Tracy O’Brien and her partner Mike Mayer own and operate Willow Wood Honey Farm in Hayden, Idaho. I visited with Tracy on a warm April evening, and spoke with her while we sat in the sun watching the bees near the hives. Tracy and Mike have a small, aerated coy pond on their property that is used by the bees as a source of water. I discovered the literal meaning of “bee line” because there was a very distinct and visible aerial path the bees were using to fly back and forth from the water to the hives. At one point I inadvertently stepped through the bee line. The tolerant bees, flying at very high speeds, simply buzzed past me as they continued to their destination.
What made you decide to get into this business?
I’ve always wanted to be a beekeeper. I thought it was fascinating and was drawn to the connection that bees have to the land, and also the idea that there were beekeepers back in Cleopatra times. It has been recorded that when King Tut’s tomb was discovered, there was honey in it that was still edible. And the whole idea that the way that I am keeping these bees is the same way that bees were kept thousands of years ago, especially the approach that I use, which is a very holistic, natural approach. I don’t use any chemicals, but instead use essential oils to keep things natural, and I am always thinking about “what would a bee want; what makes a bee happy”. People tease me about the flowers I have drawn on the hives; it looks very feminine, but 98% of the bees in the hive are girls! I just try to keep their lives as mellow as possible, and to keep them happy. We know that happy bees work harder. People always ask me how to get into beekeeping, so I explain that how I got started was to watch YouTube videos. These videos can provide you with everything you need to know. Unfortunately, there is no set way to do anything related to beekeeping, it is all opinion and people feel very strongly that their way is right, so you can never master beekeeping, and I really like that; it is really intriguing.
Yes, because you are always learning…
Yes, and even though we have a very small operation, my partner Mike and I were talking yesterday that we feel we are doing something good for our community because we are promoting a product that keeps people healthy. Through my Facebook page, and talking with you, and the speaking engagements I do, it helps people to understand the connection that bees have to nature. Mike and I are not doing this for money, because it is a lot of work for not a lot of money, but we love it. We love the idea of doing something good for people and making people happy. One example of this is the really awesome hand butter that I make from beeswax. I have people that love it and swear that it has changed their lives, and that feels really good.
Please tell me more about your products.
We hand build and sell empty hive boxes of different sizes and we use the proceeds from those sales to buy any new bees that we need in the spring. The hive boxes are all on Facebook, where you can see pictures of them. Then, starting around the Fourth of July we have honey for sale. We have a booth at the Hayden Farmer’s Market, and we sell products there and also through Facebook. We take the beeswax and make hand butter and balms that are all natural with only five ingredients. Those have been incredibly popular. I began by making them for myself because I have skin conditions and couldn’t use commercial products. Shortly after that people started asking for them. My new summer balm is called “Idaho Sunrise”, and it represents the fragrance of when you step outside and smell the summer air first thing in the morning. I also make and sell baskets.
How much honey do you expect that you will get throughout this season?
Each hive will make between five and ten gallons.
I have heard about some unscrupulous practices related to beekeeping and the products that come from it. What do you know about that?
Well, the really unscrupulous thing that we need to spread the word on is imported honey. China sends over food products that are labeled honey, and the truth in labeling laws don’t cover honey. So the product can say honey on the front, but look at the label on the back and it will be corn syrup with some honey in it. And even some labels around town will have “Idaho Honey” on the front, but if you look at the back you will see that it is packaged in Kansas City, so people feel that they are getting Idaho honey and they are not. The show Rotten on NetFlicks is fascinating and really opens your eyes. The government finally started making laws regarding China imported honey and outlawing it, so now China sends it to other countries like Malaysia, and then it can be shipped in. And thus people who are buying cheap honey at discount stores are not getting real honey, and it is not healthy but it is cheap. Please encourage your readers to carefully read the labels when they are buying honey, and know where your food comes from. Local honey is a bit more expensive because it is true honey in its natural form, but the health benefits of true honey are phenomenal.
Tell me about the health benefits of true honey.
Well you want to buy honey locally, so the bees are bringing pollen from the area where you live. For example, when we spin our honey all we do is take out a frame, take the caps off, and put it in a centrifuge. The honey comes out, we screen it for impurities, and then we bottle it. And that is all we do to it, so it is completely unfiltered. When you look at it, your honey should be cloudy and you should see little specks of stuff in it, which is the goodness in it. That is the pollen from your neighborhood. So every time you take a teaspoon, you put it in your tea, or yogurt or coffee, you get that little bit of pollen. And if you have allergies and you consume local honey year round, when hay fever season comes around your body does not react to it anymore because it has been desensitized. That is one of the benefits of local honey.
There has been a lot in the news lately about the demise of the honey bee. What do you believe to be the primary reason for that?
This is a very controversial topic and there are a lot of different reasons. I feel really strongly after a lot of education that it is from mono culture and systemic pesticides, and the fact that usually about 98% of all bees are shipped to California for the almond orchards. The bees in America are brought to the almond orchards, so any viruses, diseases, problems are all spread to that area and it can be detrimental to the bees. Regarding systemic pesticides, from what I am hearing there are no bees in the breadbasket of America because that is where corn is grown and the corn has been genetically modified to prevent pest invasions. The bees are negatively impacted when they eat the pollen that comes from that corn.
What can the average person do to help the plight of the honey bee?
Support your local beekeeper. They say that it is operations like what we are doing here that will save the honey bees. For example, when someone buys a quart of honey from me, not only do they get the health benefits of the honey, but they are supporting me and what I am doing so that I can continue with these bees, and maybe divide them and sell them. We build and sell the empty bee boxes, and if we can get people to put one or two hives in their backyards, then we are supporting the backyard beekeeping movement and that brings a lot of good news to the future of the honey bee. You can see that with these bees in our backyard, nobody really knows or cares. In fact, most people that we talk to about our bees absolutely love the fact that they are here. When the bees visit our neighbors, it benefits them because they are getting better fruit on their own fruit trees. Also, the bees are so mellow and happy. We have about 30,000 bees in each of the bee hives that you see here right now, and at the height of the summer each hive will have about 50,000 bees. Another thing that people can do to support bees is to not spray weed killer on your dandelions, and to plant bee friendly flowers that are attractive to bees such as asters and lavender.
Interview by Juliana Anderson.