Bonton Honey ingredients: business lessons and hope

Bonton Honey Co. started with 30 beehives. Today, there are 17 hives, the colony reduced by natural selection, weather and other factors.

Likewise, the new business was founded in May with seven first-time beekeepers. They were assigned to start and nurture Bonton Honey into a viable business. Some dropped out; others joined.

Six men remain.

For those who stay committed for another year or so, the potential payoff is great: They would own Bonton Honey. The company is auctioning its first batch of Bonton Honey at an event Sunday.

Named after one of Dallas’ toughest neighborhoods, Bonton Honey is an ambitious experiment to give the men a unique opportunity to own a business and help spur economic development there.

The new company is sponsored by Dallas entrepreneur Nathan Sheets, who owns Nature Nate’s North Dallas Honey and put up about $30,000 of his own money.

It also involves H.I.S. BridgeBuilders, a Christian nonprofit group co-founded by a Bonton native that works to transform urban communities. The Bonton Honey participants have been attending Bible study and working to transform their lives with the help of Daron Babcock, the nonprofit’s director of community development. Several of the men have criminal records.

“I really believe this company can be successful if we put in the work,” said Clifton Reese, a former drug dealer. “I don’t want to see this fail. I want to invest my time, blood and sweat — that nothing is handed to us but that we work for it.”

At an invitation-only fundraiser Sunday, Bonton Honey will auction five bottles of honey with lids featuring hand-carved designs made from beeswax from its hives. The company also will sell regular Bonton Honey bottles in exchange for donations.

Proceeds will go directly to Bonton Honey so it can become self-sustaining, said Babcock.

The event will also give stakeholders and guests an opportunity to sponsor items and needs that will benefit Bonton Honey, as well as Bonton Farms and Bonton Lawn Care, two separate economic development projects in the neighborhood.

“I hope everyone who eats our honey feels ownership to these guys,” Sheets said. “It’s been great. We didn’t think we would make any honey this year.”

Since launching the operation in May, the men have been attending weekly educational workshops on beekeeping and production as well as business practices. They also tend to the bees weekly, making sure they are feeding and producing honey.

The group has made progress. The men worked with Nature Nate’s marketing department to develop a logo and label.

The first harvest in August produced about 23 gallons of honey, a solid batch for first-timers.

“I’m not disappointed in that crop at all,” said Rachael Seida, a Nature Nate’s beekeeper who has been coaching the Bonton Honey men. “The guys worked very hard to get there. That’s a pretty good harvest to get some out in the market.”

The group has faced challenges, too. The beehives, for example, are housed at Nature Nate’s new bottling facility in McKinney, more than 30 miles from Bonton.

The men also had to adjust to working as a team and learn how to resolve disagreements. Some men have been more involved than others because of health setbacks, waning interest or work obligations.

And the men are working without pay.

Reflecting on the last six months, Babcock said struggles are part of the story.

“So I want to put those struggles on display, the battles that are going on and not quitting,” he said. “How do you get six guys to work free for a year? It’s about hope: ‘I have hope that it’ll turn into something. No one’s limiting me on what it could turn out to be.’”

On a recent October day, Seida led Reese and Kerry Baker through the task of preparing the hives for the winter.

The job required Reese and Baker to sort and find hives that had too few bees to survive the cold weather. They then searched for and killed the queen bee in the smaller hive before merging it with a larger one. (Queen bees are marked with a green dot.)

Only one queen can reign in a hive, Seida explained. Otherwise, the worker bees would become confused and start fighting.

After Reese killed one queen, he apologized: “It’s my duty.”


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Been a Beekeeper for 20 years
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