from the Canadian Honey Council's Hivelights...

Honey Combing - Selling your Gold

by Ron Miksha



We stood on cold concrete in near darkness, facing row after row of neatly painted honey drums. Don Peer and I. Don pointed to a label, 'Water White. 16.6% Moisture. 664 Pounds' Three hundred forty two barrels of water white honey. Almost a quarter of a million pounds.

"What are you going to do with all this honey, Doctor Peer?" I asked. This was twenty years ago, I was an earnest young man. Don Peer, the only commercial beekeeper I knew with a Ph.D. in entomology, shrugged his shoulders. I looked to him for marketing advice. I took out a notebook. Began to write.

"I guess we'll sell whatever we can't eat," he said.

Of course, Don finally delivered the information I needed. He gave me the names of packers and brokers and he told me what the honey market had been doing over the past few months. But all of this was long ago, at his shop in Nipawin, Saskatchewan. In those days, I was producing a hundred thousand pounds of honey a year and it was never hard to sell the stuff. Following Don's advice, I would call a few packers in the east, send a small sample, consider the offers. A semi-truck would soon arrive at my shop and the honey disappeared within the truck's steel walls. I never had a problem selling to Paul Doyon or Jack Grossman or Elise Gagnon. These people sent cheques when they said they would, paid the money they promised. Every time.

Now I have only handful of hives. They produce a thousand pounds of honey. But it's much harder to sell than it was in the old days, when I had enough honey to fill a Saskatchewan slough. Why is it harder to sell a thousand pounds of honey than a hundred thousand pounds?

To begin with, it's impossible to coax a packer to send a semi-tractor outfit to Calgary to pick up one and a half barrels of honey. And the big honey co-ops aren't interested in me as a producer, I'm more trouble than I'm worth. So I face the problem every hobby beekeeper faces each fall - what to do with the stuff.

Of course, we begin each fall by eating as much as we can. And in a poor year, we can sometimes eat the whole crop. Then there are the neighbours, friends, relatives. They get a little teaser for free, but whatever else they want, they have to buy. This whittles the stack of honey combs and bottles of honey down to a few hundred pounds. And this is where the real trouble starts. I have to think marketing.

Even though I've rarely become sick by eating the food from our family kitchen, the federal government hasn't given it the seal of approval required to register the place as an industrial food packing site. So I can't carry my honey jars down to the Safeway. I remember the old days when inspections were easy. Is the floor dirt or improved? Is the water you use to wash the floor safe to drink? Do you occasionally wash the floor? These were the questions asked in the old days. But today, they can test your honey for one part per quadrillion of dust particles. And I don't even want to think about the premiums on food processing liability insurance.

So I don't sell bottled honey at the local store.

"Why don't you sell your honey at the farmer's market?" my friend Sam said. Sam had never sold honey at the farmer's market, so he figured it would be easy. It's not easy, but it is legal. If you produce it, you can sell it. So I called the Millarville Farmers' Market, a huge and popular Saturday morning bazaar. It's located south and west of Calgary, out in the rolling foothills, not far from my bees.

"Sorry, we're full, but we can put your name at the bottom of our waiting list," the lady said.

"How long will I wait?" I asked.

"Oh, one-two-maybe three years. Three years at the most. People die and their tables become available."

I wasn't sure I wanted a dead person's table, so I called one of the less popular markets. "Sure, we can get you in this weekend. Fees are $87 for a nine-inch table, plus you pay us 55% of everything you sell. And we'd like some free samples." Ouch.

Farmer's markets might not be the way for me to sell my six hundred pounds of surplus honey. But I talked to a beekeeper whose grandfather had a spot at the Millarville market. He'd inherited grandpa's table. "An awful lot of work," he said. "You gotta get up at four every Saturday. You gotta unload five hundred pounds of honey. And some plastic bucket always tips over, leaks out. So you spend the first hour washing all the sticky containers. Then the customers arrive. They tell you they only like dark honey. Or they tell you there's another beekeeper at the other side of the market, giving away honey because he produced too much and this was his way of sharing the wealth of nature with all mankind. In the end, you sell a little honey and take home maybe eight hundred dollars. But after containers, gasoline, time standing on your feet - and trying to be nice to everyone - and then setting aside some money for bee feed and medication and equipment and extracting costs, well the money doesn't go far."

I didn't go to the farmer's market. I had thought of putting a sign in the front yard. "Honey for Sale. Cheap." But I was warned that it was against zoning regulations and besides, there were a lot of home invasions where criminal elements show up at the door, pretend they want to buy honey, then grab the jar right out of your hand and run.

So what does the hobby beekeeper with a thousand pounds of honey do? One option is to produce less. Try for two hundred pounds next year. Or, you can make honey wine. Next time I'll write about making mead. That's an option - dilute it, ferment it, drink it. Just in case you end up with more honey than you can eat.

If you still want to try selling some honey, I have a few suggestions:

1. Use new, clean containers. I was at a farmers' market once, watched a beekeeper sell some honey. He used recycled peanut butter jars. Allergies aside, it was a bit awkward when an eight year old girl came running up with her mother, "Look Mom! Skippy brand honey!" I skipped the Skippy brand honey, but bought a smaller jar. It looked nice. Took it home. It tasted like pickled beets. Don't use old containers, unless the customer comes to your door with her own.

2. Sell it in season. I know, honey lasts forever, they found some in Pharaoh's tomb, etc., etc. Nice. But you can sell five hundred pounds in the three months before Christmas; fifty pounds in the next three. With just as much effort. Honey may not expire, but honey buyers - at the farmers' market, at the farm gate - are seasonal.

3. Give people hints on how to use it. According to a recent survey that someone told me his friend told him about, 17 per cent of Canadians don't know what honey is. So, perhaps give away a cook book. Something small, even one page. You can print it yourself or buy it through a bee club. It needs tips on honey storage, baking, cooking. A few short recipes. My favourite is vanilla ice cream, drizzled with honey. Easy enough for a man to prepare. Oh, if your customer buys comb honey, explain about the wax, just so they don't think it is dirt or something.

4. Don't give honey away. If we think our honey isn't worth much, then it's not. Show respect for your work and your product by pricing it high enough to make a profit. A friend went to the health food store to price eight-ounce Ross Round combs. $14 each. So he priced his at twelve dollars. That's twenty-four dollars a pound for his honey. Guess what? He sold 160 combs from the tailgate of his truck. That's almost two thousand dollars. Want an even bigger surprise? All 160 combs came from the same hive! So, let's see… if I had fifty hives, 200 combs per hive, twelve dollars per comb…


Calgary, Alberta, Canada
August 2001


August 2000: Honey Combing - the Fundamentals

November 2000: Honey Combing - Bear Trouble and Honey Getting

February 2001: Honey Combing - Bee Equipment

August 2001: Honey Combing - Selling your Gold

February 2002: Honey Combing - In the Digital Age

May 2002: Honey Combing - Making Queens

November 2003: Honey Combing - Wintering Your Bees


The Canadian Honey Council and Hivelights Magazine

Miksha's Beekeepers' Home Pages Web Site

Copyright 2002, All Rights Reserved