BEEpothecary, Making Propolis Popular with a Boost from a USDA Grant
LANCASTER, OH- While honey may be the most widely known gift from bees, it’s not the only one. BEEpothecary of Ohio has decided to make it their mission to inform the world about the importance and benefits of bee propolis and other hive resources. Steve and Jeannie Saum, as well as Pete and Laurie Dotson, are the owners of BEEpothecary.
The list of products that the BEEpothecary produces reaches far beyond honey. BEEpothecary offers bee propolis oil, tincture, throat spray and nose spray, classified as dietary supplements and for use orally or topically. They harvest raw honey from their family apiaries and make creamed honey, flavored honey, and a product they call BEE Bread, a mix of raw honey and pollen. They produce a skincare line that offers products fortified with bee propolis, honey, and beeswax. They also sell goat’s milk soap with their honey and propolis in it. Other products include 100% beeswax candles; shaving products with propolis, honey, and beeswax; and lip balm. All the products they sell use grade food-ingredients and are produced without chemicals.
The story of the BEEpothecary began in 2010, the year of the bees. This was the year that Steve’s and the Dotson’s’ dreams about becoming beekeepers became a reality. Along with Steve’s interest in beekeeping, Pete and Laurie began taking beekeeping classes through a local beekeepers club at Ohio State University’s bee yard. Both families received their first bee hives and started learning how to care for the bees together.
Jeannie, not interested in actual beekeeping at first, started researching the products that bees offer. Jeannie learned that a substance that bees produce called propolis, is extremely valuable as a health product for humans, yet is something that most beekeepers consider a nuisance and throw away.
Bees make propolis by gathering resin from pine and other cone-producing evergreen trees. They blend the resin with wax flakes and pollen and take it back to the hive. There they use it to patch holes, seal cracks and coat flat surfaces in the hive. Propolis acts as an antiseptic barrier protecting the hive from contamination and from external invaders. The antimicrobial properties of propolis protect the hive from viruses, bacteria, molds and fungi.
Research from the National Institute of Health Website about the benefits of bee propolis for human health, helped Jeannie to get the others excited about the prospect of using bee propolis in health and personal care products. The Saums and Dotsons took business classes through the US Small Business Development Center at Columbus State University, experimented using bee products with their family members, and then started their value-added hive products business, BEEpothecary, in 2013. Now, along with the honey production, they are making dietary supplements and skin care products from the bee propolis.
“We originally focused on just the honey, and we wanted the bees to help pollinate our gardens. We had no idea then, that we would be where we are now,” stated Jeannie Saum.
Initially, BEEpothecary sourced raw materials for products right from their own hives. As interest in the products featuring propolis and other hive products grew, they realized that they did not have enough hives and resources to keep up with demand. Now they have around 10-12 other beekeepers around Ohio who send them propolis that they collect from their hives – propolis they used to throw away. While growing their business of value-added hive products, BEEpothecary has established a raw materials market for propolis and other hive products that provides additional revenue to other beekeepers, harvesting and selling hive resources they might have previously thrown away or just not harvested.
“By buying propolis from other beekeepers we are benefiting our business by increasing the number of products that we can sell. This also allows us to help fund other local beekeepers as it results in them getting extra capital coming from the sale of their propolis,” explained Saum.
Jeannie Saum remarked on how the initial start to the business was an uphill climb. There has been very little research done on propolis in the United States. “We were one of the first businesses to try and figure out how to label and advertise the product. The process of labeling supplements is very strict.”
“This product is relatively new in the United States but has been used worldwide for centuries. It’s even known in some areas of the world as ‘Russian Penicillin.’ This is a product that people need to learn about and understand the benefits of,” said Saum.
BEEpothecary manufactures its products in a government-funded entrepreneurial food production center, ACEnet. The center is located about one hour south of where they live. They make the drive there around once or twice a month to make products.
BEEpothecary items are available online, in shops across the Ohio region, and a few shops in New York and South Carolina. Most of their sales come from their online business, as well as the festivals and conferences that they attend. They tend to target smaller retail venues and independent shops to display their products in.
Along with the products they offer, BEEpothecary posts educational articles and research links on their blog site, BEEpothecary.wordpress.com (soon to be on BEEpothecary.us) and do presentations on the health benefits of hive resources and value-added products at bee clubs, conferences, and festivals.
In 2018 the BEEpothecary was awarded a $148,396.00 Value-Added Producer Grant (VAPG). This is their second VAPG grant. This grant has allowed them to expand their marketing and advertising outreach, redesign their website, create new products and more.
The funding from the VAPG grant has allowed them to expand their geographical territory. They now have the opportunity to travel farther for beekeeping conferences, festivals, and other events that they use as marketing for their products. The funding also gave them capital to use for the advertising budget especially for ads at conferences and in homestead type magazines.
This grant also helped fund the re-design of the website and gave them the ability to hire someone to integrate their documents and data. Soon they will have a system in place that will calculate the ingredients needed for their recipes, pull that information directly from their inventory, and calculate the cost to produce the product. They are looking forward to being able to create some new products, target some new demographic groups with certain products, as well as design new packaging for their propolis and honey products.
As part of the VAPG Grant, they will begin posting videos on YouTube. They will create videos that explain what they do while also being able to teach other beekeepers how to do things; especially how to harvest and reap the benefits of bee propolis.
With the money from this grant, BEEpothecary is positive that it will help take them to the next level of growth. The grant allows them to hire a business consultant to help them decide their future direction. They would someday like to expand production to the point where they can sell on Amazon.
About USDA VAPG
VAPG funding has been offered by the USDA periodically since the early 2000s. A new round of funding is anticipated to be announced in the coming months. To be considered value added, projects must show how products are differentiated in specific ways from commodity crops. Typically, projects must also show how they may deliver greater returns to producers.
Independent producers, farmer or rancher cooperatives, agriculture producer groups, and producer-owned business ventures, including non-profit organizations, may apply. In previous cycles, applicants were required to be producers of the raw commodity who will maintain ownership of that commodity through the process of creating a value-added product. Grants have been available for planning projects (such as marketing and business plans and feasibility studies) and working capital projects (which might include wages or packaging supplies). (http://www.rd.usda.gov/)
Ag Marketing Resource Center (AgMRC) Assistance
Producers and ranchers, cooperatives and other agricultural businesses can find a wide-ranging set of tools and information to help them in pursuing VAPG funding at the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center (AgMRC) (www.agmrc.org). On a variety of value-added topics and across products, AgMRC is a rich resource for agricultural businesses, from startup to advanced growth stages. Directories for state and federal resources, specialty crop information, legal guidance, assessment, and spreadsheet tools and other types of business training are available.