If you want to get to the bottom of a $553.8 million industry, you’ve got to know the right North Texas-ites. You’ve got to don a beekeeper suit. You’ve got to follow the honey flow.
A bee’s life starts in a hexagon cell under a coating of wax. They chew out and crawl over to drink from a honey capsule, the same size and shape as their makeshift womb. They go to work: fanning their wings at the entrance of the hive to circulate air, towing away their dead to keep the hive sterile, zooming off to investigate nearby flowers. When the queen passes through, they move out of her way, instinctively turning to face her. If a beekeeper pokes a hole in the honey’s protective wax covering, they immediately scuttle over to clean and patch it with harmony that would make synchronized swimmers see red. Their pollination efforts make them vital to one out of three bites of food. They are the celebrities of the endangered species community. Bees, of course, don’t know that. They probably don’t care either. They’re just doing what bees do.
Honey has been harvested since the beginning of time, a product that straddles the line between homespun and mystical. Found in Egyptian tombs, it is a symbol of prosperity. It’s naturally antibacterial and millions swear by raw unfiltered honey (with local pollen) to cure allergies and other ailments. Raw means at all times, honey is kept around the same temperature it would be in the hives; unfiltered means that while the wax has been strained out, the pollen, which gives honey its healing power, remains.
As a commodity, honey is hard to define; it’s not just a condiment, not just a sweetener, not just a natural remedy, but all three and much more. In fact, honey is so clean that the USDA only sets a standard for color and clearness. As a result, the industry is largely built on grassroots efforts and starter-hives, flourishing best when driven by passion over profit. Every day, a quarter to half a million hobby beekeepers, apiarists, zip themselves up in shapeless Ghostbusters-style bee suits with mesh helmets to care for these little creatures and scoop gold out of their hives. For them, it’s a hobby. But for others, it’s a living. When the honey flow starts, so does the work.
Desert Creek Honey
One of those guys in a bee suit is Blake Shook. He began raising bees at 12 years old for a school project, building it through high school into Desert Creek Honey, a 7,000 hive-strong honey farm in Blue Ridge, Texas. Nowadays, he is a director for the American Beekeeping Federation and is on the National Honey Board. He has been the President for the Texas Beekeepers Association and the Collin County Hobby Beekeepers Association. In addition to Desert Creek Honey, he started Texas Bee Supply, about a mile down the road, where he gives tours and sells beekeeping equipment, starter hives and teaches beekeeping classes.
“I really never intended to sell honey,” he admits as he carefully smokes the hives before lifting out a frame covered in wax and docile bees. Smoking the hives sends bees into a feeding frenzy after which they fall into a sleepy stupor. “Like after a Thanksgiving meal,” he explains. “I started raising bees as a high school project and suddenly everyone wanted honey. So I thought I’d better get more beehives and start selling.” Only about four percent of beekeepers are under 40 years old. Blake is one of them, committed to what he calls “a dying art.” Beekeeping isn’t as easy as it used to be. Annually, beekeepers are losing 40 percent of their bees, when normally they would lose only 10 to 15 percent. The disappearance of bees is largely due to widespread use of pesticides, and efforts to save them have been ongoing for decades. Famously this year, Honey Nut Cheerios removed their honey bee mascot from their cereal boxes as an awareness campaign. But the problem hasn’t been solved yet; a North American bumblebee, the rusty patched bumblebee, was added to the endangered species list this January.
Beekeeping requires a huge amount of management, but the results are more than worth it. Blake carefully scrapes wax off of the frame. Warm, dark honey shines underneath. Immediately, bees gather like a herd of cattle at a watering hole, cleaning stray drops and patching it up.
Blake’s bees feed on native Texas wildflowers. They fill 10 frames per hive with honeycomb and every June and August, Blake and his team harvest a sustainable amount. They scrape off the wax, spin the frames in a machine to sling honey off, package it themselves and sell it to grocery stores, consumers online and local restaurants. They consider themselves part of the farm-to-table movement.
Desert Creek’s honey is a little darker than what is typically found on the shelves. “It’s a darker, richer honey with a difference in taste, a wildflower-taste,” Blake calls it, gesturing to walls lined with Desert Creek products. “Honey is distinctive, sort of like wine. Every flower makes a different color and taste.” Fed on a blend of wildflowers, bee to bee, year to year, barrel to barrel, Desert Creek Honey has just a slight flavor variation.
“The honey flow is just starting,” he explains once we move to the factory. One of his employees sits before a massive steel drum, emptying honey into a gallon bucket. “Most of our bees are in production now, out pollinating. We grew the beekeeping side of the company faster than the sales side because we want to produce our own product.” His hives at Texas Bee Supply produce all the honey he needs for Desert Creek Honey Company. He sells raw honey, creamed honey, honey soap, beeswax candles—I could go on.
To counteract rising annual loss rates and keep the honey flowing, beekeepers worldwide split hives, dividing a large hive into two or more smaller ones. They also try to inspire younger generations into beekeeping. “We want people to have the opportunity to learn,” he explains. “It’s fascinating. And you can do it in your backyard.” When he isn’t taking care of the hives, Blake, a beekeeper at heart, teaches classes and travels the country to talk about the importance of bees, hoping to inspire others to try their hand at apiary. “The more people we get beekeeping, the more it helps.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum, but only a few miles away, another honey company has set out with ambitions of becoming a household name, or as I understand it, the Heinz of honey.
“We are the number one brand of honey nationally,” Nathan Sheets says. He’s the CEO of Nature Nate’s, a Texas born-and-bred boy with seemingly unlimited energy and a knack for marketing. “We’ve actually helped grow the honey category over the past five years,” he adds. Coming from a nonprofit background, he’s taken a fundraising motto (people give to people motivated by a cause) and applied it to honey.
A hobby beekeeper himself, Nate works with 200 beekeepers across the country, paying a premium to those who send their honey to his McKinney headquarters to be blended, packaged and sold nationally.
“Prospective beekeepers send us a sample of honey. We’ll test the pollen to identify where it’s from. What we’re looking for is people bringing in honey and saying it’s organic when really it’s adulterated honey from China,” he says. “The mantra is that we’re going to produce food that we’d want to put on our family’s table before we’ll put it on yours. We test the pollen to see where it’s from and test for antibiotics, C3 and C4 sugars—corn syrup and rice syrup—and we test for pesticides.”
He jogs over to where barrels and barrels of honey sit, totally untouched, fresh from hives across the country. “We start with raw and unfiltered honey because that’s the most natural way of honey getting out of a beehive. All we do is warm it up, strain out the wax and the bees and put it in a bottle.”
The result is a pure, clean bottle of honey. Though they sell local blends, their best seller is Nature Nate’s Classic. No matter where you get the classic, New York to California, it’ll be the same, a blend of honeys from around the country. The only blend that isn’t made by American bees is an organic honey brought in from the Brazilian Rainforest. Nate provided those beekeepers with beehives and once their honey is packaged, their picture appears on the bottles.
Nate took up beekeeping as a hobby years ago, buying a couple of hives from the owners of a honey company called North Dallas Honey. “I fell in love with it,” he explains. “Beekeeping is just so stinking cool.” He began helping the owner, spending nights bottling honey by hand from a 55-gallon drum propped in the rafters of his garage and waking up at 4 a.m. to deliver it to local grocery stores. “I did it for a year,” he recalls and laughs. “And my wife asked what I was doing and I said ‘I’m just helping this guy.’ One day he suggested I buy the company.”
Nate rebranded it as Nature Nate’s to put a human face to the name. In 2012, he and seven employees were working out of his garage. Today, there are over 100 employees in two locations, one of which is a new 30,000 square-foot facility in Georgia. They will bottle about 25 million pounds of clear, light honey this year.
There’s a certain lifestyle around honey that Nature Nate’s is building. “Our customers keep honey out on the counter. They eat it in their coffee, oatmeal, on bread, they eat it in everything because it’s a better-for-you alternative to processed sugars.” He isn’t shy about his express belief that high fructose corn syrup is killing us all. Nature Nate’s has a team reengineering food made with honey instead of high fructose corn syrup. He has dreams of a line of Nature Nate’s syrups, nut butters, jams, granolas and more on shelves nationwide. At the rate Nature Nate’s receives honey, they no longer hand-bottle, but have a mechanical assembly line with an eight-head filler. Still, he requires every bottle to be inspected by a human before it’s shipped.
As for the decline of the bees, Nate is optimistic. “The good news is everyone is highly aware of it and people are paying attention,” he explains. “We just have to get rid of some pesticides and such that kill bees.” Nature Nate’s has also invested in a new research lab in Florida that examines the dropping bee population.
Raw and unfiltered is a relatively new term in the honey industry, but today, that’s where almost all of the growth can be found. Just about everyone wants their honey raw and unfiltered. In greater and greater numbers, people are seeking out unprocessed, untouched honey, the closer to the hive, the better—the closer to the bees, the better. Consumers wants to know where their honey is from. They want to see it poured fresh from the frames into a bottle. If it arrives still buzzing, with comb submerged in the center like a sunken ship—even better. This doesn’t just stem from the benefits of local honey. It would appear that buying into the honey industry and beekeeping in particular, stems from a growing interest in the bees themselves, particularly in boosting their numbers. It’s a radical enough shift in mindset that Bee Culture magazine, who collect industry data all year, has observed a move from the “U.S. honey industry” to “U.S. pollination and bee industry.” They report that the many beekeepers, particularly small, backyard operations, are producing very little honey; instead they are in it to help save the bees by giving them places to pollinate. And at the end of the day, honey is a byproduct of pollination from one of the most essential species on earth. At the end of the day, it’s all about the bees.
Originally published in Plano Profile‘s June 2017 issue.