Ryan LeBrun's love of honey bees is emphatic, a necessary vice for his post at Bee Local, where LeBrun harvests Oregon's only single-origin honey, a career he began nearly six years ago before the honey outfit joined Portland-based Jacobsen Salt Co. Bee Local began as most small-batch businesses do, out of the owner's kitchen. Now hitting its stride, Bee Local taps into the micro-worlds the flying insects create, sustainably raising them and harvesting their honey with fellow beekeepers and researchers, some of which come from Oregon State University's honey program. With hives scattered throughout Portland, Bee Local utilizes urban beekeeping practices, allowing the brand to build relationships with chefs, bartenders, brewers, and others interested in the magical world of bees. As far as LeBrun is concerned, he's living his dream, as his post allows him to interact with fellow honey lovers, representing his furry friends and the liquid gold they produce.
I spoke to LeBrun about bees, honey laundering, and the future of ethical honey harvesting in America.
MUNCHIES: How is Bee Local's honey sourcing and producing process different from other companies?
Ryan LeBrun: We love single-origin honey, and more importantly, single-origin hives. Meaning, all of our hives have a home where they stay, which is a rooftop. We have hives at Hotel Lucia, Hotel deLuxe and Sentinel in Portland, and we also have hives at farms, wineries, and backyards close by. We like to present our honey as a location, as opposed to what giant mono-crop it pollinated.
What is honey laundering?
Honey laundering is what you get when Winnie the Pooh binge-watches Narcos. Seriously, though, most governments do not have a strict standard for what honey actually is. If you're buying honey at a grocery store, chances are you're purchasing a product that is laundered, or honey that is diluted with fillers like high-fructose corn syrup, yet labeled and sold as pure honey. It's very misleading to the consumer!
Large quantities of Chinese-produced honey are being dumped illegally on the US market. To curb the importation of chemical-ridden honey, the US established high tariffs on honey imported from China. Taxes drive up prices, so big companies are essentially sneaking this honey in to keep their costs at a low price point. Honey from China is being rerouted through other countries, and it's getting mislabeled throughout the process to hide its origin. Many of these Chinese producers are using non-FDA-approved chemicals on their bees, and like the drug trade, the producers cut their honey with additives like high-fructose corn syrup, making it less pure and less expensive, since it contains a filler. At the end of the day, when laundered honey arrives in the US, it's no longer pure honey.
How does predatory purchasing and commercial beekeeping lead to colony collapse?
Colony collapse disorder—CCD—is complicated, and there are different theories, but most point to a multi-faceted cocktail that migratory bees (bees living off a semi-truck to pollinate large crop fields) get fed daily. Ingredients in the cocktail include genetic modifications, and some believe we have limited bee's genetic diversity, which breeds out their aggressive behavior and tendency to swarm. In doing so, bees become weak, docile, and unable to protect themselves. Additionally, insecticides like neonicotinoids, fungicides, and all those other cancer-causing sprays farmers douse their crops with are so harmful to bees. Unfortunately, it's the way a large part of our food system is built. Finally, predatory purchasing: Simply put, you lose the essence and quality of what you first started with. With honey, it comes with large companies having the purchasing power. They have the bandwidth to send trucks across the country and buy an entire beekeeper's supply (in only a day in cash), which is quite tempting to beekeepers. It's terribly sad that all this uniquely different and distinct honey gets heated, heavily filtered (so it doesn't crystalize), and then mixed together. Not only do you lose the story each honey wants to tell, but you lose all the beneficial compounds and pollen. Enzymes are destroyed or removed in this process. Imagine if all the vineyards sold their grapes to five huge wineries that pasteurized the grapes, mixed them all, and gave you three types of wine to choose from: white, light red, and dark red. Gross!
How does Bee Local avoid the unsavory practices of typical honey businesses?
Well, the first thing we do is bring bees to the people. We work with our partners to have their own hives. We have restaurants, farms, hotels, and breweries we work with to help produce their own honey. I think showing people how we operate, especially in urban environments, also helps give the public an empowering feeling to learn about bees, and possibly inspire them to start beekeeping themselves!
We also seek out like-minded beekeepers that are not only producing amazing honey, but respect their bees as well. You can usually tell pretty quickly if a beekeeper sees his or her bees as factory farm animals or as pets. We choose the latter!
Once we find these special souls, giving them a good price is the most important thing. Simply put, it does cost more and take more time to follow the best practices. High-fructose corn syrup, HFCS, is cheaper than good sugar. Certain chemical treatments take less time, and are less expensive than other, more holistic approaches. It's also much easier to just blend all of your honey together, so when someone takes the time and care to keep it separate, you have to support that style, and hope that it then spreads.
How is Bee Local's honey-making process sustainable and healthy for bees?
The most important thing to bee's health is keeping them in one place and making sure that place is free from sprayed chemicals. I believe this is why I have never seen a colony collapse. Migratory beekeeping is just so hard on the bees.
Another thing I like to do is leave honey for the bees since they have sensitive stomachs. I never use HFCS for bees or myself. I will use sugar to feed when necessary but honey is always the best! I also use integrated pest management techniques. This includes putting hives in good healthy environments, using screened bottom boards, essential oils, powdered sugar, organic acids, etc.
Another interesting aspect of the sustainability of beekeeping is the effects on the location surrounding the hives. This was something I didn't anticipate but always notice. Once a hive moves in, whether it be a backyard or rooftop, people find out and are interested. What I see next is the gradual beautification of that area. People want to help feed the bees, so they plant flowers and herbs. Rooftops that were once unoccupied, soulless concrete deserts, become transformed into food-producing, flower-rearing altars to the sun, where people gather, lean in, and reconnect with the world's natural wonder in the midst of a city. It's truly a beautiful thing!
How does being in Portland define your brand and flavor choices?
I wouldn't say Portland defines Bee Local. Bee Local is a component of what defines Portland, specifically its support for great healthy ingredients. Bee Local was created to eventually replicate, or swarm, if you will, into other cities around the world. Portland was the first step, and we really couldn't have been born into a better place. Long-term, providing local honey to all people is where the vision takes us.
What's next for the company?
There is so much in the works for us right now. The key to continuing our practices and standards will be to work with great people: honest people with high values and respect for animals, insects, and the environment. Making the extra buck has to take a backseat to creating a better world. This year, we will get some hives going in Seattle and eventually more cities across the US, and hopefully the world.
Thanks for speaking with me.