Plenty of sweet news for state's honey business

Insects, their keepers are abuzz about prospects for this season.

May 3, 2011 

It's a sweet time to be in the honey business.

California's abundant rainfall, a growing consumer demand and a tightening worldwide honey supply have the state's bee industry buzzing with excitement.

Honey prices have reached record highs, and there's no sign that they will fall anytime soon.

"Yes, we are having one of our best years in a long time," said Max Eggman, a Tulare County beekeeper and honey producer. "And we needed it."

Just five years ago, bees across the country were dying by the thousands. Some California beekeepers lost more than half their hives to the cyclical problem known as colony collapse disorder.

And while colony collapse still is a serious concern and continues to be studied, many of the state's bee colonies have bounced back. Today, California's bees are healthier, hungrier and have more to feed on.

California's above-average rainfall helped produce some of the honeybees' favorite native plants, including sage and buckwheat. Honeybees also make honey from citrus blooms, cotton and alfalfa blossoms.

The more nectar-producing plants, the more honey is made. Last year, beekeepers in California made 27.5 million pounds, a 134% increase over 2009. Honey production is just starting this year in California, but after so much rain, expectations are high.

At the same time, retail prices for honey have been climbing. In April, the average retail price per pound was $5.22, up from $3.78 for the same month in 2005, with mostly steady increases in between, according to the National Honey Board.

Stoking the higher price has been a tighter world honey supply and a growing interest among consumers who believe it has health benefits.

The U.S.' collective sweet tooth pushed honey consumption to 410 million pounds in 2010. Of that, 61% was imported.

But shorter crops in honey-producing countries such as India and Argentina are expected this year.

Squeezing supplies even tighter has been a continued federal crackdown on imported Chinese honey. Federal officials are working to stop the Chinese from circumventing U.S. tariffs by shipping honey through a different country.

Nationwide, the honey industry is trying to raise awareness about imported honey by calling for a program to verify the origin of honey sold to consumers.

About half of the honey used in the U.S. goes into cereals, snacks and food ingredients. The rest is sold at the retail level, where beekeepers say interest is growing.

"You definitely have more people talking about honey," said Mark Jensen, of the Montana-based Smoot Honey. "And we are starting to move more honey into retail than we have in the past."

Beekeepers say research showing the health benefits of honey along with the local food movement have all contributed to honey's popularity. Along with being a natural sweetener, honey is an energy booster and cough suppressant, beekeepers say.

For some, farmers markets have become a natural outlet for selling their homemade products.

Eggman, of Eggman Family Honey in Tulare County, travels to a San Francisco farmers market every weekend to sell his premium honey. His sales rose 25% last year.

"People are becoming more conscious of what they are eating and are buying natural products like honey," Eggman said. "And right now, we are selling everything that we can produce."

Third-generation beekeeper Brian Beekman hopes to attract people interested in the local food movement to his Clovis ranch. He is putting the finishing touches on a farm store that will sell his honey.

The store also will showcase the Beekmans' long history in the bee business. Photos of Beekman's father and grandfather harvesting honey will be on display, as will a 1929 Model A truck with the original Beekman Honey logo on the door.

"People are really into buying local and buying directly from the farm," Beekman said. "They want the real deal, and that's what we are going to give them."

The reporter can be reached at brodriguez@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6327.

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