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Cloister Honey Adapts to Changes in the Beekeeping Game

Leading up to Christmas 2006, Joanne de la Rionda felt like her husband, Randall York, needed a hobby. Between his banking job and the moving company he independently owned, he had been running himself ragged. His wife thought he needed to get outside more. She also noticed that they didn’t have much of a garden or anything else going on in the yard of the home they had recently bought in the Cloisters neighborhood of south Charlotte. So rather than get him gardening tools, she bought him a beehive.

Thirteen years later, that gift has changed the lives of the couple, who have both quit their jobs and work full-time as co-owners of Cloister Honey, producing about 4,000 pounds of artisanal honey a year and selling even more in over 40 states around the country.

With colony collapse a constant worry since the business started in 2007, the York and de la Rionda ride a constant roller coaster that can take dips at any time. Last fall, they inexplicably lost 65% of their bees. This year, they’re keeping 35 hives alive, down from their average, which sits somewhere between 50 and 60.

Despite the struggles, the Cloister company has continued to expand and adapt. Last November, York and de la Rionda launched a sister company, Great River Hemp Company, selling CBD-infused honey and beeswax products like body oils, lip balms and tinctures.

We catch up with York and de la Rionda at their urban honey bee farm near the Druid Hills North neighborhood in north Charlotte on a July afternoon during one of the two annual extraction days for Cloister.The two have recently gone to York’s hometown of North Wilkesboro to collect the hives they left there in early June. The 80-acre patch of land is dotted in sourwood trees, which make for some of the best honey in America, York says.

We watch as Joanne removes the capping wax from framed honeycombs pulled from the hives before York and part-time employee Greg Ledford stick them into an extractor — a large cylinder that spins the honey out of the frames. The honey is then poured from a spout in the extractor into a bucket, where it can be filtered to remove any wood, wax or bee parts.

Joanne de la Rionda removes the caps from a frame full of wax. (Photo by Justin LaFrancois)

York’s enthusiasm for his practice becomes apparent quickly upon meeting him. He’s a walking encyclopedia of bee knowledge with a western North Carolina twang. He tells us how one bee will make about one-eighth of a teaspoon of honey in its 42-day life. He informs us how the bee carries a mix of 10% nectar and 90% water back to the hive in one of its multiple stomachs, then dumps it in a honeycomb cell and uses its wings to dehydrate it. Once the specimen is below 18.2% moisture, the bee caps it. And that’s what Cloister collects.

“All the bees are trying to do is they’re just trying to put food up for the winter,” York says excitedly. “They’re hoarders; they’re going to make way more food than they need, and that’s the beautiful thing.”

York wasn’t always like this. In fact, he’ll be the first to tell you that his reaction upon receiving his first beehive as a Christmas gift from de la Rionda in 2006 was one of … let’s say perplexion.

“Didn’t want it, didn’t need it, wasn’t interested in it,” York says when I ask his first thoughts about the hive.

However, de la Rionda wouldn’t be brushed off. She convinced him to attend Bee School, a weekly class held by the Mecklenburg County Beekeepers Association from mid-January to mid-March. It didn’t take long for York to get bit by the beekeeping bug.

An extractor in the Cloister warehouse spins honey from the frames. (Photo by Justin LaFrancois)

“He went to the club and he came back pretty quickly and said, ‘OK, I need two hives,’” de la Rionda says. “He taught the entire family about bees. And then as we were doing it, I found that after about 5 years, we were selling it.”

They turned their Cloisters carport into a garage with a kitchen for making honey and began selling to four or five different clients. Then one day, de la Rionda came to a decision: Honey would be their full-time job, and there would be no turning back.

“I was working for the bank, and I was like, ‘This is what I really need to do, I really want to do this,’” she recalls. “So one day I just decided I had enough of the corporate world and I came home and told Randall I quit my job and that we were going to do this full-time.”

According to de la Rionda, York refused to believe her. His pragmatism wouldn’t let him envision the same success that she saw. He had plans for the two kids that were now in danger.

“I said, ‘You’re out of your Goddamn mind. We’re going to be homeless,’” he recalls now, laughing.

“He had us living out of the car, kids can’t go to college,” she continues, rolling her eyes.

Needless to say, de la Rionda was right, as Cloister has grown to serve 20 varieties of honey products in Charlotte and across the country.

The company offers four varietals, which are naturally flavored by the bees themselves: sourwood, orange blossom, tupelo and wildflower. They have four infused honey flavors, in which they infuse their wildflower honey with arbol pepper, bourbon, chipotle pepper and vanilla flavors. Then there’s the whipped honey, for which the team uses a controlled crystallization process to create a spreadable product. The 10 whipped honey selections include fan favorites like cinnamon (the company’s top seller), cocoa and pumpkin spice. The list is rounded out by two gourmet spreads: power seeded honey and salted honey.

De la Rionda is president and owner of Cloister Honey, and when I ask York what his role is, he laughs and says, “I’m just her right-hand guy.”

His hands are essential, however, as de la Rionda found out shortly after the two jumped into the venture that she’s allergic to bees. Most of the times, she says, bees won’t mess with you if you stay calm, but she lets York move the hives nowadays.

Randall York filters honey in the Cloister warehouse. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

Stings aren’t the only struggles that the Cloister team faces. Colony collapse disorder (CCD) is a term describing the phenomena that occurs when a large amount of worker bees disappears from a colony, leaving the queen behind.

Between 2006 and 2013, it is estimated that 10 million colonies were lost to colony collapse. Though there is no widely accepted cause for CCD in the scientific community, York believes it’s a matter of -cides: pesticides, insecticides and herbicides, among others.

“There’s just a million of them, and if you don’t use a lot of insecticides and pesticides and herbicides, nature will find a way, but we want to live in nature and have a beautiful yard and at the same time we don’t want grubs, or we don’t want mosquitos,” York says. “And I know the mosquito companies say those sprays don’t hurt anybody, but those guys are dressed up like spacemen when they’re spraying it, and I can’t believe it’s good for the honey bees.”

While the bee population around the world has shown signs of stabilizing, with an estimated 4% growth in honey-producing colonies reported in 2018, York of all people knows that CCD can strike at any time. It was less than a year ago that he suffered his worst loss yet.

“I started in 2007, that’s the first year that colony collapse was officially labeled, so I’ve only known beekeeping since it’s been tough and seems to be getting a little bit tougher,” he says. “Most years we have a 10% loss — the typical loss has been 20% across the board forever and ever. Last year we had like 65% just dead, and we’re pretty decent at what we do, and we lost two-thirds of our bees. It’s nothing like starting over, but it wasn’t easy.”

York with one of the company’s many hives. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

The show must go on, however, and when the bees aren’t producing enough to meet demand, Cloister buys from trusted bee farmers in Florida and elsewhere. That’s how they’ve been able to introduce new aspects of their company, like the launch of Great River Hemp Company, to capitalize on the growing popularity of CBD and hemp-infused products.

Though Great River has to ship most of its CBD-infused honey out of state thanks to regulations from the state health department banning the use of cannabidiol in edible products, they’ve produced a whole line of body products that can be sold locally without concern. According to York, the couple’s background in banking — and Ledford’s background in the legal side of banking — makes them well-equipped to deal with any issues that might arise.

“We want them to be as hard as they can be, because we’ll do what we need to do,” he says. “We get our certificate of analysis, we get third-party testing done; we want it to be hard. We just have to make adjustments to what we’re doing.”

If there’s one thing this couple has proven over the last decade, they’re good at adjusting.

Find Cloister Honey products at Pura Vida Worldly Art, Savory Spice, Orrman’s Cheese Shop, Rhino Market & Deli, Common Market, Pure Pizza, Unity Farms Produce and other locations around Charlotte. Visit their website for more

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