PORTLAND, Maine — Honey producers in Maine are cheering USDA news that production in the state is on the rise. According to recent figures from the National Agricultural Statistics Service, honey output increased 25 percent from 2014 statewide.
Ideal weather conditions, surging interest in backyard beekeeping, combined with greater awareness of the plight of the honey bee drove growth.
“The silver lining in the crisis is the media exposure to the difficulty and importance of honeybees to our ecosystem and economy,” said Philip Gaven of The Honey Exchange in Portland. “That has led to the tripling in the number of caring and frequently well-educated beekeepers. This trend is nationwide, and it’s very, very good news.”
It also has led to higher prices for Maine’s coveted raw, unfiltered honey. During last year’s boom, honey prices increased 10 percent according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. But customers at places such as The Honey Exchange are not balking. Far from it. They can’t get their paws on the stuff fast enough.
“We are having trouble meeting demand in our store. Keeping honey stocked on our shelves has been a challenge,” said Gaven.
Five years ago, Gaven and his wife, Meghan Gaven, set up a retail shop and beekeeping school in Portland’s Deering neighborhood. Honey, beeswax candles and mead were top sellers, and it swiftly became a destination.
This spring, the couple will ramp up production of their line of raw, spiced honey. The spreads, which include flavors such as organic lemon, ginger and garam marsala, will soon be made in a commercial facility shared by Maine Mead Works in Portland. Meghan Gaven said stores across New England are clamoring for the value-add product.
“By making honey spreads with raw, unfiltered honey, we are giving customers a new, enjoyable treat while still providing all the benefits honey,” she said.
Honey’s health benefits are vast. It’s a solid source of natural energy, can soothe sore throats and ease allergies. It also is a key element in the buy local, eat local movement. Still, even this innocent balm has been maligned.
“A couple of years ago there was a lengthy report about how American consumers were being hoodwinked by an international sleight-of-hand regarding imported ‘honey’ that was little more than flavored corn syrup,” said Meghan Gaven. “As a honey store owner I can assure you that a lot of our customers were affected. With every report that reaches a new audience, the benefits of honey become slightly more mainstream and desireable.”
The honey buzz is just getting louder. It is experiencing what Hampden’s “Bee Whisperer,” and Bangor Daily News columnist Peter Cowin calls “a positive feedback loop.”
“Just as buying local produce is becoming more and more popular, purchasing local honey that’s not processed and contains local pollens delivers health benefits and helps with allergies,” he said.
Despite the upsides, and last year’s increase, Maine is an unlikely honey oasis. Bees, just like Mainers, have to be tough to survive.
The state’s Northern climate and long winters “presents the biggest challenge,” said Cowin. “Bees are spending half the year in a hive,” so in May when the season starts, they are on a frantic search for nectar.
Beekeeping experts such as Cowin encourage farmers and landowners to do more to protect the bees in our midst.
“Farmers can put down cover crops like crown vetch or sweet clover or buckwheat — each can help produce a lot of honey,” he said.
Still Maine’s brief honey flow, from mid-May to September, can be dashed by a few weeks of inclimate weather.
“Rain at the wrong time can cut down the flow. Too much water and flowers can’t produce nectar. Not enough rain and the same thing happens,” said Cowin, who tends to 40 hives scattered on farms in the Hampden area, Castine and even at Bangor International Airport.
Cowin plans to set up a shop similar to the Gavens in a barn in Hampden soon. In the meantime, he will continue to raise the profile of beekeeping and encourage others to do their part.
“As a consumer you can help influence this by buying local honey,” he said.
“We are right in the midst of the growing period. Hopefully more people will want to get involved in helping bees thrive,” he said.