A taste of honey. Transforming an industry from bee to bottle

Jim Brophy taught me the importance of bees. Each morning, he would look to the hives – he had up to 30 – to check the weather. If the bees were out and about there would be no rain. After a day in the fields at Desart in Kilkenny, he would clean his hands with honey;  use it on scrapes or wounds and, on the press next to busts of Napoleon and Padraig Pearse were his prized moulds made out of polished bees wax. He would give talks about plant pollination and how crucial bees are to the harvest and, I recall the wonder of lifting the lid of the hive to see such industry and organisation. *As we develop T L perspectives on high impact industries for the developing and emerging world capable of delivering sustainable and inclusive growth – honey is worth a closer look.

Honey hives

A hive of industry

Honey is big business. Global production of over 1250 metric tonnes generates a $1.5 billion market. Prices vary. China produces over 20% of global production at just over $1,000 per tonne. New Zealand honey fetches over $6,000. Ten producing countries generate over 70% of global production and, the demand far outstrips supply in many countries. The US imports 55% of its demand and this is worth $150 million; the UK produces under 10% and Saudi Arabia 2% of their needs. Honey is a massive opportunity for developing countries to grow an added value agricultural industry at relatively low cost. Let’s look at the history and then, reflect on the potential to use honey to transform a market and boost income for the poor.[1]

The honey bee is one of the few remaining creatures that were around at the time of the Dinosaurs. There is a cave painting near Valencia that dates back 10,000 years. All the major religions feature bees and honey in their faith narrative with the Old Testament describing Israel as the land of milk and honey; the Koran has an entire surah on al-Nahl, the honey bee; the Vedas mention the use of honey as a medicinal and health food and, for Jews, it is the symbol of the New Year – Rosh Hashana.

Inspired by stable communities, inspiring leadership and sheer industry several political satires from around 1500 were based on the life of bees. Michel de Montaigne’s Essay asked: “Is there a society regulated with more order, diversified into more charges and functions and more consistently maintained that that of the honey bee?” John Dayes wrote the Parliament of Bees (1641) and, in what is regarded as one of the earliest satires on the Capitalist system, Bernard de Mandeville wrote the Fable of the Bees in 1714. This tale is unique in describing the downfall of an ideal utopia.

Perhaps the most telling record is that of Herophilus, founder of the Medical School of Alexandria around 300 BC, who identified honey as one of three non magical Egyptian techniques for wound care. From a food source to pharmaceuticals; cement; alcoholic beverage; a flavouring for tobacco to furniture polish, honey has many uses and, with its unique composition it is even suitable for long term storage. In 1497 there is a record of fur traders taking over 2 tonnes of honey on an expedition to Siberia (Galton, 1971).

Now, picture the jar on the supermarket shelf and study the label that mentions it on medicine – where did the story start. Along with other T L reviews of supply chains such as dairy, leather or carpets; honey starts out in the informal economy and emerges as a valued product for any market. For example, it is a key crop of many mountain economies.

Mountain economies are plagued by poverty, food insecurity and the lack of opportunities for sustainable livelihoods. Places like Afghanistan are fraught with political instability or harsh weather conditions and other places like the Nilgris in Southern India are characterised by all of the issues that small farmers in remote rural districts have to contend with globally. Honey is a fragmented industry characterised by primitive equipment; outmoded traditional techniques, low productivity and inconsistent quality with risks to food safety. How can this industry be transformed from bee to bottle?

Fundamentally, the industry has to progress from hunting wild honey from nests in trees to harvesting honey from man-made hives. To many, apiculture remains a sideline activity and its potential has not been exploited. Traditionally, hunters would kill the bees and crush the nest to extract the honey and trees can often be cut down for charcoal or timber. Wild honey is exposed to lots of smoke and is of low quality and remains an important part of the story. In Ghana, over 60% of production comes from wild colonies.

Hives have evolved from mud and clay to skeps or baskets made of coils of grass. These days, over 75% of recognised production is harvested from Langstroth stacked box hives – invented in the 1860s – comprising two compartments upper and lower. The exit holes that connect the two chambers are too small for the Queen bee but fine for the worker bees to move through. The lower chamber honey is used for the Queen and reproduction whilst the upper one houses honey for the harvest. The Langstroth hive is superior to the Top Bar used in Africa. These are hollow inside and bees have to spend a lot of time building the combs before they start to produce honey. Phil Brophy recalls Jim describing a glass hive that was set up at the RDS in Dublin back in the 1950s. The bees covered the glass from the inside before they would set to work.

Hives increase yield significantly. Wild nests can yield up to 5 kilograms and world average for hives is around 20 kilograms per year (2004) [2]. Studies from Pakistan demonstrate improving yield from 4 to 24 kgs and, a payback on materials within 2 years [3]. Moldova – which produces no more than 2000 tonnes – have recorded over 30 kgs per hive. World production has grown from around 875 metric tonnes in 1975 to 1250 metric tonnes by 2001. There is scope for significant increase world wide and several specialist development agencies such as Bothar of Ireland are raising funds to deliver hives all over the world – 120€ buys three hives.

Other agencies like the Kenyan Honey Care, launched in 1999,  are working to improve the underdeveloped beekeeping sector. Enabling local farmers to become bee keepers via a small scale financing programme whereby roughly $160 cost of necessary equipment such as hives and protective clothing is covered by future sales. Honey Care likes to work with groups of farmers with whom they will agree an exclusive contract and guarantee cash on collection for sale in the supermarkets for approximately $2.75 per jar. Through this work there are now over 2,500 small-scale farmers involved in bee keeping, each one earning $200 to $250 per year – double their previous income.

Harper (2009) has a useful Case Study on Honey in Muzzaffarpur in which the type of bee makes the difference too. Initially, training programmes focussed how to domesticate and manage Indica known as Desi bees. Then, beekeepers were encouraged to move to Italian bees, Mellisfera with significant increases in yield.

Honey production in places like India – only 27,000 tonnes 0r 0.6% of world production – could benefit from greater efforts to build an industrial cluster and transform techniques. Micro finance plays a significant role in the purchase of hives and, Self Help Groups and cooperatives can generate the funds for aggregation facilities and extraction equipment. For example, the EU is making available stainless steel extraction equipment in Africa and, in India solar wax extractors are being used in areas without electricity.

Branding is a key issue and several countries, such as Kenya, are seeking Fair Trade accreditation. The Punjab Beekeepers Federation (PSBF), with its 15 field stations, helps to market bee products. Underdeveloped production and a lack of differentiation of other bee products (propolis, queen’s jelly, pollen and even bees wax) due to limited technology and finances are the priorities that can only be dealt with by professional bodies.

Branding and links to global distribution networks needs to be promoted and, international standards and traceability are needed urgently to regulate the industry. One pressing issue is the fudging of the country of origin. The EU has accused about 10 honey exporters including Argentina, Vietnam, Hungary and India of re-labelling and re-shipping contaminated honey originally from China. Light coloured Chinese honey re-labelled as Vietnamese honey (normally dark coloured) raised alarm bells. Laundering re-labelled Chinese honey circumvents trade bans. More specifically, Chinese honey priced at $1,094 per metric tonne in 2004 relabelled as Argentine honey commands a price of $1,927. The incentives for blending and relabelling are clear.

Standards are needed to ensure that quality is established and maintained. In 1997, China bees contracted a bacteria that slashed production. Instead of killing hives, antibiotic products illegal in the USA, Canada and the EU were used and production therefore tainted. The same applies to organic classification – how can this be assured when bees wander freely and are exposed to pesticides etc.

Working from Malcolm Harpers Muzzaffarpur Case Study and adding other insights the T L perspective on honey highlights: [4]

1. Raising the profile of honey as an industry not a hobby. More needs to be done to demonstrate how honey can be more than a sideline to become a significant added value industry and a useful catalyst for other activities in developing and emerging economies. Cluster therories and Case Studies in other industries can be helpful. In some areas, the shift from hunter to harvesting techniques are key. Also, as beekepers age, there is a need to raise the profile amongst the young and build up the opportunity for women.

2. Formation and capacity building of local Institutions. Mobilisation of bee-keepers to form bee-keeping associations. This can act as a catalyst for productivity and yield improvements through specific training programmes. Honey processing plants in strategic locations will assist in aggregation facilities and, developing uniform standards.

More can be done with mobile phones linking beekeepers to technical support.

3. Technical support. Sustainable development is the goal and technical expertise, research and good practice from elsewhere is essential. Location of the hives and, the type of flora accessible to bees need to be adjusted to demand where possible. Studies in Tanzania concluded that there is an under-utilised potential for 138,000 tonnes to be produced while actual production stands at 9,200. This is 7.2% of the potential production capacity. Then there are claims that GM crops are having an impact on bee colonies. In 2006, it was observed that US beekeepers lost up to 70% of their bees and Germany reproted similar collapses. [5] Technical resources are needed to help with disease and ways to preserve an organic offering. For example, the impact of pesticides etc. These studies need to be developed and action plans implemented where potential is greatest. [6]

4. Skills training. For many, honey is a sideline activity and needs to be focussed as a first rank industrial cluster. This means training of locals to make the shift from hunt to harvest and, the skills that go with this. Using equipment effectively and efficiently is key. There is evidence of stainless steel equipment donated from the EU which lies idle because no one knows how to maintain it.

5. Financial support. Micro finance, self help groups and subsidies can set up lease schemes for the equiment and enable significant capacity building to take place. Policy makers can enable this to happen. EDA Rural Systems (EDA), a Gurgaon based development consultancy working in micro finance and livelihoods promotion have worked in this area since the 1990s (See: Harper p. 177).

Pricing and retained margin is a key element of this effort. Cooperatives and self help groups develop critical mass and bargaining power. This will remove reliance on loan sharks and, agents.

6. Branding. Global pricing fluctuates significantly between cheap Chinese honey ($1,000) and premium class from New Zealand ($6,000 +). More needs to be done to differentiate and build market access to lucrative world markets. The top ten importing nations generated demand of $750 million in 2004.

Honey could benefit from co-opetition a neologism coined to describe cooperative competition. In other words, recognising that product x works better when combined with product y. For example, Burger and Ketchup; Honey and specialist recipes. Co-opetition type links between beekeepers and dairies could help build improved market access for honey based products. [7]

7. International standards. Food safety and traceability is needed to ensure that quality standards and compliance are established and maintained. Investment in research can help to develop honey based products.

In many developing and emerging countries, the emphasis on minerals – oil and diamonds – as key to economic growth far too often takes away any interest in the potential from other natural resources. Honey is one such natural resource; found in many developing and emerging economies, offering genuine potential to create more inclusive economic opportunities. Like leather, carpets, dairy and cotton the story often starts in the home or in remote rural or mountain districts and, can have a massive impact on the quality of life with logistics from bee to bottle playing a key role in this transformation.


[1] Statistics from Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations www.fao.org also, Michael Durham’s article – A bitter taste of honey. The Guardian July 21st 2004.

[2] Statistics from www.apimondia.org

[3] PARC – Pakistan Agricultural Research Council.

[4] Malcolm Harper, Inclusive Value Chains in India (2009)

[5] See: Spiegel, March 28, 2007

[6] Mwakatobe Study (2006)

[7] Barry Nalebuff & Adam Brandenburger, Coopetition (1996).

* Jim Brophy (1916 – 90) was my Uncle. A wonderful and different man. He lived in a bungalow on the old Estate of Desart Court in Kilkenny, Ireland. Iris Origo’s book Images and Shadows (1970) has a superb Chapter on the place and the lives lived around it. Thanks to Phil Brophy for a number of the above insights.

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7 Responses to A taste of honey. Transforming an industry from bee to bottle

  1. Logistics student says:

    Amazing story again. I suppose as most other agricultural products, the production of honey would depend largely on the locational conditions such as weather, land, and flowering plants. This might be a crucial issue for some developing regions in building the honey industrial clusters.

  2. robjbell says:

    Agreed. As I researched this topic the similarities between the industries previously covered were striking. Leather; Cotton; Carpets; Dairy and even Jewellery (to follow) share supply chain characteristics that merits more research. In fact, preliminary surveys suggest that a body of work could shape T L and from this a tool box of relevant skills and support could emerge. If anyone wishes to share thoughts on any industry that has a high “informal” element – GET IN TOUCH! we will include any case studies out there. In fact, if anyone has any references or source books to offer please do so.

  3. Phil Brophy says:

    Very interesting Rob
    Just remembered St Gobnait, a female saint from Co. Cork. She was known as the saint of the bees – from the 6th century.
    Also, the uses of bees in the pollination of plants & trees improves the fertility of the countryside. See the National Geographic & the transfer of bees from southern Florida up to Minnesota – it is big business in the USA.
    Ireland doesn’t produce enough honey for it’s own use – Irish honey is sold at a premium & blended honeys from Mexico & Europe are sold in jars.
    The medicinal effects of Manuka honey are being promoted.

  4. robjbell says:

    And then, there’s the quote you used from Einstein to the effect that a world without bees would last no more than four years. Some say he said it but sources are elusive. However, a point is made. Bees are important.

  5. Amazing story again. I suppose as most other agricultural products, the production of honey would depend largely on the locational conditions such as weather, land, and flowering plants. This might be a crucial issue for some developing regions in building the honey industrial clusters.

  6. Brian says:

    Its fasicanating to read about honey bees and history, and how far they have come.
    Einstein once said if the honey bee would becoming extinct, the human race wouldn’t be too far behind.

  7. Its fentastic to read about honey bee economics. It is true that honey taste is comparable to elixor.Further it is a impotant livelihood activity in many tropical country for the poor.so bee created honey and bee economics

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