This summer, local-based Bee Free Honee announced that they would be shutting down their operations. We met with founder and creator, Katie Sanchez, to talk about her honee’s start, the journey it took her on, and facts about these often misunderstood and abused animals.
A sweet start
Katie created the project by chance during her days of working as pastry chef for Whole Foods when trying to make apple jelly for the first time. Katie explains, “I didn’t want to make jelly with gelatin and I didn’t want it to be so sweet.” After it didn’t turn out the way she had planned, she canned the jelly and left it overnight to find a honey-like substance in the morning.
“At the time, when I thought about the vegan pastries we were making for Whole Foods, we didn’t have a lot of options for sweeteners. I had always wished we could use something like honey that was light and would let lemon or vanilla bean come through, and so I thought this could be a really cool gift for my fellow vegan bakers,” recalls Katie.
Her cousin asking, “why not make it a business of your own?” prompted Katie to turn her researching and consideration of the honey into a reality and work toward bringing it to market.
A honey ahead of its time
The honey was not only a great alternative for vegans, but for all human children and folks who are allergic to honey. (Children are advised not to eat honey due to their young age).
In a time where an increasing number of analogs are being developed for eggs, dairy, and fish and land animal flesh there weren’t direct analogs out there for honey.
Growth and time on Shark Tank
Katie and her business partner made an appearance on Shark Tank as well, where they learned how to explain their product and the importance of protecting pollinator rights when appearing in front of the sharks.
“When I started I didn’t realize the depth of the honey controversy,” recalls Katie. “My dad and his retired beekeeping buddies were all excited about it. I thought that this product can only do good. I was not in any way prepared for the level of disruption that was ready to ensue upon me.”
Katie started out with the original, and then came out with Slippery Elm, which aimed to help soothe throats and calm upset stomachs, before she learned how to make flower pollen infused bee free honee, which had flower pollen extracts custom blended to create a full profile of all the nutrients in the measurement that would equal raw bee honey. “We were the only honey on the market that had a nutrition panel that listed all of the nutrients inside in every tablespoon. No other honey could do that because every pollen profile has a different nutrient profile and it would be too expensive to test every individual honey.”
Katie realized the criticism and slow reception to the honee wasn’t about nutrition, but perhaps something deeper. “Today, I think people are a little more ready to hear the message. I’m hoping that we were at least able to break through and pave the way for the next person,” reflects Katie. “I’m not going to stop trying to help our pollinators and putting information out there, and hopefully the ripple effect will help our pollinators.”
“Starting a business with a mission is really challenging. You have to learn as you go and be accepting. We’re all trying to be the best we can in the world. If we’re really going to save lives, the world, and our humanity, then we have to meet anger with love and acceptance.”
Honey is a health food—for bees
Roughly one third of honey being sold in the United States is produced domestically, while the rest is imported from around the world. What’s more—over three-fourths of what is sold in the US is ultra-filtered to remove the pollen.
“Producers call it honey because it comes from a bee, but because there’s no real definition, they can call it honey and get away with it,” explained Katie.
Filtering helps exporters and importers disguise where their honey is from (as pollen is the only way to identify where honey is from) and import honey potentially contaminated with heavy metals and illegal antibiotics. Learn more about honey laundering here.
The most alarming of this all is that during a time with climate change, disease, and other factors wreaking havoc on pollinator populations, we are taking the “surplus” honey from bees, which isn’t actually surplus, but stores of honey each hive sets aside for consumption in hard times (including winter) to sustain their population. Producing honey is no small feat—during a bee’s lifetime, he will only make approximately 1/12 teaspoon of honey and to make one pound of honey, a colony will have to visit over two million flowers and fly over 55,000 miles, at up to 15 miles per hour according to the Utah County Beekeepers Association.
It’s difficult to determine what is a “surplus” in honey from hive to hive and large-scale beekeepers often remove all or most of it and replace it with a sugar or corn syrup substitute, which is nutritionally deficient and eventually makes bee populations sick. Farming also often limits bees’ diet to monoculture crops and introduces large amounts of pesticides into their systems and can lead to farmed hives crowding out wild pollinators.
“How is this a positive thing for this insect that’s being trucked around the United States, being exposed to every climate in an unnatural manner? Every orchard and grove uses a different pesticide, so they’re being exposed to every pesticide. It’s not just one truck coming in, it’s multiple trucks from all over the US. If one hive is contaminated with mites and another is healthy, by morning, the mites will have moved over to the healthy hive so that it’s contaminated as well,” explains Katie. “Bees are being exposed to everything simultaneously, their food is being taken, queens are being swapped out of hives unnaturally and regularly so that the queen is productive, and we ask ourselves, ‘What’s happening? Why are the bees in decline?’ It’s not a mystery. We’re doing everything we can to kill them.”
“Bees are being exposed to everything simultaneously, their food is being taken, queens are being swapped out of hives unnaturally and regularly so that the queen is productive, and we ask ourselves, ‘What’s happening? Why are the bees in decline?’ It’s not a mystery. We’re doing everything we can to kill them.”
Another bee “ingredient” to watch out for is bee venom, which is collected by randomly shocking bees as they try to enter their hive. It can be found in face masks and other personal care products.
Pollinators in peril
Pollution, chemicals, disease, and climate change are all contributing to shrinking and shifting pollinator populations.
With over 35% of the world’s food supply relying on pollinators to some degree, it’s impossible to imagine a well-fed future without pollinators. In addition to facilitating the creation of the food we eat, pollinators support healthy ecosystems that clean the air, stabilize soils, protect from severe weather, and support other wildlife.
How to support pollinators
You may be reading and wondering, “But what can I do?!” Luckily, there are some excellent ways to support bees and other pollinators.
If you have access to land, start by planting a pollinator garden! Did you know Washington state has a pollinator path running through it? It started with a woman getting permission from the city to plant a pollinator-friendly garden between the sidewalk and the street near her house and grew when her neighbor saw it and decided to replicate it in their yard. It took years to grow as neighbors joined in and created more and more of the pollinator path.
- Stop buying into the monoagricultural system. Buying and planting the same types of plants from large stores (Home Depot, Lowe’s, Menard’s, etc.) leads to nondiversified nutrition for pollinators, plus the plants that are purchased from these stores often have seeds that are impregnated with pesticides so they last longer and people won’t return them (but consequently make pollinators sick!)
- You can look for plants that are indigenous to your area that are pollinator friendly (including Beebalm, Pale Purple Coneflower, Sunflower, Joe-Pye Weed, and Yarrow) that you can plant in your neighborhood that don’t come from big box stores.
- Don’t destroy your dandelions—they are the first food sources for pollinators.
- Get involved with your city—Check out what they’re already doing and ask them to plant pollinator-friendly plants and allow them to grow wild without intervention.
- Stop buying honey, beeswax, and other products carrying bee secretions and share why you’re not buying them with others.
Thank you Katie and Bee Free Honee for being a voice for pollinators and calling for their protection. You have inspired many across the country to join you, and your honee will be missed.