Probably anyone who’s been to Boulder, Colorado’s farmers market knows Tim Brod, owner of Highland Honey Bees. He lends his larger-than-life personality to the cause of the bee and doles out sweet dollops of honey and wisdom to the passersby. He’s a lover of bees, with a lifetime of experience, and very clear ideas about how to properly care for buzzing beauties and their honey. I caught up with Tim over herbal tea (with lots of honey) and a shot of moonshine at his honey-processing headquarters in Longmont, Colorado. I asked about his passion and tried to gain some wisdom about how to buy great honey and what we can all do to protect and nurture the essential honeybee.
Meet the Beekeeper
A beekeeper since he was a child, Tim explains, “I was one of those kids whose greatest joy was to be outdoors. I grew up with a love of people and a love of animals and a love of the interactions between them. I loved looking at systems.” He grew up in the 1960s in semirural Connecticut, and it was his grandfather’s brother, Crozier, who first connected him with the industrious buzzer. Back then, learning to be a beekeeper was easy, according to Tim. “Until 20 years ago, you really didn’t have to do much for bees. The world was a lot different then. Strategies that worked for millions of years haven’t for the past 15.”
Himself abuzz with a desire to travel, Tim left America in the 1970s and spent a decade away, mostly in the Middle East. Cairo was his primary home, but he lived elsewhere in North Africa as well. He worked with bees, in agriculture, and as a commercial diver doing salvage work in the Suez Canal, removing sunken ships, airplanes, and tanks. Tim built upon Crozier’s teachings while living abroad; learning in a place with a rich history of beekeeping. In fact, “Egypt has some of the longest documented history of working with bees of any place in the world. There are signs in the tombs of beekeeping practices.” He returned to the United States in the late 1980s, finished college with a degree in anthropology and marine biology, and moved to northern California to continue his work with bees and other biological systems.
Highland Honey’s Millions of Bees
Finally, in 2008 Tim opened Highland Honey Bees. The current pollinator decline, paired with his passion for and connection to bees, ultimately motivated him. He shares, “I guess the main pull was that I knew all our lives are made better by having bees around. To see them, what they do, to watch them and how they work. What they contribute is overwhelmingly wonderful.”
Now, in 2015, Tim keeps millions of bees in several hundred hives on land throughout the Front Range of Colorado, and he gathers about 10,000 pounds of honey each year. But, as Tim looks to the future, he’s concerned that there isn’t sufficient forage (bee food) in places like Boulder County anymore because of “a combination of agricultural practices, urban land use practices, more housing developments with grass lawns and no forage, and more well-intentioned hobbyist beekeepers unintentionally spreading disease.”
For the Love of Beer and Honey
Tim explains that there’s so much honey out there that has been altered or changed in some way, that very few people have eaten “real honey”. He explains, “For me, real honey means it has not been altered in any way (no heat whatsoever and no filtration).” He uses a beer analogy to explain the difference between his honey and the options he considers inferior:
Tim acknowledges that there may be a place for both kinds of honey in your kitchen, but it’s important not to mistake them for the same thing. You also can’t expect to reap the same health benefits from cooked honey as you would from truly raw honey packed with pollen. Tim explains the difference between his “handcrafted beer” honey and the others’ “Coors Light” honey and gives advice about how to choose good honey at farmers markets and grocery stores. Below are six things Tim wishes everyone knew about honey.
Six Things Tim Wishes Everyone Knew About Honey
- Raw should actually mean raw, but it rarely does.
There is no official US federal definition of raw honey. However, according to Tim, beekeepers worth their salt only call their honey raw if it’s never been heated above
the temperature found in a beehive, about 95° F. However, there are many companies that label their honey as raw when it has been cooked and as consumers it’s impossible for us to tell the difference.
- Ain’t nothin’ wrong with crystals.
In general, Americans prefer honey that has not crystalized. Knowing this, most processors heat their honey to impede crystallization, despite the fact that honey with crystals is just as healthy and delicious as honey without (if not a bit coarser). Tim explains that crystallization occurs naturally in all raw honey (with very few exceptions), and crystallization is actually a good sign that your honey is raw, not that it’s somehow “gone bad”. In fact, if your honey doesn’t crystalize, Tim suggests that the chances it’s been altered in some way are high.
- Common processing practices are driven more by efficiency than by quality.
Commercial honey processors heat their honey so the wax rises to the surface more quickly, enabling them to easily remove the wax so the final product can be quickly pumped into containers. Tim elaborates, “If I heated honey above 95 degrees and put it under pressure, could I fill jars of honey faster than one every six seconds? Yes. Do I need to fill one faster than one every six seconds? Not in my worldview.”
- Labeling laws are inadequate.
Tim has some pretty serious misgivings about the labels on honey jars and he is adamant that there is little to no oversight or regulation. He asks, “What do ‘raw,’ ‘local,’ and ‘unfiltered’ actually mean? Should a company that packages in your state, but sources honey from all over the world, be able to call their honey ‘local’?” Tim encourages all of us to start talking to our grocery stores and demanding accuracy and transparency in honey labeling.
- Honey tastes different when it’s been heated.
One of the many reasons Tim is a proponent of eating truly raw honey is because it tastes much better. When you heat honey, he says, you “alter the chemistry of the honey and you off-gas all the aromatics that give honey its unique flavors, the rich floral taste. Heating honey in any way will destroy the taste component.” Tim goes on to explain that “If you smell a beehive and you smell bees and you smell honey, guess what? They should all smell the same. If you open up a jar of honey and it’s got no smell, you should be suspicious.”
- Yay pollen!
Pollen is one of the causes of crystallization, and because consumers generally don’t like the crystals, many honey producers remove the pollen. Tim explains this process, “The American Honey Board says you can mix honey with diatomaceous earth, which results in an ionic action that attracts the pollen and pulls it out. The diatomaceous earth stays separate and is filtered out and this process keeps the honey from crystalizing.” He offers more reasons why pollen is an important part of honey: “When the pollen is removed, it becomes impossible to trace the honey back to its source and you miss out on any of the health benefits of pollen.”
But what can we do to help ensure a steady supply of great honey into the future? With all this talk of declining bee populations and the importance of these powerful pollinators to humans, plants, and the earth, I wanted Tim to tell me what my friends and I can do to support healthy bees. Below are a few simple tips.
You Can Help Support Healthy Bees with These Four Simple Tips
- Tip #1: Plant forage
Bees need flowers. Ask your local beekeeping association for information about what kinds of plants to include in your garden, or check out these lists of bee-friendly plants. Tim says anything in the mint family is a great place to start because they’re easy to grow and they are high-nectar producers. He explains, using your “little two-foot-by-two-foot area, or 10-foot-by-10-foot area, or 20-by-30-foot area to put in habitat or forage” is a great entry point into the bee-protection cause.Another helpful act is to lobby our municipalities to plant more flowers and let wildflowers bloom in the road medians. Tim says that ideally, “We want things to be blooming from late winter to first frost” to keep the bees happy and well fed.
- Tip #2: Don’t use pesticides
Bees and pesticides are not buddies, plain and simple. So, Tim encourages us all to stop using potentially harmful chemicals in our yards, farms, and parks. Tim explains, “We’ve had 40 years of marketing to convince us that lawns should not have a goddamn dandelion on it.” This mindset is hurting bees and we can change it.
- Tip #3: Roll up your lawn
Bees aren’t attracted to sprawling carpets of lawn. Tim suggests replacing yours with bee habitat. If that feels too drastic, even adding a simple flower boarder is helpful.
- Tip #4: Do your best to buy good honey
How can you find honey that has not been heated and is still chock full of pollen? Tim suggests contacting your local beekeeping organization to get a list of beekeepers who will sell their honey to you directly. He explains that these small producers are much less likely to alter their honey. I appreciate Tim’s suggestions for finding the best honey, but in some places and for some people, the process sounds too daunting and time-consuming. Who has time to search for the perfect, local, raw honey? What if I want to buy my honey from the store? Tim laments, “It’s very hard! Unfortunately, most grocery store workers are equally flummoxed because almost every label says raw and local.” What a bummer! This is why Tim is so passionate about improving the labeling laws to increase transparency.
Ultimately, Tim is making a compelling argument for the power of a robust local food system, where you know your farmers and producers, and transparency is unavoidable. He signs off with a final bit of wisdom:
Author: Mara Rose
Editor: Joy Herbers & Maggie Wells
Photo: Highland Honey Bees