The Backyard Beekeeper’s Honey Handbook (Quarry Books, 2009) is the first book of its kind, focusing on the best ways to produce, harvest and use what beekeepers and their bees have created. Hive hints and honey-harvesting tutorials are delivered with the sound, practical perspective of seasoned expert Kim Flottum. The following excerpt from the book is about keeping track of when honey plants bloom and selling honey for maximum profit.
You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: The Backyard Beekeeper’s Honey Handbook.
Honey Plants: The Best Sources of Information
The best source of information about when honey plants bloom where you and your bees are tends to be anyone who makes his or her living on that nectar–your local, experienced beekeeper. By necessity, these beekeepers have good information about what blooms when, and most are experienced enough to make a good guess from year to year. For instance, in the region in which I live, I can say with confidence that the first flush of dandelion bloom–that is, those early blooms on the south sides of buildings in protected locations–will be the last week in April. Knowing that, with equal confidence I can say that the first day of what I call field bloom will be within the first ten days of May. Thankfully, there are a couple of other ways to make that same prediction, other than through the accumulation of decades of experience.
First, keep good records. When I first moved to my current geographic region, I kept good, consistent records for several years. And every year, dandelions had field bloom sometime during the first ten days of May. After a few years my record keeping flagged–I had internalized the calendar, or so I thought.
But extended warm or cold spells and other weather events cause the dates of first bloom to change. Warmer weather may produce earlier bloom, and an extended cold spell or a late snow can delay bloom by days, maybe many weeks.
Does a week or two make much of a difference? Well, when bloom lasts only a week or ten days, you’ve missed getting ready by half of the bloom if it’s early. And that’s half of the honey crop you were planning on or your bees needed for buildup.
Good records serve a backyard beekeeper well, but only up to a point. The calendar method of bloom prediction has the advantage in that it’s easy, but the disadvantage of being only moderately accurate. Most beekeepers, however, can live with that uncertainty. Or they just assume that the bloom will be early and plan accordingly. That way they don’t miss it.
One confusing aspect of the calendar technique is predicting when one nectar source is finishing and another is just beginning. If the first crop started late, or the next crop comes in early, your bees will be gathering both at the same time. If you are producing a blended spring blossom honey, this works to your advantage because anything that comes in at about the same time tends to be alike–most spring blossom honeys tend to be light and mild. However, if the goal is to separate the dandelion bloom from the later (and richer) black locust bloom, your efforts may fail. (Mixing dandelion and locust honeys, incidentally, borders on the criminal.)
Accurately predicting bloom dates is an exact science that crop growers have been honing for years. Apple, blueberry, and almond growers, and producers who need to know when their crop will bloom, must know exactly when those flowers will show up before they show up. A growing degree day program has been specifically designed to accommodate the crops in question. Crop organizations, university and government agencies, and crop consultants routinely track growing degree days for farmers so that they are exactly right on for crop bloom.
Honey producers don’t have these resources provided to them specifically for honey crops, but existing data can be used by beekeepers to their advantage, or you can do your own growing degree day record keeping.
To calculate bloom date using growing degree days, first do a little research. There is an incredible amount of information available on the Web to growers of corn, apples, and other crops. Simply search for “growing degree days” and your state or region and you will find an abundance of data.
Read more: Calculating Growing Degree Days has all the information you need to know to start your own growing degree days database.
New beekeepers certainly can produce artisan honey, but more likely they are still focused on mastering the basics–learning to keep their bees healthy, the seasonal routines of the hive, and so on. If you’ve mastered those basics, you’ve been around a while and have acquired the skills necessary to maintain strong colonies, to routinely produce queens and make divides, to manage bees for optimum honey production, and especially to make the income necessary to grow past the hobby stage. From here onward, what you produce and sell is that rare and special product called artisan honey.
Producing artisan honey requires more effort than producing the basic end-of-the-season, put-it-in-a-pail product. Once you consider the new skills you’ve had to master, the additional equipment you’ve had to purchase, and the extra time required to do the job right, you might feel like you are back to square one again.
Consistently producing artisan and varietal honeys makes you a better beekeeper. You become more aware of your bees and the floral environment all the time. You take better care of your bees not just during the early spring months but all season long. As a result, you’re harvesting more often and going through all the pre- and post-harvest chores required to do this exactly right each time. In short, you are working harder to produce the crops that you intend to sell, but you are producing better crops.
Great honey producers are not necessarily great salespeople, becoming which requires another set of skills to cultivate. And now you are selling a new product from your standard honey: it’s the difference between a mid-winter tomato in the grocery store and one that’s still sun-warm ripe and just picked from the garden.
You will likely be using different containers and different labels, and the artisan honey will be priced to reflect the additional cost incurred while producing the new product. New sales outlets and customers will have different shelf requirements. Let’s examine marketing techniques for selling honey that address these issues before you begin.
Upgrading Honey Containers
The artisan honey product should have a container that is different from the generic product. The label will help differentiate the two product lines, but the container should also reflect the artisan honey’s unique quality. There are dozens of container styles available that are made (and sold) in quantities that keep their prices reasonable, but this is not the time or place to scrimp: a wonderful product in a cheap container looks like a cheap product, period.
Consider choosing a new shape of glass jar. If using plastic, consider switching to glass or upgrading to a more useful plastic shape. Observe what else is available on the honey shelf in stores and at farm stands. If every bottle is in a glass cylinder, the decision of how best to differentiate the artisan product becomes easier. Aspire to a memorable look that will help customers find your jar next time, and every time.
Appealing Label Design
Labels chosen and designed for artisan honey jars are essential for identifying not only the honey’s quality but also its origins. Observe other honey labels in the local market, study labels from companies that advertise in the beekeeping journals, and then examine the labels of other specialty products (such as wine, sauces, oils, and other gourmet items). All promote an atmosphere that immediately alludes to the quality of the products.
The artisan honey label must have certain information on it to meet legal requirements: name, address, contents, weight (never handwrite the weight on an artisan label), and other information, including a bar code and a nutrition label. Leave some room for romance, poetry, and singing the praises of this particular honey. If you use a single label for all of your varietal artisan honeys, a label at the back or on top should identify each individual honey variety.
Playing The Name Game
Naming your varietal honey is easy–certainly much easier than producing it–Blackberry, Locust, Starthistle, and so on. But an artisan honey requires a bit of thought, and possibly copywriting. The names could be seasonally influenced: Spring Blossom, Solstice Flower, Autumn Harvest. A one-time-harvest crop could be called One Thousand Flowers.
Don’t forget to boldly identify where the honey comes from. Local honey is always better than honey from an unknown source (especially if it’s imported), so make sure everybody knows it is local. List the name of the state, county, province, or even city from which it was harvested. (Clever beekeepers have even given honeys from different beeyards different number names to correspond to their telephone area codes or postal codes.)
Selling Honey In Retail Outlets
Special honeys should be sold in special places. Regular places, too, but look for special places. High-end gourmet food stores are great. Places where discerning chefs and cooks shop are perfect. Think gourmet food sections that are in most grocery stores now. What about a special booth at a farmers’ market (different from your regular booth), where you sell only your special honey. These are locations that aren’t usually associated with “regular food”. Save the hardware stores, farm stores, and general grocery shelf for your regular honey.
However, at the places you have been selling honey consider adding these as a new line. It will require additional shelf space and that always poses a problem. A compromise that often works is to divide your original space and combine the two products … but separate them on the shelf as much as the store owner will allow. If both sell well, you can bet the shelf space will be found to accommodate a new variety. If they don’t, then you know you have to find other outlets.
Pricing Honey for Profit
Many beekeepers find the pricing aspect of this the most difficult part of sales. How much do you charge? How much for wholesale, retail, bulk, and so on? There are quantity discounts, regular discounts, and no discounts–all factors need to be considered. All pricing decisions boil down to two things: how much does it cost to produce and how much profit do you need to stay in business?
The cost analysis is the most difficult to create because agriculture is such a system of variables: no two years are alike, no two crops are equal, and input costs vary.
Input costs are easy to calculate with good record keeping: fuel, medications (optional), new equipment to amortize, bottles, labels, vehicle expenses, replacement bee costs, and more. But quantifying your own labor is a challenge, and too often beekeepers think they can’t afford to pay themselves a wage to add to the cost equation. Here is an example that helps calculate the cost to your business for using your skills, labor, and time.
Imagine that you are returning home after the first inspection in the spring. Your foot slips off the back of the truck while unloading supers and you land hard on your left ankle, which shatters. After surgery, you are completely immobilized for six weeks and on crutches for another four months. Your personal contribution to the honey harvest is going to be minimal and you will need to hire help to stay in business, to keep your bees alive, and to continue to supply your customers with the honeys they have come to expect.
If you’re lucky you have family to fill in, but imagine that you don’t. How much would you need to pay one, maybe two people to do as good a job as you do, all season long? That figure, at minimum, is the cost of your labor to your business. And that is the wage you should be paying yourself for doing all this work every season.
When figured into all other costs you may still decide not to pay yourself and to keep the money in the business. That’s a business decision; a real-world price for your honey should account for the real-world costs of the decision.
Many small business owners consider that unpaid wage their profit, which is one way to calculate that figure. But if you have to put food on the table with the earnings from your honey business, you will be more considerate of how much you pay the help, and you will likely pay them better.
The Bottom Line
Producing, then selling, varietal or artisan honey is a challenge because it requires special skills to produce, and it is priced higher than other honeys in the marketplace. If you are even slightly successful you must add the cost of acquiring and harnessing those skills to your list of costs and charge accordingly. Remember: these honeys are better than the commodity honey on the grocery store shelf, and you deserve the respect and profits they bring.
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from The Backyard Beekeeper’s Honey Handbook, published by Quarry Books, 2009.