Teaching customers sweetens honey business for Banner Bee

By Carrie Madren
Monday, October 18, 2010; 25

For Andrea Langworthy, the business of making honey involves more than tending to some 3.3 million honeybees over the summer -- about 60,000 bees in each of 50 to 60 organically maintained hives kept on farms in northern Montgomery, Howard and Frederick counties.

The beekeeper also works to educate. So her Banner Bee Co. maintains a glass-sided observation hive that often travels to farmers' markets, where customers can view the complex colony operations that produce Banner Bee's annual honey supply.

It's part of a carefully cultivated marketing effort that has turned the 5,000-pounds-a-year honey operation into a profitable cottage business. Langworthy, who owns Banner Bee with her husband, Chet, regularly chats with customers about the micro-nutrients available in bee pollen granules and touts the immune-stimulating properties of local honey; her Web site offers information on enriched raw honey and more to online shoppers.

She learned the nutritional value of honey early on, incorporating it into her own family's diet as she mastered the art of beekeeping with Chet, who learned it from his father. Before launching the honey-selling business, Andrea, who holds an MBA and has a background in fine arts and finance, spent many years as a bonds trader before turning a honey-producing hobby into a full-time business. Ten hours of her 60- to 70-hour workweeks are spent beekeeping, though her husband, who has owned and run his full-service flooring company for more than 25 years, does the bulk of the hive maintenance in the evenings.

The Langworthys began selling their jarred honey in 2000. Four years later, after two years of intensive research, Andrea launched a line of home products based on the farm's honey and beeswax. Banner Bee now sells raw and infused honeys, soaps, lotions, beeswax candles, honeycombs and pollen granules. She also sells propolis, a hive resin that claims antibacterial properties; Andrea uses it in nearly all of the skin products and instructs browsing customers on how to use propolis tinctures.

In its first decade, the business has grown steadily.

"We're pretty much bursting at the seams," said Andrea, who sees expansion on the horizon.

She creates and packages all of the products in the kitchen-turned-laboratory of her Gaithersburg home -- where pots of melted beeswax simmer in double boilers -- and she likes that the company is still a homespun operation that allows her close proximity to Chet and their two teenage daughters.

As autumn's chill sets in, honey production stops and hives are combined for winter, when the bee count drops to around 20,000 per hive. But business doesn't slow: November and December bring holiday markets and increased Web site sales. Andrea spends January through March replenishing her product stock and creating new products and packaging designs, as well as planning ahead for the spring and summer.

Year-round, the company Web site draws in the bulk of her business, much of it channeled through a national "buy local" directory called LocalHarvest.org. Andrea limits advertising to the Web site as well as by word of mouth.

Banner Bee also sets up shop at some four farmers' markets each week during the warmer months; a typical day spent at the farmers' market yields about 40 to 50 sales. Those face-to-face interactions create opportunities to tell customers about the nutritional benefits of raw honey, which is minimally processed to preserve vitamins and active enzymes.

The company also sells honey wholesale to regional restaurants and shops, including My Organic Market stores, American Plant in Bethesda, Ricciuti's in Olney and Meli Patisserie & Bistro in Baltimore's Fell's Point neighborhood.

Banner Bee's raw honey runs about $8 a pound; infused and gourmet honeys start at $9.50. To set her prices, Andrea regularly checks competitors' rates and consults the U.S. Agriculture Department's commodity price per barrel, which fluctuates regularly -- just like oil -- she said. Her honey price also incorporates time spent on harvesting and packaging.

"It's a labor-intensive, premium product," she said. "I'm trying to support the industry in the area and keep the bar high."

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