Entrepreneurs

How This Propolis-Centric Business Is Growing While Helping The Bees

Beekeeper’s Naturals has been selling its flagship product, the B. Immune Throat Spray, for nearly 6 years now: they’ve reportedly sold over 1.5 million bottles.

From a gal that started in her local farmer’s market with a cardboard sign in 2016, Carly Stein, founder of Beekeeper’s Naturals, is now managing a company that pulls in over $20 to $30 million revenue, she says, and has seen continued growth.

This year, the company has launched a slew of new products — the B.Biome, Sinus Support and the Propolis Nasal Spray. But even more so, they’ve done a rebrand: new fun, bold yellow packaging highlights the purpose of each product (throat, nasal, gut, sinus, etc) along with an important detail — the amount of propolis included in each product is clearly on display so customers know what they’re getting. She hopes this new packaging will clearly communicate the purpose of each product to consumers.

Stein started on this journey after quitting her Goldman Sachs job. As someone who had wrestled with her health for years, she discovered the power of propolis, a substance that the bees use to protect their hive by mixing beeswax and saliva. Turns out, it’s also helpful for human health.

When propolis began to revive her health, she decided to build a company, which has since garnered the attention of investors in the food space such as Sonoma Brands Capital, and celebrities like Cameron Diaz who have endorsed the product (as well as put their money behind it).

Stein, a Canadian, has had a longtime affinity for bees and honey. But as she learned more about the world of propolis, she’s become a proponent of “sustainable bee keeping,” which she says goes beyond organics.

Given that bees can easily feed on crops in an expansive area, it’s hard to make claims around organic honey, she explains. “Bees can easily fly over to a nearby field and feed on those flowers. You can’t put a leash on them. So making claims around organics is tricky.” Instead, she turns to third-party testing to know if the bees have been exposed to pesticides. Beekeeper’s, she says, tests all their products in Canada (Health Canada, she explains is “much more rigorous than the US”) for pesticide residues.

“And we’re the only company I know that does that. This means that our apiaries are basically bee sanctuaries because our bees are not being exposed to those toxins. Organics here does not mean glyphosate or pesticide-free.”

Then she gets into the details of beekeeping: bees will seal up cracks in their hive with propolis, which they get from plant and tree resins. So, it’s important for companies that sell propolis-based products to do so without breaking down this so-called immunity wall the bees make.

“What we do, instead of taking away from that existing propolis, is we put in a mesh sheet in their hives, which has holes in it. And the bees are like, ‘Oh holes!’ And they intuitively fill it with propolis. It’s very minimally invasive.”

While Stein started with propolis and honey sourced from her native Canada, she now works with apiaries around the world, such as Spain and Brazil. This makes for a tricky supply chain. She jokes that her Chief of Operations came from one of the iconic soda brands, and even he was surprised at how complex the company’s supply chain had become.

While tending to the bees is an important mission, Stein has to ensure that her products actually work. So she’s put together an advisory board of medical professionals, researchers, and naturopaths who consult her on each product: they don’t always see eye-to-eye, but she welcomes that criticism. “I want all our products to be proven by science and effective for a large number of people. So it’s good to have some people who poke holes early on, if an ingredient might be problematic.”

For each product, the team turns to third-party scientific tests to determine if an ingredient can be beneficial. For instance, they found that buckwheat honey is as effective as dextromethorphan, a common ingredient in over-the-counter cough medicine, in reducing cough. “So why would you use dextromethorphan, if you can use buckwheat honey, and it has antioxidants and other benefits. That was the catalyst for that product. We used that study as a guideline, and looked at specific dosages, quantities, extraction methods.”

In fact, propolis, she says, has been and is being used in medical communities around the world, more so than here in North America. “It shows up in a pharmacology book from the 1700s in London. And propolis today is being used by hospitals in Poland on bandages. A friend of mine who is a doctor is doing research on how propolis can be used for MS (multiple sclerosis) patients.”

She’s not sold on everything “natural.” Rather, it has to work, and be safe for a large number of people, she clarifies. The Sinus Support, for instance, uses bromelain, an enzyme commonly found in pineapples, to break up excess mucus; it’s been used in several studies as an alternative approach to sinus care, and shown promising results. Similarly, the company’s probiotic, includes propolis, which Stein says, is beneficial to gut health, and coupled with CoreBiome, a post-biotic derived from butyric acid (something our body already makes when it breaks down fiber).

Yet, building a company that relies so heavily on nature is not an easy feat. Some of her apiary partners have grown from having 10 beehives to over 200. And there has been some concern if all this beekeeping activity is actually beneficial for the environment (plus honeybees are not native to North America). One of Stein’s arguments against is that, since the apiaries she works with have to be pesticide-free, they’re actually encouraging large areas of land to be organic.

“All bees are critically important pollinators. Honey bees happen to be the most efficient, which is why we rely on them for a lot of our food (1/3 of our food supply), and they also pollinate many flowering plants. Solitary bees are equally as important. There are over 30,000 species of solitary bees known today, who, like honey bees, are negatively affected by pesticides. Our goal with Beekeeper’s Naturals is to manage bees in a pesticide free zone. This doesn’t just support the honey bees we keep, but all bees or creatures that exist in the local area.

I feel strongly that working with honey bees and implementing pesticide-free practices is important for our ecosystem. Reducing pesticides has a positive effect on honey bees, wild bees, and humans alike. Any effort to create pesticide-free habitats should be a priority.”

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