Damian Magista: Bee Local and Local Bees

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Damian Magista is the founder of Bee Local located in Portland, Oregon.

He started Bee Local in 2011 after discovering the honey from his hives in different neighborhoods were unlike each other in taste, profile, and color.

We caught up with him as he is experiencing record growth with his honey.

He’s a busy guy and was kind enough to give us some of his time as we interviewed him via email.

HandPicked Nation: Hey, Damian. Thanks for taking the time to talk with us today.

Damian Magista: Thank you, I’m always happy to talk Bee Local, honey and bees.

HPN: How did you and bees get together?

DM: Bees and I began our relationship about 8 years ago. I was speaking to my neighbor and he casually mentioned that he was getting a beehive.

Being a bit of a “bug dork”, as my friends The Bug Chicks like to say, I exclaimed that I thought that was fantastic and wanted to keep bees too.

They (bees) are one of the many unsung heroes of the natural world.

My neighbor told me that he would have his uncle bring me a hive. The next weekend a white van shows up, a spritely beekeeper hops out and removes a single deep beehive.

We placed it into my backyard and that was the beginning of the end.

I quickly became enamored with their inherent beauty.

HPN: You’re more than a beekeeper, you’re a bee evangelist. How did that come about?

DM: As I learned more about them I began to understand how important they and pollinators in general are to our existence.

Through their daily activities they contribute an incredible amount to our daily lives without getting their proper due.

They are one of the many unsung heroes of the natural world.

Through keeping bees you become more in tune to the environment around you which ultimately leads to becoming a better steward of the land around you.

If the environment isn’t healthy, the bees are not healthy. It’s a fairly simple but important concept that I feel is important to talk about.

HPN: Talk a little about ‘relationship honey’. Those are two words you don’t normally see together.

DM: Coming from a social services background I have the desire to create economic opportunities by facilitating access to markets that may not have been accessible previously.

Specifically with small to medium-sized beekeepers who are producing amazing honey. We can pay them a fair price for their product and bring their exceptional honey to our customers.

The results are twofold; it promotes economic development and encourages centuries old beekeeping traditions to be passed down to future generations.

This is extremely important. It’s basically coffee’s Direct Trade model adapted to honey. I look to Sustainable Harvest as an excellent model of this. David Griswold and his team have done amazing things.

When it comes down to it we just want to have a positive lasting effect on our world.

HPN: I’ve often wondered how a honey producer can know from where and from what plants the bees have been harvesting. 

DM: This is a great question. Most honey producers make their money in pollination services.

They get paid per hive to pollinate mono-crops. In this environment it is very easy to determine what the bees are foraging on.

It’s also not the best environment for bees. We’ll get more into that later.

Outside of the mono-crop environment honey produced by random or wild forage is considered wildflower.

We don’t know exactly what they are foraging on although we have a pretty good idea. I’m often asked what my bees are foraging on. My response is take a walk around your neighborhood and look as what is blooming.

Terroir, or apisoir (as coined by my friend Michael Alberty) has a direct effect on the resultant honey.

Where the hive is located and the variety of forage determines the flavor profile of the honey. Bees will come up with the most incredible flavors if you let them. It’s magical, they are capturing a specific time and place like a photo. They are taking a comestible snap shot.

HPN: Is it my imagination or are you one of the first (if not the first) to associate terrior with honey?

DM: After I had stumbled across the fact that the honey produced from my hives in different neighborhoods were completely different I did extensive research to see if the concept was already out there.

At the time it was not. Honey was marketed as mono-floral or wildflower. You never really saw location in the equation. That to me is the most important part about honey. It is what determines flavor profile, mouth feel, etc.

I think it’s safe to say that Bee Local is the first to bring this idea to customers. I’m sure there will be someone out there who will say they did it first and that’s fine.

It’s not about who did it first, it’s about the message and quality of honey.

HPN: Holy crap, you must be a very busy guy. Give us an idea of the scope of your operation there in Portland (and elsewhere).

DM: I tend to be fairly busy. I enjoy it. Not to say that it doesn’t get overwhelming at times.

For the first 2 years I was just me. I did everything. Thankfully I received a random email from someone who was interested in what I was doing. Being extremely busy I took a while to respond.

He stayed on me and eventually I told him that if he wants to help me out he can show up at my house at 4 a.m. the next day.

I told him there was a 15 minute window and if he didn’t show I’d leave. He showed up early and ready to go.  We spent that morning moving hives.

Ryan has now become an extremely important asset to Bee Local. I could not do it without him. He’s incredibly capable and skilled.

On a typical day we are answering emails, jarring honey, sourcing honey, labeling, shipping, delivering, working our social media.

At times we are filming or I am doing speaking engagements (which I love).

We’ve since expanded in the past 4 months. We now have a very strong team; CEO, CFO, Sales, Shipping & Receiving. We are wearing big boy pants now.

This has thankfully taken some of the pressure off of Ryan and me. I’m still getting used to it. We have some really amazing things in the works.

HPN: Tell us about your interest in single-origin honeys with foreign beekeepers. What’s up with that? 

DM: Now I’m going to go off. I love this!

What excites me most in this world is tasting a combination of flavors I could have never imagined existed. Something so foreign and amazing fireworks go off in your brain.

Here in the U.S. we have an preconceived notion of what honey is supposed to taste like. It’s sweet and maybe a bit floral. That’s all well and good but there is an entire world out there that will blow your mind.

For example, I have some honey from Eritrea. It’s from my friend’s family; their hives. This honey is white and crystalized. The nose is green, legume-y with a slightly resinous finish. The flavor is astounding. I will often times open the container and just take a long deep whiff of it.

I have another from Ghana. It’s from shea, baobab and neem flowers. It’s the polar opposite. Dark, rich and caramel notes dominate. It was brought back to me by a good friend who worked with beekeepers during her stint in the Peace Corps.

My interest is not only in the flavors, it also goes back to the ideal of working with these beekeepers and bringing their honey to our market. Responsible economic development is the goal.

HPN: You’ve spoken about honey laundering. You said: “Honey laundering relies on the lack of transparency in the honey trade to survive.” Talk about this dark side of the (fake) honey business.

DM: Honey laundering is a big problem.

In a nutshell a foreign honey producer will pack up their honey in 55 gallon barrels, they will then ship it to another foreign port. At that port the honey will be removed from the barrels and ‘stepped on’.

It’ll be cut with additives/adulterants such as high fructose corn syrup. This of course increases the weight and therefore the value.

This is repeated several times at various ports until it makes its way into the US and into those honey bears on your grocery store shelves.

During this process they will also change the shipping manifests so the true country of origin cannot be traced. This is important because the U.S. has banned the important of honey from certain countries due to the use of non-FDA approved antibiotics to treat the bees.

HPN: We can’t talk about honey and bees without talking about why millions of bees are dying. Some people run around with their hair on fire claiming there’s no way to know why, others believe they know exactly the cause. Give us your take on this terrible subject.

DM: Ah yes, Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). This is a huge subject so I’ll try to keep it short while hitting the key points.

Here is what researchers know; Colony Collapse Disorder is a syndrome.

It is a variety of environmental factors that conspire to kill off a hive.

This is an important concept to understand. It is several factors…not one. These are:

  • Lack of genetic diversity in our queens.
  • Use of herbicides, pesticides and fungicides.
  • Use of in-hive chemicals.
  • Pests such as varroa and tracheal mites.
  • Lack of proper nutrition.

Now we have to put it all together. In what environment do we tend see those factors in one place? We see it in commercial beekeeping and its relationship to Big Ag.

We have created a large agricultural system that depends on honeybees for the crops to produce.

I want to be clear that I’m not knocking commercial beekeepers because they are some of the hardest working folks I’ve met. They don’t want to lose 50% of their hives every year. They want to find a solution as much as the rest of us.

We have stuffed millions of hives in a mono-crop environment that has been treated with chemicals.

They only get one type of food to eat. They are fed HFCS. It’s akin to bad chicken, pork or beef farming.

We’ve beaten down an organism so much that it simply can’t survive. It’s unhealthy. When we keep bees outside of this environment they tend to do much better.

HPN: Bee Local is all about transparency. Tell us about your methods and practices that produce such awesome honey.

DM: We don’t heat, treat, blend or overly filter our honey.

We shy away from heavy chemical treatments.

We don’t feed our bees HFCS–if we feed we use drivert (an invert sugar that mimics nectar).

We prefer not to use out of state bee stock.

We don’t move our hives around to different locations.

Basically we use what I call low-impact beekeeping practices. They’ve been around for 10 million plus years–they know what they are doing.

When we extract our honey we handle it with care. It is straight from the comb into our jars.

I often get asked if it’s raw. Yes, our honey is raw.

HPN: Any last thoughts? What was I not clever enough to ask you?

DM: I think we pretty much covered it. I mean, I could go on and on and on but I’ll spare the readers.

HPN: Damian, we really admire what you’re doing and wish you continued success. Thanks for taking the time to talk with us.

DM: Thank you for helping to get the message out there.

What are your thoughts on bees and local honey?

Photo credit: Mark Gamba