The Cost of Honey
On facebook a woman named Lynn posted this after I posted about this year’s bountiful honey harvest:
As an avid consumer of local honey (in living in various parts of the country) I’ve been shocked at some of the prices I have seen in Chicago for plain raw wildflower honey, not specialty varietals. 10 bucks a lb and more. i’m used to paying half that or less in Colorado and upstate NY. What is considerd a fair price here? I’ve spun honey with a small producer and know what kind of labor is involved. How do you price yours? This is not meant to be combative at all. I’ve just been really shocked. I’d very much like to support your business, help the bees, and sweeten my coffee. Thanks.
I’ve been thinking about how to answer this question all year. I know that I work hard, my intern Abby works hard, and my bees work EVEN HARDER than both of us, but I know people will balk at the cost of my honey, which will be around $15 a pound (for comparison, I just bought a little over a pound of blueberry blossom honey for $5 in Michigan.)
I really, strongly, whole-heartedly value the work involved in making this project happen. I want people to feel the same way. I want them to know my story and know what their money is going to.
Here’s me starting to answer that question:
To begin, I just want to describe what specialty honeys are (like “orange blossom honey.”) Specialty honeys usually come from bees that are transported by truck to pollinate monoculture crops of things like oranges, apples, blueberries, or fields of crops (clover, buckwheat). In monocultures there isn’t anything else in bloom around the crop, so the bees feed from only that plant. “Plain” wildflower honey in Chicago comes from bees that forage whatever they like. I think it’s better for the bees than single-source varieties because they’re getting a wider variety of food in their diet which benefits the health of the colony. Chicago honey is: Linden trees! White sweet clover! Dutch clover! Honey locust! Buckeye! Catalpa! Kentucky Coffee Tree! Black Locust! Mint! Salvia! Thistle! Bindweed! Sunflower! Dandelions! Every other flower you see in the garden… I’ve seen my honey bees on a passion-fruit flower!!! These are just a small number of the plants that go into the honey made here in Chicago. Personally, I think this is waaay more interesting than single-source honey.
For most of the year, Bike a Bee is just me, one girl, on a bicycle 2 days out of the week visiting and caring for my 15 hives located all over the city. Currently I have an intern, Abby, and she is the greatest. The cost of honey isn’t just taking it from the comb and bottling it — that’s not hard at all, it’s the fun part! — its the hundreds of bee-hours and (wo)man-hours spent making it happen. It’s borrowing a car to drive to Indiana to pick up packages of bees in spring. It’s working during the hottest hours on the hottest days to check on the bees (hot, sunny weather is the BEST for opening up a hive). it’s buying a queen when a hive is queenless. It’s timing everything juuuust right so I can add supers to help my hives grow HUGE during the peak nectar flows. It’s paying close attention to trees and flowers to know what’s in bloom and what my bees are eating. It’s carrying 50lb honey supers up 3 flights of stairs to my apartment. It’s staying up at night and worrying about my hives in the dead of winter during a cold snap. It’s buying meals and beer for my volunteers and friends whose help has been invaluable. It’s unexpectedly spending an afternoon capturing a swarm. It’s getting stung, it’s sweat dripping off my nose, it’s hurting my arms and dropping stuff on my feet! It’s falling asleep at sundown after a long hot day. It’s losing 7 of my 10 hives over the winter because of the heatwave/drought combo last summer. It’s heartbreak, it’s picking myself back up and doing it all over again.
Not to mention the work done by the tens of thousands of bees inside of a beehive. One single worker bee will produce only 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey in her 3-week lifespan. She needs to visit about 400 flowers per foraging flight to fill up her nectar crop with nectar. Once the nectar is regurgitated and partially digested by several worker bees in the hive and placed into comb, the colony monitors the humidity and temperature of the hive closely to evaporate the water in the nectar, bringing the water content from 93% to just around 30%, to prevent fermenting. Once it’s at that perfect ratio, they cap it over with beeswax. Oh! and honeybees need to eat a lot of honey to produce wax to build honeycomb… 5 drops of honey = 1 drop of wax.
Growing food is hard. Tending livestock is hard. Honey that is cheaper but still of the same quality is usually that way because the beekeepers have MANY many hives, lots of laborers/employees, electric-powered honey extractors, and have probably been doing this for years and years. Bike a Bee is not about the profit, and I don’t care if I personally make money off of this fun project, but I’d love to have money to continue doing this and not have to spent my own personal income on it. If I can sell honey and then use that money to buy a new hive for a community garden who wants one next year, then I will be very happy. Heck, if I could pay an intern I’d be overjoyed.
Part of supporting local food projects is paying a fair price for the product being sold. Fair is arbitrary, of course, so I hope this will help you understand why I price my honey this way.