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March Newsletter: Swarm Season, Honey Questions to Ask, Some Like it Hot, Honey...We have too...

Tis the season…Swarm Season. You got questions, we've got answers. - By Jess & Alma

What is a swarm? Swarming is a honey bee colony's natural means of reproduction. In the process of swarming, a single colony splits into two or more distinct colonies. Swarming is mainly a spring phenomenon, but in Florida it can happen in the spring and in the fall. The hive will raise a “princess”. The resident queen will do what is needed to be physically ready to grow a new kingdom elsewhere. She leaves the hive she made to her princess to become the future new queen. The percentage of bees that will leave with the old queen engorges themselves with honey to leave with the queen before the princess hatches.

Are swarms dangerous? For the most part, NO. Before a percentage of bees from a hive swarm they will engorge themselves with honey. They do this because they do not know how soon they will find a new home. When you see a ball of bee on a tree branch it is usually a rest-stop. Majority of the swarm will stay on the branch to conserve energy, while a select few leave in search of a location to make their new home…such as hollow tree, a soffit, abandoned doghouse. The ball of bees that are waiting, are not necessarily dangerous because they still have a full tummy and the tree branch is not their “forever” home. I’ve heard Alma use the analogy of, “Would you be fired up to defend a rest-spot after eating Thanksgiving dinner?” Bees are MOST gentle in swarm state.

You said “Most likely not dangerous” what you mean? If the scout bees cannot find the ideal “forever home” and they have depleted their reserve. They may need to make the “rest-spot” their forever home for now. This is when you start to see honey comb being built on that tree branch. When this happens, they WILL defend the branch and can be potentially dangerous.

So, if I see a swarm what do I do? Leave it alone. They will leave. Give it a few days to a week…more if its rainy. Scout bees can’t go looking for a forever home in the rain. It not until you start to see honeycomb or it has been 3 weeks that you should call a beekeeper. Once the bees have been relocated, remove the branch, replace the part of the soffit where the swarm was located. The swarm location has been marked with a pheromone identifying the location as an “official honey bee rest-spot.” The swarm site will attract future swarms to rest on the branch. In one year, we caught 17 swarms off on ONE "swarm" branch!

Honey, You have options when purchasing honey

– By Jess

We’ve enjoyed talking to customers at our Farmer’s Market locations. We not only get to teach people about honey and bees, but also learn what customers think. Often, while explaining why our honey is so good, we see frustration on our customers’ faces because they have bought some other honey and didn’t know what to ask during that purchase. Here are some questions to ask BEFORE buying honey:

“Are you a beekeeper?” This sounds crazy, but the honey industry has two main categories, producers and packers. Producers intuitively are those people or companies that own bees who’s hives produce the honey they sell. What’s not intuitive is the practice of packing honey. Anyone can buy a drum of honey, fill jars, and take them to the farmer’s market. That person doesn’t know anything about where that honey came from, the practices used, so it’s always best to buy from beekeepers. Many of those that sell to the packing houses are beekeepers that don’t always have the best honey producing practices. I’ve seen beekeepers sell honey to packaging houses that been exposed to chemicals. When questioned about the beekeeper’s methods the exact words were, “ Once I sell it to the packinghouse it’s their problem.” This is why it’s so important to ask questions and purchase directly from the beekeeper.. At our market in Englewood you will see beekeepers and those that sell purchased honey. We can’t speak on the other beekeeper’s practices, but I can speak on our own practices which is truly local honey within 2-6 miles of each of our farmers markets, raw, hand harvested, by bees raised with organic practices!

Is this your honey? Followed by, “Did you harvest it?” Similar to the explanation above, you want to buy from someone with a vested interest in selling pure, unadulterated honey rather than someone selling a commodity. Keep in mind, some people will say “Yes” to the question of “Is this your honey” Technically, speaking it is their honey because they did purchase it. This is why you want to ask did they personally harvest it.

How local is your honey? When talking about local honey, you should reference your town or a neighboring town, not your state. There’s a big difference between Sarasota, FL honey, Florida honey and U.S. honey. Moreover, the term “local” is not legally defined. Some people may consider their honey local because it was harvested in Sarasota or in the state of Florida. What they don’t tell you is that although the honey was harvested here, the bees may have collected the honey in a completely different state. At Sarasota Honey Company our bees can fly to every one of our farmers markets and stores that sell our products. To us local is defined where 80% of the hives are located within 45 minutes of your home or the flowers found where the bees are located are the same flowers in your backyard.

Do you feed your bees? There are a lot of beekeepers that have to feed their bees. Some feed their bees a sugar water or a corn syrup water. Much of the cheap honey that you find out on the market, is just that... cheap honey. Some beekeepers make a living getting paid to pollinate crops. Some of these crops maybe heavy in pollen but not nectar, therefore they have to feed. Here in Florida, there can be an over-population of bees in the agricultural land. Just as we see "snow-birds", we see "snow-bees". Beekeepers from northern states bring their bee to Florida during the winter months. Moreover, there is a lack of diversity due to the mono-culture found in agriculture land. The combination of lack of diversity and over-population creates and environment where the bees have to be fed in order to survive.

These bee will combine the sugar or corn syrup feed with the few flowers they can find to make “honey”. Also there are some beekeeper that cheat or “water the tap” by feeding their bees in order to make a lot of “honey” to meet retailer demand and have the ability to sell it cheap for the retailer's profit margin requirements. All of our honey is made from 100% flower nectar. We only feed when we are growing our baby bees or during a drought, but never during a honey flow. Honey flow is a term used by beekeepers indicating that one or more major nectar sources are in bloom and the weather is favorable for bees to fly and collect the nectar in abundance to convert into hone.

ow let's do some basic math: I have seen a jar of local "Honey" at local grocery store selling at $7 per pound. The store will only do business you if they can double their money: $7/2 = $3.50 for the beekeeper. $1.70 for Packaging: (labor to package the honey, jar, cap, labels). Beekeeper remaining balance:

$3.50 - $1.70 in Packing = $1.80. The beekeeper is left with $1.80 per jar to cover: Beehive boxes, frames, bottoms, lids, platforms, physical labor, protective gear, harvesting equipment, pumps, drums, buckets, warehouse space, office and staff, licenses, permits, 4 different types of insurances, trucks, gasoline, water, light, internet...ect.

The expenses I listed are just the ones that I can think of off the top of my head; I'm sure Alma can come up with more. I cannot help but wonder, how do they stay in business? How can they afford to properly care for their bees with that type of budget? How can they provide a sustainable income for themselves and their employees? Three sayings come to mind: "If it's too good to be to be probably is." "If if walks like a duck, talks like a duck, it probably is a duck" and "You get, what you pay for".

I’ve heard the argument, “Well the bees DID make it! Bee do make honey, Right!” This is why at Sarasota Honey Company, when we get low on particular honey it goes in a smaller jar or we have to say it is not in stock. We do not feed our bees for honey purposes. Our honey is made of 100% nectar of flowers. We just DON’T have an unlimited supply. Every year will yield a harvest that is govern by Mother Nature.

Do you treat your hives? Did the beekeeper put any chemicals in their hives to treat for pests and diseases? You’d think this would be a no-brainer, but most commercial beekeepers add chemicals to their hives to control varroa mites and small hive beetles. Bees move honey, nectar, and pollen throughout the hive to support young bees and prepare for storage, so who knows where those chemicals end up.

Do you heat your honey? Some honey processors will heat their honey to make it flow better through filters, tubing, fillers, and into the final containers. Just like the saying with maple syrup, honey moves slower when cold. Heating honey does have drawbacks. The aroma of honey is very volatile and heat will drive off that aroma, depriving you of the floral components of good honey. Heat also neutralizes the enzymes that bees add to honey during the curing process. Honey subjected to heat over 120 Fahrenheit is pasteurized, killing all the benefits of raw honey. At Sarasota Honey Company our honey is never subjected to heat above 120.

Are you Cottage Law? Cottage Law allows people to sell honey and other goods that has not been inspected or approved by the FDA. This means honey can be harvested in the most unsanitary conditions and legally sold. Under cottage law you can only sell up to $15,000 in honey, so you will find many of these type of vendors wanting cash only or offering a deep discount for cash. Sarasota Honey Company is NOT cottage law. We pay for permits, insurances, training that have to show proof that we past a test to be certified to sell food products. Our products, labels, honey harvest are all approved and inspected by the State of Florida.

I am graduating from college soon. The most valuable thing I learned, is knowledge is power. I know that saying is cliché, but true. I feel that is important to educate the public about their options when it comes to honey. I believe that by doing so, the end consumer will get the reap the health and culinary benefits from a truly raw pure honey product. In return, our customers allow us to continue to provide best practices for ours bees, honey production, and products we offer…and for that we are very grateful.

Unfortunately, we have seen local farmer friends that grow the BEST, more flavorful organic veggies we have ever eaten go out of business. They just could not compete with those vendors that are re-selling veggies that were rejected by grocery stores. Similar to the honey-packers, these vendors buy it cheap, so they can sell it cheap. The re-seller practices, are a disservice to those that are raising food the right way and the consumers. I would like to wrap up with this: Just because you purchase from a farmer’s market doesn’t mean you are getting the perceived farmer’s market quality. If you buy cheap honey/produce, you can be sure you ARE getting just honey/produce. I'm sure if you are shopping at a farmers market is it because you are seeking something better than what you find at a grocery store and not what these stores have rejected. So be educated and ask questions. Check out the video below:

Some Like it HOT -By Jess

Our latest product: “Hot Honey” was debut on Valentine's Day! Our queen bee had so may request for this product, that she finally said, “OK, I’ll do it!” She was opposed to making this product because it requires that you cook the honey with peppers and add hot sauce. Alma explained that cooking the honey, pasteurized it. Alma expressed, "Cooking honey degrades all the hard-work our bees do, I do, our beekeepers do, to bring a raw superior product." Moreover, traditionally hot sauce is added to the recipe. Most hot sauces have MSG, which some people are allergic to.

I am please to say Alma found solution. She did cook some of the honey by making a reduction with a yummy blend of spicy, sweet, and smoke Spanish chilis. She then added, organic apple cider vinegar instead of hot sauce. Once the honey and chilies cooled to room temp, she re-introduced the health benefits by adding raw honey to “cool” the heat from the chili honey reduction. She then let it naturally infuse for over a month. Customers seem to love to use the hot honey on charcuterie boards, cheeses, fried chicken, on salmon, pizza, spring rolls. You can find our hot honey at our store and all of our farmers markets!

"Honey, we have no choice" – By Alma

I would like to thank all our loyal customers for all your support. We have been so very blessed, we were able to stay in business, keep ALL our team and bees healthy and working. Heaven knows, like everyone, we have had our share of challenges with the pandemic. Our biggest challenge has been glass jars and caps. I dedicate a part of my Mondays, calling distributors checking stock regardless of price. The days of price shopping and negotiating are far gone. I must get caps from one or more distributor and bottles from a mix of totally different distributor. Shipping is delayed and costs are higher. In the past, I could get the jars and lids from a local company . I have had to now order out of state, increasing shipping costs and time. One the Brightside, we have been shown heavenly favor that we’ve been able to get bottles/lids just as we were running out or within days of running out. Some have said, “Maximize your orders!” My response is, "I am and trying…it’s just not enough in stock."

In the fall, we increase our honey by .50 cents to cover part of the increase of the jars/lids/labels. I hated having to do that, but I felt I had to after the third increase within an 18-month period. To encourage the recycling of glass, we started to offer a .50 cent discount when customers would bring our glass jars back. I was pleasantly surprised, how well received this idea was from our customers!

Unfortunately, as a business owner I find myself back in that uncomfortable space. Our fifty cent increase accounted for part of the increase of packaging, but not the increases we are now experiencing. Wood for our hives, that cost us $30 - $36 has been increased to $68 and now $82. We have seen increases in our insurances, permits, rent and so much more. My family and I just learned to deal with the increases by finding ways to cut corners at home. We trade with other homesteaders, starting grow and raise our own food again. We are now getting into dairy with my best friend. We do as much as we can on our own. We have always been frugal and conservative with our spending to provide for the business and those we feel we are responsible for.

During the shut down we did not accept not one penny from the programs/loans the government was offering. We made it through boot-strapping, our savings, and customer loyalty and support.

However, after learning about the hardships that my and my husband’s teams were facing due to the increase in rental housing, transportation, gasoline, and overall cost of I have to say, “Honey, we have no choice.” I am willing to cut corners when it comes to me personally. I am not willing to cut corners when it comes to our bees, providing a superior honey product, or the most awesome team of workers. We have been truly blessed and highly favored to have each and every one of them on both of our teams! Starting mid-March, we will need to increase our honey by an additional fifty cents. You can still get a fifty-cent discount by bringing our glass jars back, making the price of honey $12.50 or lower if you bring back more of our glass jars. We are trying to come up with a discount subscription plan for our customers that we see on by-weekly/monthly basis.

I have a very heavy heart in making decision. Trying to find the balance of providing for everything but also keeping the prices as low as possible at the same time has been a true struggle. I research and sought advice from others in my industry. I felt a little better after learning other honey and local businesses have increased their prices much more than fifty cents for all the same reasons. We found vendors at local Manasota farmers market selling 1 lb. jars of honey for $13 to $15 in a plastic-jars. In the Carolinas and Savannah, a 12oz jar of honey is now at $16-$18. Our main jar is glass, offers 18.5 oz of Suncoast local raw honey and will be $13 or $12.50 or less when you bring our glass jars back.

We truly value your support. Our loyal customers are what got us, our beloved team and honeybees through struggle of Covid restrictions and shut-downs. We hope you continue to value the hard work we do, to bring you the very best of us and our honeybees through your continued support.

Deepest Appreciation,

Alma Johnson

Co-Owner and Head Beekeeper

Sarasota Honey Company


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