FRESNO — Strong demand, an ongoing drought and a dwindling supply are contributing to high honey prices in the United States.
Last year, prices rose to a record $1.95 a pound for honey sold through cooperatives, private and retail outlets. That was up 11 percent from the previous year. Many say prices, especially at the retail level, may rise even higher.
"I have a friend on the East Coast that told me buyers out there are looking for orange blossom honey and offering up to $3 a pound," said Gene Brandi, a longtime Los Banos-based beekeeper.
California beekeepers have seen honey prices rise from $1.39 a decade ago to nearly $2.
What's caused the high prices? Experts say it's a combination of factors, including declining production. California, one of the nation's leading honey suppliers, produced 33 percent less honey last year than the previous year.
Nationwide, honey production dropped 1 percent.
Domestic and worldwide demand has remained strong while supplies from the United States and abroad have declined.
But not all beekeepers are reaping the upswing in the market.
In California, state beekeepers say they have been hit with a double whammy. Dry weather has severely reduced the normally abundant fields of wildflowers, and bee populations are declining.
Across the state, many beekeepers are reporting losses of 20 percent to 50 percent, with some colony losses at 75 percent and more, according to a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture report. Experts blame parasites, viruses and cold temperatures for the bees' demise.
Bob Nyberg, of Bob's Honey in Fresno, lost about 30 percent of his bees and is in the process of rebuilding his colonies. To compensate for absent wildflowers, beekeepers are resorting to strategies such as using high-fructose corn syrup to keep their bees alive.
"We are off to a really tough start," Nyberg said. "What wildflowers are out there are pretty weak and dry. The bees can't get anything out of them."
To make honey, beekeepers rely on sources including wildflowers, orange blossoms and field crops such as alfalfa and cotton.
Kingsburg beekeeper Daren Hess lost about 50 percent of his hives. Hess, who uses a mixture of wildflowers and tree fruit blossoms to make his honey, is considering raising his prices. He sells his premium raw honey for about $7 a pound.
"I am really torn about possibly raising prices because I really want people to eat local honey," Hess said. "But I also want to be able to be in business and focus on making honey."
Brandi, whose bees sometimes make honey from blooming cotton flowers, says the drought and a weak cotton market has resulted in fewer acres planted.
"In a nice, wet year we would be having our bees gathering nectar right now, but that isn't happening very much," he said.