Recently I had the opportunity to meet with Damian Magista, founder of Bee Local artisan honey. Bee Local is an entirely different way of producing honey that focuses on the unique flavors imparted by the specific regions honeybees forage in, rather than on a particular crop, such as clover or blackberry. Each jar of Bee Local honey is labelled with the name of the Portland, OR neighborhood it came from. I really enjoyed spending the afternoon with Damian and hearing about his passion for ethical honey production with a focus on bee health and well-being.
The Ubiquitous Honeybear
To get an understanding of how Bee Local’s honey is different from the supermarket variety, it’s important to first know how most commercial honey is made. Beekeeping is big business in the U.S. Many crops are dependent on honeybees for pollination. The honeybee is a a good fit for modern agriculture because of its portability. Honeybee queens spend their entire lives after mating inside the hive, and their thousands of workers return to the hive every evening to rest. The bees provision their hive with plenty of food to sustain them for several days in the event that they are unable to leave it. So it is easy to close up a hive, put it on a truck, and move it to whatever farm needs pollination. Because of this, honeybees may spend weeks working a single species of crop. This makes it possible for beekeepers to sell honey flavored by only one plant: clover, wildflower, blackberry, etc. This is nice for the consumer, but not so great for the honeybees, who suffer from the stress of frequent transport, unvaried diet, and contact with millions of other commercial bees who may carry pathogens.
Honey is a commodity good. And most commercial beekeepers are in the business of pollination, not honey. They sell their honey to a distributer. The honey of many different beekeepers is then combined into one large batch to give a consistent flavor. It is filtered not only to remove particulates, but sometimes even to remove any traces of pollen. Honey is usually heat-treated to pasteurize it, destroying enzymes and any wild yeasts present. Incidentally, there is no federal definition of what “honey” is in the U.S. At the federal level it’s possible for “honey” which has been adulterated (with corn syrup, for example) to be sold as the real deal, although some states have passed laws to prevent this practice.
For these reasons, locally produced small batches of raw honey are your best choice both from a flavor and health standpoint. And Bee Local is about as local as it gets! Bee Local’s hives are permanently situated in locations around the Portland-Metro area. Private property owners arrange with Bee Local to host hives on their land indefinitely. Honeybees typically travel up to 1-2 miles for food, and urban neighborhoods offer a wide variety of nectar and pollen sources: flowering shrubs and trees, ornamental flowers, edible crops, dandelions and other common weeds, vines, herbs, fruit trees, and even the English ivy that is the bane of our urban parks! Neighborhoods vary in the density of housing; size, type, and maturity of trees; wooded or open parks; and these differences are reflected in Bee Local honey – some are light and floral, others are dark and spicy, while some have a bit of an herbaceous flavor. It’s so much fun to sample them and wonder what kind of plants were in bloom!
Bee Local honey is bottled in small, artisanal batches to preserve the unique flavor characteristics of each neighborhood. Stainless steel mesh sieves are used to remove undesirable particles but leave the pollen intact. Bee Local honey is never pasteurized; it is sold raw and unadulterated. Like a fine wine, the flavor of the honey will be different from season to season and year to year. Although each neighborhood has its own unique flavor profile, the honey produced may be light or dark, mellow or intense, depending on the growing conditions that year: honey from cool, wet summers differs from that produced in hot, dry summers. Sampling these honeys was such an enjoyable experience, and I’m happily planning for their use in both sweet and savory recipes!
Honeybees are getting a lot of attention these days due to the inexplicable loss of them to Colony Collapse Disorder. Much of the news focuses on the role pesticides play in this crisis, but what doesn’t get much attention is the way in which we use honeybees. Bees – like all creatures – can suffer from poor health related to environmental stressors. Their needs do not differ too greatly from ours: a clean home, protection from extreme weather fluctuations, a varied diet, and minimal contact with toxic chemicals and pathogens. This unfortunately does not describe the life of a typical honeybee in the U.S. Commercial honeybees are trucked around from one part of the country to another, enduring great fluctuation in climate. They subsist on single crops for weeks at a time. They visit crops that are sprayed with herbicides and insecticides. They are fed corn syrup when their honey supplies run low (sometimes due to overharvesting). They may be fed antibiotics prophylactically to control bacterial infections brought on by their poor living conditions.
It’s not really that hard to have a healthy bee population. We have only to be good caretakers of our bees. That’s why I really appreciate the way Damian manages his hives for Bee Local. His bees have clean, stationary hives; access to a wide variety of food sources; and receive little to no medical interventions. Because his bees are so healthy in the first place, he rarely needs to treat them for mites and never feeds them antibiotics. He monitors their mite load closely, and if the numbers get too high his preferred treatment is Apiguard, a plant-based remedy derived from thyme. Damian is careful to leave the bees plenty of honey to eat during the winter, and he monitors their supplies carefully. If their honey supply seems to be low, Damian feeds his bees inverted sugar, a mixture of fructose and glucose which more closely resembles the composition of honey than sugar or corn syrup. Damian also feels that locally bred bees are better suited to our Pacific NW climate and produce the most robust, healthy colonies. For that reason, instead of relying on mail-ordered queens from suppliers in CA or HI, Damian prefers to capture wild bees during swarm season.
Honey: A Sweet Treat
Recent diet trends have led many to shun sugar in favor of more “natural” sweeteners for their cooking, and honey is often the preferred choice. But historically, honey was difficult to obtain and priced accordingly. In the modern era, industrial farming has driven down the cost of honey, but this price drop comes at a cost. Did you know that bees must travel 55,000 miles and tap 2 million flowers to make a single pound of honey? Kind of puts that cheap supermarket honey into perspective for you. Just as cheap meat from factory farms and conventionally grown produce have a negative impact on our environment and our health, so does mass-produced honey. But in this case, cheap honey has a greater effect on the world at large, because bees kept in these conditions interact with wild bees, spreading diseases and parasites that can have a devastating impact on our ecosystems.
Every dollar you spend on food is a vote for the kind of farming you want to see practiced in the world. When it comes to honey, purchase it raw from local beekeepers who are good stewards of their bees. Such honey is usually found at farmer’s markets, food co-ops, and healthfood stores. If you live in the area of Portland, OR look for Bee Local honey at these stores. If you’re interested in doing more to help bees, consider joining The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. They are doing great work teaching farmers how to increase crop yields by setting aside a small portion of their farmland as greenspace, which provides food and habitat for bees and other pollinators.
And if you already have some raw, local honey in your pantry I recommend trying it out in my Honeyed Garlic recipe. 🙂
If you love bees as much as I do, here are some interesting tidbits I learned from Damian:
- The temperature in the hive is always 92°. In cool weather bees vibrate their bodies to warm the hive. In warm weather they fan their wings to cool it.
- Queen bees mate just once in their lives (with several partners) and store the sperm they receive in a special organ. When laying eggs, fertilized ones will become females (workers or new queens) and unfertilized ones will be males (drones). The drone’s sole function is to mate with new queens.
- New queens are made in the spring. The workers will prepare about 5 very large cells for new queens. The first queen to emerge immediately kills all the other developing queens.
- The old queen knows when a new queen has emerged. She makes a chirping sound to rally the workers loyal to her and they all leave the hive together in a swarm.
- Swarming bees are very gentle because they have gorged themselves before leaving the hive and are solely interested in finding a new hive location.
- Beekeepers are often very happy to remove swarms from private or public property. (Free bees!) If you find a swarm leave it alone and consult www.beeremovalsource.com to find someone willing to take them away.
I didn’t receive any compensation from Bee Local to write this post, not even free honey. 😉