An elementary school project sparks
the creation of Carmel Honey Co.
Photography by Philip Geiger
Several colorful beehives flank a steep, oak-studded grade next to the home of their owners.
There is a stillness in the air, an absence of birdsong or breeze. Yet what seems silent is actually a gentle, persistent buzzing, a vibration that elevates the energy of the otherwise lazy afternoon. A bee flies by, and then another. No one swats.
This is the home of Jake Reisdorf, his parents, Becky and Jeff, and his sister, Brooke, 9. It also is the home of Carmel Honey Co., which Jake established two years ago, when he was just 11 years old.
In the kitchen, Becky, a business consultant, drizzles honey, letting it spiral into three amber pools on a plate. She puts out the cutting board Jake crafted under the guidance of Jeff, a general building contractor, and assembles a collection of almonds, crackers and cheese the family uses to taste honey.
The ritual was unexpected, but then, so was the business.
“I was finishing fifth grade at Carmel River School,” says Jake, “when my teacher, Mr. Colborn, gave us a real world assignment to go home and research how professionals in different fields spend their day. I was assigned ‘website designer,’ so I was wracking my brain about how to study and present this. I knew I didn’t have to actually design a website, but I thought, if I’m going to learn from this, I need to do it right.’”
Jake began by choosing a business to represent on the website he would design. He also decided any web designer worth his salt would incorporate other forms of social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, into his repertoire.
“I had taken quite an interest in honeybees. I thought they were pretty cool. I had already been researching them with my dad; we’d taken a class together. Do you know, if we lose the honeybees, we will die?” Jake asks, referring to concerns about the possible impact on agriculture and the food supply if problems affecting pollinators are not addressed. “I knew I had a worthwhile business, so I decided to make a website for a beekeeper.”
Jake called his business Carmel Honey Co. It was June, the end of the academic year and Jake’s elementary school era. Nevertheless, he was faced with completing this one last project. As Jake headed off to school to make his presentation, his parents breathed a sigh of relief. But there was more.
Jake’s project was so successful, his audience had just two questions: Was this an actual business, and where could they get the honey? Jake came home with his own questions: Can we do it, Mom? Can we go live online and actually create Carmel Honey Co.?
“Jake’s enthusiasm didn’t stop after the end of the year,” says Mark Colborn, his fifth grade teacher.
“He and his family took the research to the next level. He even came back to Carmel River School the following year to give another presentation to my class and give us all honey sticks to sample his tasty honey.”
“How many kids think they want to grow up to become a beekeeper?” muses Jake’s mom. Research says only 8% of beekeepers are under 40, and most are in their 70s. Virtually none is 11.
“The only way to learn how to be a beekeeper,” says Becky, “is to keep bees. You just have to do it.”
And so they did, beginning with a hive full of honey that Jake inherited from an older beekeeper. Jake remembers lifting out a portion of the honeycomb and watching the thick golden liquid pour into his bowl. With a yield of about five gallons, the Reisdorfs put it into glass jars, identified as Carmel Honey Co. with a label the family designed, and Jake sold them at school to all who had hoped his company was real.
Less than two years later, Carmel Honey Co. has 40 wholesale accounts in the area, and the honey is available online. The company also sells and places beehives which, for a monthly fee, Jake monitors and maintains, in addition to his own.
“Caring for the bees is not really a daily thing but more of a monthly, seasonal activity,” says Becky. “Bees are more active in the spring and summer, when Jake checks his hives to look for queens, get rid of pests, including ants, beetles or rodents, and feed the bees when they are low on pollen, or it’s raining, and they can’t get food.”
Running his business also involves tending to his social media postings and his wholesale accounts, and his participation in farmers’ markets. The middle schooler also maintains quite a presence in the community via speaking engagements, including many for his former elementary school teachers, and on a larger platform at conferences and symposiums.
Last May, after meeting Amina Harris, director of the Honey and Pollination Center at the Robert Mondavi Institute at UC Davis, Jake’s knowledge and enthusiasm earned him an invitation to speak at the “Keeping Bees Healthy” Bee Symposium on campus.
“I like speaking, making presentations,” Jake says. “I’m good at it. I can stand up in front of any number of people and do fine, particularly on something I really care about.”
The only things Jake doesn’t like about his business are bee stings, or when a hive dies, as his bees are kind of like pets.
“I can’t say I’m really scared of getting stung,” says Jake. “I’ve been stung so many times, but I still get a little skittish when they land on me.”
When a hive dies—and there is a 20% to 30% loss per year—the reason is never clear, Becky says. Elevated rates of a leading cause—Colony Collapse Disorder—have especially alarmed beekeepers and farmers in recent years. The Environmental Protection Agency says the phenomenon, in which worker bees disappear, abandoning their queen and their hives, is attributable to a possible mix of factors, including pesticide poisoning, disease, malnutrition and stress.
Some of these factors—like the pesticides that his bees could ingest on foraging flights— are out of Jake’s control. But he does what he can, eschewing, for example, the “survival of the fittest” attitude of some beekeepers who don’t feed their bees. Instead, he takes a hands-on approach, preparing a sugarwater concoction on the stovetop in his kitchen, which he stores in empty apple juice jugs from Costco. He also supplements their intake with pollen patties when he believes his bees aren’t getting enough food.
Last year, Jake launched his Jake Gives Back program, with UC Davis the first recipient of his largesse. Although Jake hopes for a scholarship to a university such as Davis, where he would like to continue his beekeeping and apicultural research, he imagines he may, at some point, be able to put away some money toward college. In the meantime, his income goes toward philanthropy or back into the business.
“Jake has learned a lot about business,” says Becky. “Our roles are minimal; it’s his business. He’s the one making the decisions about the hive, talking with wholesale accounts, speaking with the chef in the kitchen, dealing with the bank and quantifying the value of honey based on the cost of doing business.
“It’s interesting to see how he approaches people; he has his own style, and people enjoy him. Jeff and I just let him go. The only thing we have to do is drive him places. It would be hard to put on his beekeeping suit, grab his smoker and his tools, and hop on his bike.”
Now two years into his venture, it’s clear Carmel Honey Co. is no passing childhood interest. Indeed, Jake’s vision for his business is to expand into importing honeys from around the world. He already is introducing sage honey from North Dakota and meadow foam honey from Oregon, which Jake thinks tastes like toasted marshmallows. This summer, he and his family will travel to France, the first of many international destinations he has in mind for his sweet pursuit.
“My goal,” says Jake, “is to bring you the best honey in the world, and I am determined to travel the globe to find it, and bring it back here.”
Lisa Crawford Watson lives with her family on the Monterey Peninsula, where she is a freelance writer and an instructor of writing and journalism at California State University Monterey Bay and Monterey Peninsula College.
Carmel Honey Co.