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Beekeeper finds niche, stays on top of industry concerns

By Marilyn Bay Wentz

Ask beekeeper member Paul Hendricks, Englewood, Colo., anything about honey production or industry issues, and expect to spend at least 30 minutes getting a complete education. He is not only passionate about the issues affecting the honey industry, he also is very knowledgeable about honey production, international trade, and agricultural history.

A self-described small beekeeper, Hendricks has between 300 and 400 hives. Each hive has about 35,000 bees. He is one of just 1500 beekeepers nationwide, with only 100 classified as small to medium-sized beekeepers.

Hendricks, who has been keeping bees since 1976, does not own the land on which his hives sit. Rather, he contracts with landowners who want the bees to pollinate their crops and currently has his hives on 13 different farms, most of them in Elbert and Douglas counties.

“The United States has half the bees we had in 1990, due largely to increased use of broad-spectrum insecticides which kill not only the target insects but desirable ones such as honeybees and butterflies,” Hendricks said. “This practice has decimated our honeybee population. The American public is not aware of the impact this is having on them.”

The beekeeper offered the example of the almond crop two years ago when there were not enough bees to pollinate it. The result was that the shortage pushed retail almond prices from $4 per pound to $8 per pound.

Hendricks’ passion for his industry has led him into conflicts with state authorities. Not one to back down from what he believes to be a just fight, he has taken legal action in several instances.

One of the landowners where he kept bees was being told by the state property assessor that the property owner would no longer have agricultural status, which would result in significantly higher property taxes.

Hendricks’ landlord sued the state, arguing successfully at the Colorado Supreme Court level, that bees deserve agricultural status because they meet the criteria as agriculture.

He wasn’t quite as successful when he took the Colorado Division of Wildlife to court, claiming they should pay for his loss of bees and honey from bears. His claim was that the state had been negligent by not controlling the bear population and that the deterrents they had provided for him (electric fencing), were faulty. Despite the fact that he did not win the case, the suit made the state improve its bear deterrent programs and products and highlighted the difficulties facing beekeepers.

According to Hendricks, cheap imported honey that is sold below the cost of production is pushing out U.S. produced honey. Two decades ago, virtually all honey in grocery stores was raised in the United States. Today, 60 percent is imported, with China being the largest supplier of honey imported into the United States.

“The reality is that unless you’re buying honey directly from producers, you are buying honey from unknown sources, and the latest practice is to mix corn syrup into honey,” Hendricks said. “Beekeepers are very concerned with not only the lack of country-of-origin labeling but with misleading content labeling.

Long gone are the days of backyard beekeepers when consumers expected to buy honey produced within 50 miles of their homes in order to help them build up immunities to allergens. But that is not the only problem with today’s honey.

“Heating honey to 120 degrees begins to kill enzymes, but commercial honey packers typically heat their honey to 160 degrees,” said Hendricks. “I heat my honey to about 100 degrees, the same temperature to which it is heated in the hive. It takes longer to process it that way, but it tastes better and is healthier.”

Beekeepers, like many other agricultural producers, have seen their prices drop in order to be competive with cheaper imports. Although tariffs totaling some $1 billon annually are imposed on imported honey, Chinese honey exporters devised a system of setting up artificial bonding companies to which the tariff payments were charged. Rather than paying the balance of the tariffs, the companies simply go out of business.

“Beekeepers are grateful to National Farmers Union (NFU)for pushing for legislation that would stop this travesty by revoking China’s bonding privileges,” Hendricks, who spoke to NFU officials during the March convention, explained. “Without this bonding option, the Chinese companies will have to pay their tariffs when the product enters the United States. This is important not only to honey producers but to other industries, such as garlic and stainless steel to name a few,” he said.

Hendricks sells 90 percent of his honey to Casa Bonita, a large, landmark Mexican restaurant in the northwest part of the Denver Metro area. The rest is sold directly to consumers. This includes the specialty “varietal” honey produced by bees foraging on a certain type of plant.

“I raise distinctive varietal honeys from bees feeding on rabbit brush, knapweed, yellow sweet clover, and alfalfa,” Hendricks said. “Despite its classification as a noxious weed, knapweed honey brings $19 per pound in New York City.”

This April, the Hendricks family faced a tragedy when their honey storage and processing facility burned down, which was ruled by the fire department as unintentionally caused. He is currently dealing with the insurance company and looking at replacement options. One possibility is mobile processing. The traditional way of collecting honey, and the way Hendricks had been using, was to take the honeycombs back to the processing facility, remove the honey and then return the hives to the fields. This generally takes several days.

“I got thinking that due to the price of gas and because the traditional collection system stops the flow of honey for several of the 10 or so days that honey flows, a mobile system might be the way to go,” said Hendricks. “I’m still checking that option.”

In addition, the mobile system would make it easier to produce the varietal honeys of which Hendricks is so fond. Otherwise, all the honey is co-mingled. Hendricks is assisted in his operation by his wife, Linda, and his teenage daughter, Joanna. Linda keeps the books and makes beeswax candles, ornaments and other crafts with honey byproducts. Joanna has attended several RMFU camps and other youth activities.