Honeyville casts net to keep up

Business surpassed its limited local supply long ago, now looks to Rocky Mountain region

Honeyville has a long history of making mouths water over their wide variety of flavors and “pure mountain wildflower honey from Durango, Colorado” as touted by the company’s catalogue.

But while Honeyville’s products may come from the Durango area, most of its honey does not. Owner Danny Culhane said that’s the unfortunate reality of supply and demand.

He said the business long ago surpassed the limited supply of locally available honey.

“Producing honey in La Plata County has never been very good,” he said.

Culhane’s family has a long history of beekeeping. His father began producing honey in California in the 1920s and Culhane followed in his father’s footsteps, keeping bees for much of his life. His peak year was 1977 here in Durango, when his bees produced a whooping 13,750 pounds of honey.

By 1986, he bought Honeyville. In the years that followed, his business boomed, forcing him to look further afield for honey to keep up with demand.

Today, Honeyville purchases all of its honey, raw and in bulk, packaging it at its plant in the Animas Valley north of Durango and selling it nationwide. During a “typical production year,” about 40 percent of the honey it buys comes from a producer located near Cortez with hives in La Plata and Montezuma counties.

Brad Milligin, Culhane’s local producer, extracts honey from about 2,000 hives.

The remaining 60 percent of Honeyville’s honey comes from elsewhere in the Rocky Mountains, including Colorado, Wyoming and Montana, depending on the year, Culhane said.

“We work with about 10 different producers that are all family-owned, intermountain honey producers,” Culhane said.

Culhane tries to purchase honey from as close by as possible, but the supply can vary.

“One of our biggest suppliers had a shortage last year from a horrible crop, so we had to make that up through our other beekeepers,” Culhane said.

During the peak of Honeyville’s production, Culhane extracted from 2,000 hives scattered throughout Durango in 1988. He stopped producing all together in the early 1990s.

“We don’t have any hives now, we sold them to several local beekeeping people here,” he said.

The only remaining one is the “observation hive,” which can be viewed at Honeyville in the main building.

The hive, which is only 10 percent the size of a regular colony, contains about 4,000 bees, compared to the capacity of 100,000 bees in a “healthy hive,” Culhane said.

Culhane understands the health and medicinal qualities ascribed to honey – some theorize that consuming local honey serves as an inoculation against local allergens – and said that is why he strives to provide the highest quality product possible.

“The reason our honey is so unique is because we are extremely selective about who we buy from and where the honey comes from,” Culhane said.

The flavor of honey just from intermountain regions can vary from year to year, depending on the floral sources, he said.

“There are pollens and allergens that become deposited into the honey during pollination, so if you’re allergic to something, local honey may help,” he said. “We only buy honey from intermountain areas.”

Even differences in geography can produce similar honey if the locations have a similar climate, plant life and landscape, said Amita Nathwani, director of Healthy Lifestyles of La Plata and a practitioner of Ayurveda, a system of medicinal practices native to India that relies on natural remedies.

“You are absolutely still getting the same qualities of local honey whether it’s from a mountainous town here or somewhere farther north,” Nathwani said.

Milligin is a strong believer of the power of local honey. He began taking small doses of raw, unfiltered honey during the winter through spring to “see if it would help,” he said.

“I was much, much better from exposing myself to small amounts of pollens present in the region daily,” Milligin said.

There are other things that must be considered when trying to benefit from the consumption of local honey, Nathwani said.

“Eating raw honey is much better then eating processed honey. It goes through a series of extractions that the body can’t process,” Nathwani said.

Others, however, call the link between honey and allergies dubious.

“Seasonal allergies are usually triggered by wind-borne pollens, not by pollens spread by insects,” Dr. Stanley Fineman, president of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, said in The New York Times last May.

“It’s unlikely that honey collected from plants would provide any therapeutic benefit.” Fineman said in the article.

Whether or not honey is the magic cure to allergies, Culhane said his finished product merits the vaunted label of unprocessed local honey. And this makes it a precious commodity given the shortage of honey nationwide.

In recent years, colony collapse disorder has caused honey production to drop dramatically, falling from 200 million pounds nationwide in a typical year to 144 million pounds, Culhane said. The cause of the mass die-offs remains under investigation, though disease and pesticides are among the suspected causes. The prospect of fewer bees is alarming not just for its implications for honey supplies, but also for food crops that rely on bees for pollination.

Bruce Bell, a hobbyist beekeeper with 30 hives scattered throughout Durango, Ignacio and Hermosa, has seen the phenomena up close.

“I had quite a bit of bee die-off,” Bell said. “We usually accept 10 percent, but it’s been over that lately in the last few years.”

He added, “Colony collapse disorder is tough. It’s indiscriminate, and we’re not sure what to do about it.”

Culhane echoed this.

“Last year was historically the leanest of all crops locally since I’ve owned Honeyville. It was a terrible year for a variety of reasons, including a lack of late-summer rains.”

“The timing of several factors has to be just right,” he said.

Such is the nature of relying on Mother Nature for a living.

pblank@durangoherald.com

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