We’re buzzing about local honey farm King Cobra Apiary and the dynamic pair behind it
By Brooke Spach | Photography by John Michael Simpson
There’s no competition between the taste of local raw honey and that which comes in a bear-shaped bottle. Business owners Ali Iyoob and Alicia Ballard know this all too well, which is why the couple started King Cobra Apiary – a honey farm – back in 2017.
“There was definitely a need for local honey on a more commercial level in this area for a good while. There were some fantastic beekeepers in the area who retired before we started our business,” Ali says. “We [got] such a great response from the community – people who really love the honey of the area and weren’t able to get it. We’re really thankful that we’ve been able to become that source for them.”
They got their start in beekeeping after working as honey bee research technicians together at Eurofins Agroscience Services after college. Ali graduated with a degree in ecology and evolutionary biology from UNC in 2015, and Alicia earned a degree in plant biology and entomology from NC State in 2016.
“When we first started, we really did not have a whole lot of hives,” Ali says. “We were very much bootstrapping it. Everything we did was very calculated. … We were working as hard as we could with what we had to grow the business.”
Five years later, the couple handles all aspects of the business themselves, from taking care of their hives to packaging and selling their products. Alicia also works full time as an entomologist. Ali says they both clock in around 80 hours per week.
King Cobra’s honey comes from hives all across Orange County as they contract small pieces of land, mostly on local cattle farms, to house the majority of their colonies. Ali keeps the hives that need special attention on the farm where they live.
Their homestead is also home to their self-serve honey stand, where customers can stop by anytime from dawn till dusk to buy honey, beeswax candles, ornaments and more. The shop started during the COVID-19 lockdowns as a way for their regular customers to still get their honey fix without coming into contact with others.
“It was so convenient as we ended up growing the business even more and our time was just getting so stretched,” Ali says. “We were out beekeeping all the time, and it honestly left very little time to sell the actual honey.” Visitors have come from all over the East Coast to get a taste and sign their guest book.
Otherwise, their products can be found in a variety of places around the area. King Cobra’s honey is now in over 20 stores, including Piedmont Feed & Garden Center. Their honey is used in several local businesses’ products, such as Steel String Brewery’s Beehemian Rhapsody Kölsch and Tandem’s After the Gold Rush cocktail featuring homemade honey syrup.
Ali and Alicia each work a booth at the Durham or Chapel Hill farmers markets every Saturday, meeting customers and talking about their honey.
“We have great customers,” Ali says. “I love being able to talk to people and answer their questions. A lot of the people who are very committed honey users want local honey. They have a lot of questions about how things are produced and if certain things are beneficial or if they’re just a myth.”
The couple says there’s a sense of camaraderie between farmers at the markets because of a mutual understanding of how difficult the job can be. Market vendors trade their products with one another, and Alicia says they’ve never eaten better.
The business’ name was inspired by Alicia and Ali’s love of wildlife, specifically snakes. For every rattlesnake beeswax candle (so named for the mold it’s made in) sold, they donate $2 to The Rattlesnake Conservancy in Florida. They’ve also prioritized environmental consciousness in their business model – their glass jars are reusable, and all of their packaging is completely recyclable.
The couple is set to surpass last year’s honey yield, which was about 30,000 pounds. This year, they’re on track to produce about 50,000 pounds. North Carolina’s summer honey flowed throughout June and features robust flavors of tulip poplar. As the days of working sunup to sundown returned, they say they wouldn’t have it any other way.
“When I hear customers say, ‘This is the best honey I’ve ever had,’ that just makes me so happy because I enjoy producing a quality local product,” Alicia says. “I know that my heart, my blood, sweat and tears went into that.”