Why is honeycomb so expensive

Why Is Comb Honey So Expensive?
(vs. Jar Honey)

Comb honey (or honeycomb) is more expensive to buy than liquid honey due to its higher production costs and factors of supply and demand.

Honeycomb production costs include one-time use of beeswax, additional labor for extraction, and increasing packaging costs.

Demand for raw honey (which includes comb honey) is increasing, creating upward price pressure. Imported honey provides significant pricing competition among liquid honey suppliers but not for comb honey.

What is Comb Honey?

Comb honey is “honey presented in its original comb or portions thereof.”[1] It falls into the category of “raw honey” which the National Honey Board defines as “honey as it exists in the beehive or as obtained by extraction, settling or straining without adding heat.”[5]

Liquid honey in a jar may be raw or processed honey.

Comb honey is cut from the beehive frame and sold without processing. It contains any wax, pollen, propolis, and bee parts that the colony may have enclosed with the honey. Honeycomb is precisely the way the bees made it.

A little bit on terminology:

Consider the word “honeycomb” in context. In this article, comb honey and honeycomb both refer to a form of honey delivery. In beekeeping terms, honeycomb is also the wax mass of hexagonal cells built by bees to store brood, pollen, nectar, and honey.

Comb honey we harvested
Comb honey we harvested

Retail Prices Of Honeycomb vs. Liquid Honey

I did a survey (admittedly, an unscientific, small sample survey) of honeycomb and liquid raw honey prices on Amazon and some specialty retail sites. If you check your local markets, I expect you will see similar patterns.

This table compares my results for comb honey and liquid raw honey against honey price averages over the past 12 months, according to the National Honey Board:

Comb Honey Retail Price Comparisons

Price per poundComb HoneyRaw HoneyNHB Stats
Highest $43.56 $22.67 $8.09
Lowest $15.99 $4.48 $7.71
Average $23.44 $10.76 $7.93

Prices within categories may vary for many reasons: size and scope of the beekeeping operation, source of the honey (foreign vs. domestic), floral composition, and marketing prowess, to name a few.

It seems clear that comb honey is quite a bit more expensive than liquid alternatives.

See our article How To Eat Honeycomb (Yes, It’s Edible!) for more information.

Honeycomb Production Costs

The Cost Of Beeswax

Before doing anything else in a hive, honey bees must make beeswax to create their home. Bees use the wax cells to raise brood, store pollen, and convert nectar into honey. Bees expend a significant amount of time and energy to produce the wax comb.

Taking comb out of the hive is “expensive” to both the bees and the beekeeper.

See our article What Is Honeycomb? (Talking Beeswax) for more details on how bees build and use wax comb.

Beeswax Can Be Reused

In a Langstroth hive, the most common type of beehive in North America, beekeepers put removable frames into hives. Wax or plastic “foundation” is usually placed in the center of each frame.

The frames and foundation provide bees with a beginning structure for their wax.

Bee-built comb has a center seam with hexagonal cells on each side. Foundation means less wax construction, saving time and energy.

Foundation also gives bees a straight-line guide that results (hopefully) in neater comb formations.

You can also keep bees without foundation. Foundationless beekeeping comes with challenges and benefits. See our article Frames With Foundation (Or Foundationless?) for more information.

The most efficient way to extract honey from a frame is with centrifugal force.

Beekeepers remove wax cappings that seal honey cells and place the frame in an extractor. The extractor spins at high speeds, pulling the honey out of the comb. The comb, secured by the frame and foundation, remains intact and can be reused in the hive.

Reusing the comb makes it less expensive for both bees and beekeepers. Bees, freed of the time and labor needed to replace comb, can produce more honey. It is a win/win for the bees and beekeeper (but not for comb honey production).

Honey Production Process | Food Network

Beeswax Can Be Sold

Beeswax is a saleable hive product.

After honey extraction, wax comb can be melted and processed to filter out impurities. The resulting beeswax has value for many uses, including:

  • Candles;
  • Soaps;
  • Lip balms;
  • Skin salves; and,
  • Furniture polish.

For ideas on what to make with beeswax, check out Beeswax Alchemy by Petra Ahnert.

When honey is sold with the comb, the wax comb is not available for reuse or sale. Beekeepers need to price comb honey to compensate for these lost opportunities.

See more information about Beeswax Alchemy and other books we recommend at 11 Best Beekeeping Books.

Labor Costs Of Comb Honey

Honeycomb is not harvested with the mechanical efficiency of a centrifugal extractor.

Centrifugal extractors are expensive, ranging from around $150 for a small manual machine to thousands of dollars for heavy duty commercial models. However, the cost of an extractor amortizes over the years of use.

The most common way to harvest comb honey is by cutting it out by hand. Bee suppliers sell specially designed honey cutters (like this one from Mann Lake), but it’s still a labor intensive process.

Harvesting Raw Honey From Foundationless Frames

The desired product is a neat, attractive cut of comb.

Bees may connect multiple frames or build wax in undesirable (for the beekeeper) directions (“cross combing”). Some comb may be too thick for packaging. Whatever cannot be sold as honeycomb is cut away for other processing (at additional labor cost).

There are beekeeping supplies designed to eliminate or reduce the cutting process. These devices may also aid in creating desirable comb ready for packaging. However, beekeepers incur the cost of the supplies and the labor to install them in the hive.

An example of these comb honey supplies is in this YouTube video:

Beekeeping Basics with Bruce Clow - Square Comb Honey System.

Just like with beeswax, beekeepers need to price honeycomb to account for these added labor costs. Otherwise, the sale of comb honey becomes economically unjustified.

Packaging Costs

Visual appeal is an essential aspect of marketing.[2] Consumers may focus on the color of liquid honey.[3] Comb honey is usually presented in clear plastic that allows examination of the entire product: the color of the honey, the color of the comb, and the completion of the capping.

The honeycomb package needs to protect the product from damage. Broken chunks of comb will not be as appealing or as saleable as one beautiful slab.

Sellers need to account for these packaging costs in their pricing.

Supply And Demand For Comb Honey

As with all products, the economic forces of supply and demand affect honey’s price in all its forms.

Supply Issues

Imported products represent a significant component of the US honey market.

Statistic: U.S. honey imports in 2018, by country of origin (in metric tons)* | Statista
Find more statistics at Statista

While some comb honey is imported (like Ziyad Turkish Honeycomb available on Amazon), most foreign honey is liquid.

The vast amounts of imported honey provide a lot of pricing competition for jar honey but exert little downward pressure on comb honey prices.

Demand Issues

According to a National Honey Board report on consumer attitudes and usage, raw honey sales are “increasing at the expense of processed honey,” growing to 32% of volume sales.[4]

See our article What Is Raw Honey? (Besides Delicious) for more information.

Comb honey is the purest form of raw honey. Cut straight from the hive, the wax cappings assure that it includes everything the bees put in the cells. Liquid honey may be raw, but most of it is processed.

Increased consumer demand for raw honey is undoubtedly a factor for upward pressure on honeycomb prices.

Conclusion

Comb honey retails for a much higher per-unit cost than liquid honey.

With the added costs of producing honeycomb (vs. liquid honey), beekeepers need to charge higher prices for their efforts to be profitable.

Consumers are shifting away from large distributors toward local beekeepers but are also becoming more price sensitive.[4] Maybe the pricing gap between comb honey and liquid honey will narrow some. But if consumers are willing to continue paying a sufficient premium for comb honey, beekeepers will continue to provide the product.


[1] Honey Definitions – National Honey Board

[2] Does your product and package have visual appeal? From Catalpha

[3] Spectrophotometric Evaluation of Honey Color Helps Boost Appeal from HunterLab

[4] Consumer A&U Report – August 2019 National Honey Board

[5] National Honey Board’s FAQ

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