday in the One Earth Journal. The authors are researchers at Argentina’s Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas (CONICET).
“Something is happening to the bees,” said biologist Eduardo Zattara, the report’s first author. “It’s not a bee cataclysm yet, but what we can say is that wild bees are not exactly thriving.”
Wild and managed bees are essential pollinators that ensure the reproduction of thousands of wild plant species and 85% of all cultivated crops. Mounting reports show that the decline in wild bee populations might follow, or even be more pronounced, than declines in insect populations. Many animal populations are decreasing drastically, scientists have recently warned.
Sightings of rarer types of bees have fallen more sharply than those of more common families, researchers found. Records of Melittidae, a bee family found in Africa, have gone down by as much as 41% since the 1990s, while Halictid bees, the second-most common family, have declined by 17% during the same period.
Most bee studies focus on declining populations focus on a specific area, or on a particular type of bee. Instead, CONICET researchers examined the number of species recorded around the world over more than a century.
To do that, they used the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, an international network of databases that contains over three centuries of records from museum specimens, universities and geotagged smartphone photos shared by amateur naturalists in recent weeks. The network accounts for over 20,000 known bee species all over the world.
The results are subject to some uncertainty mainly because of the variety of data sources, making it impossible to reach definitive conclusions on individual species, researchers said. Technology has allowed for the recording of higher numbers of bees, but fewer species are being seen. Even accounting for possible distortions on the data, the trend is clear and matches that of previous, narrower reports.
“Given the current outlook of global biodiversity, it is more likely that these trends reflect existing scenarios of declining bee diversity,” the report said. “In the best scenario, this can indicate that thousands of bee species have become too rare; under the worst scenario, they may have already gone locally or globally extinct.”
Researchers conducted similar analysis on other insects to see if variations in bee species numbers were mirrored elsewhere, which would have been an indication that the changes had to do more with data collection and sources than with actual trends.
The populations of two wasp families also appear to be declining, but presented different patterns than bees’. Ant species, in contrast, have increased over the same period of time.
“We cannot wait until we have absolute certainty because we rarely get there in natural sciences,” Zattara said. “The next step is prodding policymakers into action while we still have time. The bees cannot wait.”
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