Honey Comb

November 20th, 2019

Meet the Maker: Farm Boy Honey

Our makers, farmers, and suppliers are the cornerstone of our business.

Without them, we wouldn’t have the array of beautiful produce that greets you when you walk in our doors, we wouldn’t have the well-stocked grocery shelves with high-quality pantry staples and innovative snacks. We wouldn’t have our premium meat products, our delicious frozen goodies, the freshest dairy, or mouthwatering cheese selection.

They bake our pies, harvest our honey, pick our apples, and churn our ice cream. We love the faces behind our products. They are part of what makes us great, so we’d like to introduce you.


This week we are talking to Emily Briffa, one of the beekeeper-owners behind our Pure Ontario Farm Boy Honey. We get the buzz on health benefits, beehive politics, and find out how many bees it takes to make a jar of honey. 

Hi Emily! We are so thrilled to talk about beekeeping and honey with you. Am I right in thinking it’s you and your husband running the business? 

Yes!  My husband Jan and I are the beekeeper-owners of TruBee Honey..

When I first met Jan, over 20 years ago, he was just starting out and had two hives. He just really loved bees. He loved working in nature. He had gone to Guelph University for Agriculture and was a real farm boy at heart. He just wanted to do something that would allow him to work and spend all his time outside. And beekeeping allowed that. 

We started getting more and more bees and our focus was honey production. We used to sell it bulk, in barrels, to big national honey packers. That’s just how we were doing it and then when we started to have our family and I started to have children and I started to get more interested in traceability and best practices, I learned that once they had our honey these big national packers would ultra pasteurize it and ultra filter it so it was nothing like the original product. 

The big companies were blending it with Chinese, imported honeys, so once it got to the grocery store shelves there was very little of our product left. I’ve read a lot of studies about honey on grocery store shelves, and often the end product has zero pollen. Pollen is the fingerprint of honey, so if there’s no pollen…is it even still honey?

I remember saying to Jan almost 10 years ago, we can’t keep producing this perfect, beautiful product and have it be as adulterated and processed as this before it gets to the shelf. I believe when people go to purchase honey they really believe it’s a health product. They believe in the wholesome, health benefits. A lot of people were not aware of what they were getting. I wanted to pack every single last drop of honey ourselves. And get it onto the shelves for the local people.

He was like, “wow ok!” because honey production is one thing but packing it and running a business in that way is a whole other load of work. Cut to today, we pack every last drop of honey for the local Ontario market. It’s been so well received. People love and appreciate that they know where the honey is coming from and it’s fresh. Sometimes we pack honey and the next day it’s at your warehouse going into stores. It’s a real joy to be able to do that and share our honey in that way. And Farm Boy facilitates us and supports that.

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Can you tell me more about Canadian beekeeping and the whole process to get to a jar of honey?

 Even though we’re a small, family-opened apiary, we do have a large honey production! 

Our beekeeping season here usually starts around April. Obviously Canadian winters are really long and harsh. It can be really difficult to keep bees in Canada. There are no native Canadian honeybees. They’re European honeybees and they wouldn’t actually survive without beekeepers, they wouldn’t make it through the winter. They’re not like bumblebees or any other kind of insect we have here.

Their first source of food is dandelion. We like to remind everyone to save the dandelions because it’s the bees first source of food after a long winter!

We have around 1,000 hives, so it takes us a good month to get them unpacked. We have what are called supers, which are the bee boxes. The queen will be on the bottom box with all the bees, and every additional box we put on top will be for honey storage and collection. 

And then we’re really intensively beekeeping. It’s not like we put the bee boxes on and come back at the end of the summer, bees really do require a ton of beekeeping, so we have to make sure the queen is healthy and laying eggs, and we have other checkpoints throughout the season. 

It’s very hands on!

Yes, Canadian beekeeping is very intensive. And for harvesting, we’re usually harvesting at the end of the summer. We don’t harvest mono-varietal types of honey, where it’ll just be dandelion or just be clover. We harvest in August and it’s a nice summer blend. We do that for a few reasons. Firstly, it’s the nicest tasting honey, since it’s a blend of all the flowers through the season, and secondly in terms of health you’re getting a variety of pollen from the flowers out there. 

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So you’re getting that local footprint from all the local pollens…

You got it. So taste-wise and health-wise it’s just a really powerful punch of flower power. 

Pollen as we’re learning is basically nature’s multivitamin, and because of the minimal processing we do – very gentle filtering, and producing unpasteurized honey – we do extract very small batches so it’s as close to “hive-to-jar” as possible. By doing that process, we’re just keeping the integrity of the honey as high quality as possible. It’ll have all the pollens, vitamins, minerals, that make it a superfood. 

I think people would be surprised about that since Farm Boy is 20+ locations, but we’re not a big packer that way. We do things on a small-batch artisanal level. 

That’s part of what we really love about your honey. Are there a lot of people working for you? 

This season we had one full time helper and a part time helper, but before that it was strictly my husband and I. 

Oh wow. That must have been so much work!

Yeah. A lot of the times, my husband is delivering the honey to be shipped, and I’m putting on the labels. We’re really involved in every step of the process from the keeping to the packing of the honey. 

We try to keep everything as small scale as possible, but it is a big enough production that we are working…

You’re hustling.

We love it though! It’s definitely a lifestyle, and there’s no day off, it’s just all the time. But that’s how we like it. We’re farmers, producers, makers, that’s just how we like it. 

Does it slow down in the winter at all? 

Well the bees kind of go dormant, as they try to conserve energy. So we’re not doing as much active beekeeping, but honey sales at this time of year especially with the winter months and being that honey is so good for treating cold and flu. Honey is very medicinal, especially our buckwheat honey, which is a great honey to have in the winter…very high in antioxidants and good for respiratory illnesses…so the sales do go up in the winter. 

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So you’re doing more of the business side. You’ve already touched on this a little bit, but could you tell me more of the health benefits of honey?

Well when it comes to honey, local is always the best, especially because you’re getting local pollens, and that is what is going to boost your immune system. We live in the same environment as the flowers that have had to build immunity, so when you’re eating local honey, you’re getting those immune boosting benefits of the flowers and the local honey. 

In terms of seasonal allergies, and we have so many customers who message me on a daily basis saying our local honey has completely eradicated their seasonal allergies. And they don’t have to take allergy medicine anymore. 

I find this personally! Local honey really helps seasonal allergies…you’re kind of immunizing yourself.

That’s exactly what’s happening! Over time, as long as you consistently use it…a lot of people put it in their daily coffee or tea or smoothies… over time it’s desensitizing your body against seasonal allergens and it builds up your system kind of like a vaccination. 

It’s anti viral and anti bacterial and honey stores nicely too. Honey never expires. They’ve unearthed honey in tombs in Egypt that’s over 1000 years old and it’s still edible.

No way! I didn’t know that. 

I’ll just mention crystallization too because that’s a question we get from people a lot. One of the reasons we like to put the honey in jars (other than for recycling and reusing) is because it’s good for crystallization. All honey can spontaneously crystallize. It can happen at different times – it can depend on the floral source or even the temperature in the room. 

The number one thing to know is that it isn’t bad. To reliquify it’s really important you don’t put it in the microwave because that will pasteurize it and remove all the nutrients from the honey. So just put the jar in a bain marie of hot water or run it under the hot tap, it’ll reliquify. 

Oh, perfect. That’s really good to know. Is the process for buckwheat honey different? Are the bees different? Do you harvest at a different time of year? How does that work? 

So buckwheat honey comes from the buckwheat flower and we just know when we’re extracting it. It has a deeper, darker colour and a distinct smell. We always know right away it’s 100% buckwheat honey. And it’s kind of special because it’s harder to find in Ontario, so we consider it a vintage honey. 

It’s higher in antioxidants as well. Just like darker blueberries or darker leafy greens, the darker honey has those same higher levels of antioxidants. It’s also been scientifically proven to be more effective than cough syrup in treating coughs. So it’s an excellent medicinal honey to have in the winter. I like to make a little tonic of buckwheat honey, lemon, ginger, and hot water. 

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That leads in to exactly what I was going to ask you about how you use your honey and how you consume it…

We love it. Even the kids go through copious amounts of honey. Our buckwheat honey is great on toast with nut butter since it has a molasses quality to it, so we love that one on toast with almond butter. I put it in smoothies. And so many of our customers use our honeys in their coffee. That’s another reason why we like it in the jars. We keep it in the car with a spoon, and when we go through the drive-through we use our own honey. And it’s great even by the spoonful for energy. We know lots of people who take it before and after the gym. 

I know women use it in labour too! For energy. 

Yeah! So it’s really good for energy. And people use it topically for facial treatments, we even have people who use it in Ottawa in their organic spa. 

Wow. Do you guys do anything with the…I’m not sure if this is the right terminology, but the byproducts of honey like propolis and royal jelly?

Well propolis and royal jelly are really important in the hive. Propolis is antibacterial and used for hygiene purposes, and royal jelly is what’s fed to the queen, so we actually like to keep those in the hive. Our focus is just on quality local honey production. 

But because we have 1,000 hives, we can harvest a little bit of pollen from each, so we have added straight bee pollen and beeswax to our product lineup, locally. 

Oh great. So…a thousand hives. How many bees is that?

Oh millions. At the height of summer there could be 80,000 bees in a hive. 

Wow. And they all have their own systems and rules in the hive.

Yes. And they don’t mix hives. They’re very territorial that way. And actually, each bee will have its own specific job to do. There are nurse bees that feed the queen, because she won’t even feed herself. And the queen’s job is to lay up to 2,000 eggs a day. And there are guard bees whose main job is to protect the hive, and there are foragers, the worker bees who go out and collect the nectar. So they all have work to do and they take it very seriously. Bees are very industrious. 

Can you tell me a little bit about their life cycle? Do they sleep? Do they work throughout the evenings? How long do they live? 

Bees definitely have a life cycle, and they do work through the night sometimes. Usually the winter bees last a little longer because they have to make it through winter. During the summer months, the worker bees who are actually going out working have a life cycle of about 6 weeks. That’s why the queen is so important…

She’s replenishing the bees!

Yes exactly. 

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Ok, this might be impossible to answer, but how many bees would it take to make a jar of honey? Can you quantify any of it? 

Well it’s very dependent. Dependent on weather, on the health of the hive, it can definitely fluctuate. I would say here in Ontario bees can make anywhere from 50 to 250 pounds per hive, but that varies so much. We can read in the Ontario Bee Journal the averages, but it’s all over the board. It depends on the beekeeper, the season, the weather. It takes about 500 worker bees to make a pound of honey. And they have to collect the nectar from about 2 million flowers. 

And how far do they go from their hives? 

It’s actually hard to find the right places for them to go. They need a lot of wildflowers but not to be near any major crops. They need sunlight and a water source. So it’s actually kind of an art. Because we have so many hives, they’re spread out over a hundred kilometer radius throughout the countryside, and we really try to find ideal spots so they can get the best source of food. But they can fly up to 10km to forage. 

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Can you talk to me a little bit about conservation? I’ve heard a lot about saving the bees and that people are worried about the bee population being in trouble…

So we do work really hard at keeping our bees alive. Canadian beekeeping today looks different to what it was even a decade ago. We’re definitely seeing decline and bee die-off. And there are a lot of theories as to why. Is it the insecticides? 

Our goal has always been to work in harmony with the bees and do very intensive beekeeping and making sure we are managing the hives properly – keeping everything healthy. Wintering properly helps. We do sometimes see other hives out in the countryside that weren’t wrapped for winter, and the bees won’t survive. We also leave enough honey in the hives so the bees have enough food over the winter. 

So the practical things the community can do are…

We have the most amazing customers that always want to do more for the bees. So you can plant a bee-friendly garden, not get rid of your dandelions, leave a little source of water in your yard because bees sometimes need water. 

Education is important too, knowing the difference between bees and wasps, knowing about all the important pollinators out there. Bees pollinate one out of every three bites of food we take – they pollinate some of our favourite foods..coffee, chocolate, avocados, you name it! Your favourite fruit or vegetable has been pollinated by a bee. 

Wow. One out of three bites. And they aren’t aggressive right? They don’t sting to just sting?

No because honeybees cannot sting you multiple times, so their stinger gets removed if they sting you and then they die. They’ll only sting at the last defence. They’re not generally aggressive. We obviously have to suit up when we are actually in the hives, because they will protect the hive, but in your garden or on your flowers, they’re just doing their thing. They’re actually a lovely, gentle, insect. 

Wow. What incredible creatures. Thank you so much Emily for giving us a peek into your world. I’ll be picking up some of our Buckwheat Honey after this and making that wintery tonic!

Some images courtesy of TruBee Honey.

Emily

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