The buzz at the Old Town Newhall Farmers Market this past weekend not only came from eager vendors and shoppers, for amongst the crowd were a hive of bees.
On Saturday and Sunday, Blue Ridge Honey brought some bees to their stall to introduce customers to the tireless workers that make their product.
“We used to bring the bees more often but it would get so busy with people asking me questions about the bees and we’d have more lookie-loos than buyers, and at the end of the day I’d be exhausted and have no money,” joked Wendi Mitchell, head of bottling and sales for Blue Ridge Honey and whose family runs the business. “The main reason behind bringing the bees and my album of photos is to show that we’re the real deal.”
Sandy Frommer saw a post on Facebook that Blue Ridge would have the bees at their stall and brought her granddaughters Grace and Ella to the farmers market on Saturday to learn more about how honey is made.
“We came because my granddaughters wanted to know about bees,” Frommer said. “They love everything about animals and this was a really good educational opportunity. I wish it was a little bit of a bigger display so we could see them more.”
According to Mitchell, Blue Ridge Honey has approximately 2,000 hives with each hive containing between 20,000 and 60,000 bees with pollination sites across Southern California including in Castaic, Ojai and Malibu. The company’s primary source of revenue is as a pollination service for farms and ranches and the honey they sell is a byproduct of the work their bees do.
Marni Howe, warehouse manager and bottler for Blue Ridge Honey, said that in her experience selling at farmers markets, most customers purchase honey for its medicinal effects and its skin care uses. Blue Ridge sells raw, unprocessed honey in orange blossom, avocado blossom, buckwheat, wildflower and sage. They also sell bee pollen and propolis, which is a glue that bees produce that has antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and antifungal properties.
“Many of our customers buy our wildflower honey because it helps with their allergies and the buckwheat honey is very popular because it has a lot of vitamins in it,” Howe said.
The work season begins in December when Mitchell’s husband and sons start to strengthen hive numbers and encourage egg laying. In February, Blue Ridge begins sending their bees to help pollinate different crops including almonds, oranges, cauliflowers, and avocados. When there are no more crops left to pollinate, the bees are moved into the mountains to wildflowers, buckwheat and sage until about September.
“That Jerry Seinfeld film ‘Bee Movie’ is actually pretty accurate to how a bee’s life is,” Howe said, “except that it’s animated and they don’t drive around in cars.”
Blue Ridge has its own honey processing plant in Ventura. Mitchell said that sometimes people will come to her farmers market stalls and accuse her of killing her bees to harvest their honey and that smoking the bees to calm them down before honey collection is harmful to the animals.
“Smoking the bees is actually beneficial because not only does it calm them while we work the hive but it also causes them to groom more, which helps them knock off more mites that cause disease,” she said. “It makes no sense for us to kill our bees, that’s not in our best interest. We want to keep our hive count as high as possible and keep our bees pollinating and producing.”
Despite news stories and academic studies abuzz with dramatic and dire accounts of bees becoming endangered and facing colony collapse disorder, Mitchell said neither she nor any beekeepers she knows have faced this issue.
“The honey bee is nowhere near endangered because they’re being handled by beekeepers to handle all the issues that they face,” Mitchell said. “There are about eight species of bees on the endangered list, and most of them are bumble bees. The endangered bees don’t have beekeepers to help handle issues like drought and parasites and viruses. All the bees that are used to pollinate our crops have healthy populations.”
One of the biggest issues that local beekeepers like Mitchell face is takeover by Africanized bees, which are much more aggressive and invasive than the Italian honey bees that are used by beekeepers. If a hive is invaded, the bees are more likely to sting workers on farms where Blue Ridge places their hives and is a liability. To prevent their hives from being taken over, Blue Ridge purchases especially bred queen bees from Hawaii, which cost anywhere between $25 to $40 depending on the time of year, and must manually replace their hives’ queens twice a year.
Another common misconception that beekeepers will remove feral hives from people’s yards for free because beekeepers are desperate for bees, and while Blue Ridge does offer bee removal services for a fee, they cannot use these bees because they are most likely Africanized. Native Californian bees are also solitary insects that often do not colonize and do not produce honey.
“We can’t use the native bees and bumblebees because they don’t colonize so we can’t put them in a hive and they also don’t know how to pollinate an orange tree or an almond tree because they’re not native plants,” she said. “A lot of the time it’s just easier to poison those bees, which is actually better because it helps fight the Africanized killer bee problem.”
The amount of honey Blue Ridge Honey produces is highly dependent on the weather, especially on the amount of rain and sunshine in a given year. Honey harvesting doesn’t begin until June because it takes time for the bees to process the nectar they collected starting in March.
“There is no average for what we produce in a year,” MItchell said. “In 2019 we produced 140 drums and each drum contains 55 gallons or 650 pounds of honey. Last year we produced 38 drums and this year we’ll be happy if we make 15 drums because it’s been so dry.”
While coronavirus has been led to trouble for many businesses, it has led to increased business for Blue Ridge Honey as customers turned to honey for its natural antibiotic and antimicrobial properties. Many restaurants and breweries stopped ordering honey, but online orders increased 835 percent.
“This year my gross receipts were only about $100 off from what we used to do, so if we still had those restaurant and brewery sales this would have been a really good year,” Mitchell said. “We’ve never run out of honey before but this is the first year that we might.”
About 33 percent of the world’s honey is fake or adulterated and follows only milk and olive oil as the world’s third-most faked food, according to an analysis by the Honey Authenticity Project. In 2013, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Homeland Security Investigations ran Project Honeygate and charged several individuals with selling fake Chinese honey to avoid $180 million in import duties.
Mitchell said that Blue Ridge prides itself on using only local honey while many other honey companies will mix their supply with imported foreign honey, which is much cheaper, likely because it is often mixed with corn syrup and sugars. While honey packers may not be intentionally selling fake honey, by mixing domestic and foreign honey to reduce costs (the average price per pound of bulk honey was $5.29 per pound of American honey as opposed to $1.56 for international honey) they are flooding the US market with fake product.
While avoiding this fake honey is one benefit of buying from local beekeepers rather than big box grocery stores, according to Mitchell, the problem does not solely lie with large commercial honey operations.
“There’s one local beekeeper out here who has 15,000 colonies… he’s still selling way more than he’s producing and keeping costs down by putting that foreign honey in,” she said. “It pays to know your beekeeper.”