Holdman Honey is a small business with millions of employees. David Holdman, the queen bee of the operation, doesn’t come from a long line of beekeepers. His interest in beekeeping as a hobby gradually evolved into a business and eventually he took the plunge to leave his traditional full-time job to become a local producer. His story, and his struggles, are like many who are starting to grow in the local food movement.

An abstract interest in bees led Holdman to Gretchen Bee Ranch, whose head beekeeper Mark Gretchen has been keeping bees since the ’80s. Mark and his wife, Thien, have taught hundreds of hobbyists and a handful of commercial beekeepers since they’ve started teaching classes. They eventually took Holdman under their wing and helped get him started.

Local farmers are generally known for fresher and more sustainable crops, but local beekeepers like Holdman make something that tastes unique in every location. Every flower tastes a bit different when its nectar is transformed into honey, and so each hives’ honey flavor profile provides a snapshot for the flowers that surround it.

In South Texas, where there is an incredible variety of wildflowers that vary from place to place, just a little distance apart can be dramatically distinct in taste.

Holdman and his busy beekeepers keep colonies in Bexar County just south of San Antonio, in Atascosa county near Poteet, and in Guadalupe County not far from the river. The honey’s flavor comes entirely from the type of flowers that the bees pollinate, so each hive’s origin brings an entirely different taste. For example, Guadalupe County has more Indian Paintbrushes, Bexar County has more prickly poppies and winecups, and Atascosa County has more Black Eyed Susans.

David Holdman of Holdman Honey poses for a portrait in front of some of his bee boxes. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.
David Holdman of Holdman Honey poses for a portrait in front of some of his bee boxes. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

Since raw honey never spoils, you can taste the difference between a drought year and a wet year if you compare the honeys side by side. This year’s spring was particularly wet, so the wildflowers thrived. So did the bees.

That meant a good year and plenty of honey for Holdman and his business, but there are still plenty of challenges for a small local producer.

While the bees are gentle on the flowers, they can be tough on beekeepers. As strains of Africanized honeybees spread since their 1990 arrival in Texas, colonies have become increasingly aggressive. Those honeybees have actually killed more than 12 Texans since their introduction, and buying non-Africanized queens from places like Hawaii can be expensive. There may be an upside, however, as African honeybees may have more resilience to important pests like the Varroa mite and foulbroud bacteria.

Those pests have played a big role in large bee die-offs and Colony Collapse Disorder. Local beekeepers like Holdman can help sustain bee populations by actively resisting colonies’ obstacles and ensuring good hives. Bees from Holdman Honey’s 300 hives pollinate entire landscapes, ensuring visually arresting and ecologically important blooms for the future.

For those interested in trying a taste of South Texas wildflowers turned to honey, Holdman sells his honey at the Pearl Farmers Market from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. every Saturday, constantly updating his customers on how their colonies are faring. Holdman Honey also sells at more than 20 stores in the region and online.

David Holdman works on collecting honey in his backyard with his two children. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.
David Holdman works on collecting honey in his backyard with his two children. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.

Besides pests and drought, their primary challenge is the same as most other small producers. Selling enough to support business expenses and a family can be difficult, especially with cheaper non-local honey with inexpensive additives inside it competing with local raw honey on the open market. The same rain that the flowers love, attendees of farmers markets try to avoid, so precipitation can seriously dampen sales.

Sometimes a more traditional full-time job can be a tempting alternative to the complications of remaining a local producer.

“Sometimes it would be nice to just punch a clock, and give my all while I’m there, but to work full-time for someone else,” Holdman said, “to not have all that stress, and the uncertainty of if we’re going to make the crop or not make the crop. Because this is agriculture. We’re dependent on the rain, and on the bees.”

For a real family man, that uncertainty can be difficult.

“I want to work my job, and be a keeper, but my number one is as a husband and a father,” Holdman said.

Ultimately, his role as a beekeeper and the business he is growing fits the bill best to ensure the life he enjoys and the future he wants for his children.

“I want to make sure that when I wake up I look at the kids and know that what I’m doing is giving them something.”

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Mitch Hagney

Mitch Hagney is a writer and hydroponic farmer in downtown San Antonio. Hagney is CEO of LocalSprout and president of the Food Policy Council of San Antonio.