I had suggested in a previous column that, as beekeepers, “we need to bring others on
the journey with us.” Here is one reason why that is important.
Most new beekeepers believe they can at least
cover their start up and maintenance costs from the sale of honey. Not only have I never achieved that but I’m increasingly convinced that it is virtually impossible for a beekeeper, commercial or otherwise, to make a living from honey sales alone.
The current price of a one pound jar of local honey in Pennsylvania averages about $8, and my guess is that some of us feel a little hesitant asking even this price, especially when a customer states that he or she has seen honey in
the supermarket for less than $5. This leads to the inevitable discussion about local, verifiable, authentic honey with it’s own terroir (to use a French term popular at the moment) and we might even throw in the word ‘organic’,
as compared to honey of unknown origins, with unknown chemical components and which might have been heated and strained.
“I want to support local beekeepers,” replies the customer, “but it’s just too
Then comes the bit about bees flying 54 000 miles to collect the nectar to make the honey in the jar, and visiting somewhere between two and three million flowers. We seldom include the cost of the beekeeper’s time, skills
and labor but we might explain that one bee makes 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey in her lifetime, and that this jar represents the life work of some 600 bees.
At this point the customer buys one jar, not because he or she is convinced
but partly out of a sense of guilt and partly to end the broadside from the beekeeper.
I’ve said before that if we had to pay the bees minimum wage for what they do otherwise for free, that jar of honey would cost well in excess
of $600 000 and perhaps closer to $1 000 000. At $8 it’s the best bargain in the business.
The same customer will not question the price of a Ford Mustang, or a luxury hotel charging $500 for a night’s stay, or a Rolex
that keeps the same time as a $5 wristwatch, or a $150 pair of sneakers, or a 55” TV screen. Incidentally, have you tried to get rid of a five year old TV set, or lap top computer recently? It’s hard to so much as give them away.
And I have to mention an advertisement that has appeared in the local Merchandizer for the past four weeks : ”Thick book on history, $5.”
We have been conditioned to expect cheap food to the point that we minimize the
connection between price and quality. We forget that most food in the supermarket is discounted by government subsidies, and that the bigger the farm the bigger the subsidy. We don’t ask how many thousands of miles the food had to travel
to get to the supermarket, nor do we place freshness and quality above price, and believe that we can make up for any deficiencies with cheap supplements that are often unproven and unregulated.
Those who lament the loss of local farm
land to residential development, or the closure of a commercial bee yard, don’t realize that their buying habits contribute to the decline of the country life that they profess to admire.
Perhaps our argument would be more
effective if we challenged our customers to spend a year maintaining a colony of bees, harvest the honey, factor in their expenses, add a modest profit margin, and then sell the honey.
I did this exercise for myself. I won’t
bore you with the math, but the expense side of the balance sheet is based on maintenance costs for 2015 (no packages or nucs purchased, no new hardware, no new queens bought last year,) 5 hours of management per hive per year, which is conventional
wisdom but a conservative estimate, and minimum wage for labor costs.
Because of the shortened nectar flow in this area last spring (4 weeks instead of 6) we did not have a good honey year. Even so, I harvested 200 lbs of honey
for sale, which using the above calculation (and again, I stress minimum wage) works out at a little under $12 per pound. With a 20% markup so that I can continue operating next year, each one pound honey jar would cost $14.50. That’s Economics
101. And if I include ancillary expenses like the cost of the jars and lids, transportation, conferences at which I can improve my knowledge and skills, that figure is closer to $16.00
So $8 for a one pound jar of honey works out, conservatively,
at 50% of my production costs.
I have two things in my favor. First, I am not in it for the money; keeping bees brings rewards for which there is no monetary value. And secondly, I can keep the Chairlady of the Family Finance
Committee happy by making up the deficit through offering classes, selling the occasional nuc, filling a few small pollination contracts, and writing the occasional article for commercial journals (as compared to association publications like this one.)
And yet I have to ask, why is it that the public expects beekeepers, and many others involved in the agricultural community, to have to supplement their income because the market will not support a fair price for their products? The answer
for me is education - educating the public that good food, as with everything else, has a price attached, and with the concomitant improvement in public health, that increased outlay is still relatively inexpensive.
by good and consistent communication, is the only way we can bring others along on the journey, so that they walk beside, and not behind, us.