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Popular beekeeper sees hobby turn into booming small-business

Bob Bradbury explains how his hobby became a successful business.


Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Bee Keeper Bob Bradbury, 80, of Flowery Branch inspects his honey bee suppers in his backyard on Wednesday. At times Bradbury has over one million honey bees contributing to his honey and bees wax candle business, B & B Enterprises. Bradbury has been a bee keeper since 1975.

Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Bee Keeper Bob Bradbury, 80, of Flowery Branch inspects his honey bee suppers in his backyard on Wednesday. At times Bradbury has over one million honey bees contributing to his honey and bees wax candle business, B & B Enterprises. Bradbury has been a bee keeper since 1975.

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Beekeper Bob Bradbury

Bob Bradbury explains how his hobby became a successful business.

Bob Bradbury explains how his hobby became a successful business.

SUWANEE -- When Bob Bradbury sets up shop at a farmers market, he appears equal parts salesman and naturalist doctor recommending ways to combat allergies and high cholesterol.

Bradbury's product is honey, and he's been a beekeeper since 1976, when he was a Presbyterian minister in Bloomfield, N.J. From the same table he sells honey -- from 12 ounces to a gallon -- he also has a stack of recipes and other uses for honey, and developed a drink called "H and V" made out of honey and apple cider vinegar.

"If you're doing it for allergies, take a teaspoon a day," said Bradbury, as he offered a free sample to passersby.

"Instead of going to the doctor and getting shots, you're doing it naturally."

The Flowery Branch resident is one of the most popular vendors at the Suwanee Farmers Market, and one of the longest-tenured. The first Saturday of the market was especially busy, as Bradbury sold more than 30 jars in the first hour and a half.

"If somebody told me at age 80 you'd be peddling honey," Bradbury said, "I'd say you were crazy."

Bradbury and his wife moved to the area in 1997 to be closer to five children, 17 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren after he'd been a pastor in western Pennsylvania, Jersey City, N.J., and Long Island. They brought the hives that they started with in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and have since expanded their operation.

The hobby was such a part of their lives that when they moved south, their realtor quickly learned to put the yard at the top of the list of reasons to tour a house, Beverly said.

Bradbury and his wife, Beverly, sell at six farmers markets and co-ops around Suwanee, Flowery Branch, Gainesville and Cumming. The couple also sells honey to restaurants and an Ace Hardware store.

It's a rewarding and busy hobby that Bradbury said has grown so much that it's almost too big.

"It makes me laugh," Beverly said. "He says that, and then goes out and buys more hives."

After all, it was Beverly's urging to begin to sell at farmers markets after the couple had more honey than they could enjoy themselves, and give away to family and friends. At first, Bob "pooh-poohed the idea," but the small business has taken off, and Bradbury said the first three months of this year more than tripled sales for 2011.

To help the family business, the Bradburys have a grandson, Brendan O'Connor, 16, who helps with maintenance of the hives and finishing process. Beverly said it's nice to know there's someone who they could trust to potentially inherit the business.

The Bradburys, who regularly take mission journeys around the world, said the honey business has allowed them to do things they wouldn't have had the opportunity to otherwise.

Some concerns Bob Bradbury have are the misconceptions -- and ignorance -- the general public has about the honeybee and the honey industry. Honeybees are non-adversarial and often "get blamed for stuff that isn't theirs," he said, and a honeybee sting isn't that strong.

Bradbury also works hard to keep mites from invading his hives, and he uses natural means instead of insecticides because he said insecticides can cause bees to lose their sense of direction, and eventually die.

City of Suwanee Events Coordinator Amy Doherty said Bradbury's operation at his house is an art form, and his popularity is well-known.

"I know folks like him and his honey, because I am constantly giving out his number when the market is over," she said.

He's gained loyal customers thanks to the taste of the honey, which he sells in wildflower, sourwood and tupelo flavors. Bradbury credits the diversity of his yard, which is just 0.625 of an acre, but boasts 200 kinds of flowers, 12 fruits, 14 herbs and about 50 vegetables at peak season.

Traci Kulzer of Suwanee bought a bear bottle of wildflower honey because she said it helps her fight allergies.

"I was amazed you don't feel groggy," said Kulzer, who takes about a teaspoon a day by melting honey with cinnamon over popcorn.

Bradbury himself is a walking endorsement of the comb honey he sells. He says it helped him get off the cholesteral drug Lipitor, which he took for six years.

His 102-year-old mother-in-law also enjoys the product. Bradbury said she doesn't take any medications, and instead eats a banana on oatmeal each morning, and a "good glob of honey."

Caryl Shepherd of Suwanee said the honey has all but eliminated allergy side effects in her son Alex, 7. In the last year, Alex began a honey regimen after his eyes were irritated and "bugged out."

This spring, though, Shepherd said the side effects of her son's allergies are almost nonexistent. She's not sure if it's a fluke yet, but she's glad that, "I didn't have to call the doctor to get prescription eye drops."

Bradbury's hives are home to 60,000 to 70,000 bees, and the queen bee provides about 1,500 to 2,000 eggs each day. Bradbury said the mileage distance to consume "local honey" is a linear distance of 50 to 100 miles.

"From a practical standpoint, it's an excellent resource for my garden," Bradbury said.

Farmers market manager Rosalie Tubre said customers want him to be a part of the market.

"They'll ask, 'Is Bob coming back?' They want to know," Tubre said. "(Bradbury) adds another layer of legitimization of what we have to offer. They learn from visiting here."

The feeling is mutual as Bradbury said he enjoys the interaction with customers, who visit his house year-round to pick up more jars and jugs.

"I think it's keeping us both young," said Beverly, 75. "We like learning. We both are extremely active. No one believes we are as old as we are. We enjoy ministering to people, and serving people, and this is sort of an outgrowth of that."