Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.
Ben Lanier is easily reachable by phone one morning in mid-April, and that is bad. The tupelo trees started blooming on April 10 this year; in less than two weeks, the window will close for his bees to dine on their nectar. But it's raining today--again. So rather than tending his hives, the owner of L.L. Lanier and Son's Tupelo Honey is talking to a reporter. "It's 11 a.m. and they haven't toted a drop of nectar," says Lanier of his tiny golden charges. "Maybe the sun will come out later and they can get some of it done."
Lanier, 57, is speaking from one of the bee yards on his 600 acres of land in Wewahitchka, Florida, along the banks of the Apalachicola River swamps on the state's panhandle. The world's greatest concentration of tupelo trees grows here, their moss speckled-trunks rising from the dark water. Tupelo-fed bees produce a honey so fine and delicate that Van Morrison named a famous album for it. In 1997, Peter Fonda received an Oscar nomination for his role as a beekeeper plying the tupelo trade in the movie Ulee's Gold. Lanier trained Fonda for that role, as well as consulting on the script and giving the filmmakers the run of his land. Like the business in the movie, L.L. Lanier raises bees and harvests honey the old-fashioned way. It is a calling both difficult and rewarding.
"The first day I met [Fonda], I stuck him in a beehive," says Lanier, who works gloveless in a short-sleeve shirt, protected only by a hat with a veil. "It's like a tiger tamer with a tiger. You just got to know how to handle 'em." Victor Nuñez, the writer and director of Ulee's Gold, puts it more lyrically: "When you are a natural beekeeper like Ben, you understand something about cross-species karma."
Lanier, whose family has been handling bees since the 1890s, has never done anything else. With a kind of fatalist humor, he describes his ceaseless struggle to keep the bees fed, keep them healthy, and protect them from the myriad pesticides and pathogens that threaten their fragile lives. Listening to him is a stark reminder of how antiseptic and detached from nature most work has become. Nuñez admires Lanier's ingenuity coping with natural forces beyond his control, and his refusal to make excuses when things don't work out. "It is a hard life," says Nuñez, who remains friends with the family. "Ben comes back from the day sometimes and gets down on the floor because it's the only place his back can take it. But there is a kind of wholeness to a life lived that way."
Last year, Lanier, who has been running the family business with his wife, Glynnis, since 1991, had his appendix and gall bladder removed and was hospitalized ("I almost died") with an abscess. "In between, I got up and did what I had to do," he says. "It's just like a herd of cattle. If you don't work them, you will lose them."
A barge full of hives
Tupelo is a pale amber, high-fructose honey, one of very few that does not crystallize. On L.L. Lanier's website, a 1-pound jar sells for $30.75. In a good year, the company might produce a hundred 55-gallon drums' worth. But the last few years have not been good ones. "It's just one thing or another," says Lanier. "Recently it's been the weather."
Many honey makers heat or pasteurize their products. Lanier strains his through cheesecloth, and he's done. "The simpler you keep things, the better," he says. "It's just the way my granddaddy did it."
That granddaddy, Lavernor Laveon (L.L.), started the business in 1898 with his brother Arthur. "The first time they tried, they failed up," says Lanier. The brothers borrowed $500 from a local farmer to buy more bees, and that time they were successful. At one point, they owned close to 1,000 hives.
Like other local beekeepers back then, the Laniers set their hives on 12-foot wooden scaffolds along the riverbanks, where the tupelos grow. But water proximity was critical for another reason. Come July, pollen disappears from the swamp, so the brothers would move their bees for the summer to Alabama or Georgia to feast on corn and peanut fields. Roads were scarce, so the brothers relied for transport on steamboats and, later, on barges made of cypress, big enough to hold 100 hives. (Today, Lanier simply trucks his bees to the other side of Gulf County.)
In the early days, the family bartered some of its honey for staples like flour and cornmeal. They also sold through retailers all over the Southeast. "Everybody in Alabama up and down the river system ate our honey," Lanier says. "We sold to A&P and a lot of little stores and the gas stations. People would come by the house and buy cases of it. Once they tasted tupelo honey, they didn't want any other kind."
The company's introduction to the wider world came courtesy of a New York distributor, R. B. Wilson, in the 1920s. He sold honey in bulk to places like Germany and Scotland. The Laniers would load drums onto a truck, drive them to Pensacola, Florida, and put them on a ship heading to Glasgow. Wilson also mixed the company's honey with whiskey to produce a Drambuie-like liqueur.
Keeping them alive
In the late 1940s, the second generation took over, and things went south. Lanier's father, L.L. Jr., started inspecting peanuts and citrus for the USDA, a job that kept him on the road. Meanwhile, L.L.'s older half-brother, Ed, tended the bees. But "all Ed wanted to do was hunt and fish," says Lanier. "He didn't look after them the way he should have." The bees developed American Foulbrood, a spore that wipes out hives. L.L. had no choice. "There was nothing to do but dig a hole in the ground with a shovel and burn bees for two or three days," says Lanier. "That's a horrible thing to see."
L.L. quit his USDA job and started to rebuild, buying bees for $10 a hive. His wife, Martha, turned out the company's first marketing materials--"propaganda letters about the honey," Lanier calls it--on the mimeograph machine at the school where she taught. She also placed a small ad in Prevention magazine. It ran for years, winning L.L. Lanier "hundreds and hundreds" of new customers from around the country.
"We used to haul the honey to Panama City, where UPS had a trailer," says Lanier. Now that the company primarily sells direct-to-consumer over its website, "UPS comes by the house five days a week and picks it up. We haven't shipped for two months, though, because we ran out. I could sell 10 times what I make."
Elizabeth Moore, a partner at Green Olive Media, a branding and communication company in Atlanta, orders Lanier's honey by the case, as does her father. Moore has been buying it since she was a child, stopping by Lanier's house on the way to Mexico Beach, Florida, where her family went for vacation. "Right off of his back steps he had a little rickety table with jars of honey and a pot saying 'Leave your money.' He still does," says Moore. "It's on the honor system. I always thought that was really cool.
"The tanginess you get with Lanier honey is different than anything you've ever had," adds Moore, who gives it away to her chef clients. "It's a lot sweeter and a lot stronger. I'm always going to buy from Ben."
Production, of course, is severely constrained by the brief tupelo season, but also by diseases that sweep the bee yards like Egypt's seven plagues. American Foulbrood ("brown, rotten, pudding-like," Lanier describes it) is the worst, because the only recourse is to burn the whole hive. But parasites such as the varroa destructor and the tracheal mite also bring down colonies, as do chemicals used to kill mosquitoes. "I'm on a first-name basis with the head of mosquito control, and I tell 'em and tell 'em and tell 'em where not to spray," says Lanier. "But they still kill 'em. It is just harder and harder and harder to keep the bees alive."
A Sundance moment
In spring of 1996, show business came knocking. Nuñez, an indie filmmaker (Ruby in Paradise) turned up at the Laniers' back door after buying a jar of tupelo honey from a stand in Wewahitchka. "He said, 'I'm thinking about making a movie about a beekeeper.' And I said, 'OK, let's go,'" says Lanier. "We got in his truck and went down into the swamp and started talking."
Lanier lent his expertise to the script's apian elements, offered up his bees and bee yards for filming, and trained Fonda. "He never put any gloves on," says Lanier. "People said to me, 'Those are your hands. Those aren't Peter's hands.' I said, 'No, ma'am. Those were Peter's hands.' I was six foot off camera, coaching him through it."
Lanier and Glynnis flew to the Sundance Film Festival for the premiere and spent three nights in New York City--"the only time I've been there," he says. "News people came in from all over the world and I talked to them about bees. They asked me, 'If you grew marijuana plants and the bees made honey off those could you get high eating it?' That's what they wanted to know."
Of course while an Academy Award nomination increases box office, it can't make bees more productive. Ulee's Gold ultimately had no effect on L.L. Lanier's business. It remains a modest enterprise: just Ben and Glynnis and one or two helpers.
Not long ago, Lanier was talking to a woman at the Methodist retirement home where his mother lives. The woman, upon hearing he owned his own business, asked if he was rich. "I have an 11-year-old-son and four dogs and a pet pig that when I caught it weighed about a pound and now weighs 200 pounds," says Lanier. "I have snakes and turtles and alligators and I eat turkey and deer and catfish and red snapper and bullfrog and crawfish and shrimp and anything that moves. And I sell honey. Which is good for you.
"So yes," he says. "I am very, very rich."