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Honey From The Heart: Beekeepers Strive to Keep Honey “Real”

Nancy Gentry selling her honey at the Craft Festival at the O'Connel Center.
Nancy Gentry selling her honey at the Craft Festival at the Stephen C. O'Connell Center.

Stephanie Tinoco / WUFT News

Bees have satisfied the palette of mankind for centuries with one of the world’s first natural sweeteners: Honey.

Nancy Gentry’s fascination with honey began at an early age, which led her to dedicate her life to Florida’s honey bee industry, more than 50 years later.

“I tell people the bees found me, I didn’t find them at all,” Gentry said. “As a kid, there was an old man: had all the honey, big quart honey jars on this wooden stand and the sun would glisten on them. And it looked like liquid gold and I would pray that my parents would buy one of those big quarts of honey.”

Nancy Gentry works full-time caring for bees to maximize their health and productivity in Interlachen, Florida. She is a member of the State Honey Technical Council and operates Cross Creek Honey Company, a family business that supplies what she claimed to be the best honey money can buy.

“There is no relationship between raw honey and what you’re buying in the grocery store,” Gentry said.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, Florida is ranked among the nation’s top producers of honey, bringing in at least $15 to $20 million dollars in revenue to the state’s economy.

North Florida’s Chief of Apiary Inspection for the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, David Westervelt, claimed honey isn’t the only money-maker bees produce for the state. He said bee pollination has a bigger impact on Florida’s economy than consumers realize.

“Most people think about honey as the main product bees produce. Actually, pollination is normally one to two hundred times that value,” Westervelt said. “When you think of the production in honey in Florida, there’s about 20 to 24 million pounds of honey produced. We end up tripling, quadrupling that in value of dollars of pollination.”

An impact easily unnoticed by consumers.

“One-third of your food when you’re eating something, every third bite, we like to say, is directly related to honey bees pollinating it,” Westervelt said.

Nancy Gentry, owner of Cross Creek Honey Company, claimed to produce raw honey the way bees intended, and consumers expected, to buy.

“People want honey that comes from the beekeeper,” Gentry said. “They want what is called raw honey.”

Gentry’s “raw honey” requires little processing. She said once she extracted the honey from the beehive, she put it through a spinner and spicate, down two strainers to remove wax particles, and straight into the jar.

Competitive corporations like Walmart and Target don’t intimidate her success. Gentry is confident in her authentic product and loyal customers who keep Cross Creek Honey Company thriving.

“My business is successful because people are educated about what really is ‘honey’ in the grocery store… which has been altered,” Gentry said.

Despite educated customers, Gentry claimed some consumers have a false standard of what honey should be like.

“Americans believe that when they buy honey, it’s got to be looking like lemonade,” Gentry said. “That it’s got to be crystal clear and it never granulates.”

This misconception is what Gentry claimed allows grocery stores to carry pasteurized high fructose corn syrup and still label containers as honey.

Nancy Gentry and others on the Honey Bee Technical Council pushed for Florida to become the first state to enact the “Standard of Identity” for honey. The Law passed in 2009, required for all products labeled as “honey” to be pure defined by Florida law as, “…only the natural food product made by honey bees from the nectar of flowers or the saccharine exudation of plants, containing no other additives.”

This standard gives consumers clarity of what stores display on shelves.

Gentry said the real problem beekeepers face is a parasite globally recognized as the “destructor.”

“One of the struggles is the Varroa Mite,” Gentry said. “In ten years it killed 50 percent of the beehives in America.

Varroa Mites are parasites that harm honey bees by sucking blood and infecting bees with a disease called Varroatosis. North Florida Chief of Apiary Inspection for the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, David Westervelt, said harm caused by these mites puts more at risk than just Florida honey bees.

“We’ve got roughly $65 million worth of fruits and vegetables that are done strictly by row crops as we call them that are done by honey bees,” Westervelt said. “So if we lose 30 or 40 percent of our bees that are run for pollination, we’re going to lose that crop.”

This also means local honey farms like Cross Creek Honey could go out of business and loyal customers, like Chelsea Krist, left feeling crushed.

“I would be devastated. I love honey,” longtime Cross Creek Honey customer, Chelsea Krist said. “Ever since I met Nancy, it’s made me want to start supporting more than just local honey markets. It’s made me want to start purchasing my vegetables from a local farmer’s market because I know how it’s made and who made it.”

Despite challenges Nancy Gentry faces as a local bee keeper and family honey business owner, she said the secret to success comes from the heart.

“You just got to have the passion or else you’re not going to stick with it. That’s all there is to it.”

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