Purveyors of local honey balance consumer demand and environmental challenges

By Jessica Koslow

Harry Stein has been fascinated with bees since the 1960s

Regular visitors to the Mar Vista Farmers’ Market have seen more than one kid running around with a stick of honey hanging from her mouth. Courtesy of Harry’s Honey, marketgoers can indulge in this naturally sweet treat, with flavors ranging from cinnamon and sour grape to orange blossom and banana.

Harry Stein has edible goodies for grownups, too. His specialty honeys are popular: lemon, buckwheat, clover, eucalyptus, sage, blackberry, and cactus (those last two are his bestsellers).

Sitting behind his colorfully decorated honey booth on Grand View Boulevard each Sunday, Stein appears to be a man completely at peace with his career path.

“I don’t get up to work,” he tells me. “I get up to play.”

In 1963, Stein stepped into a classroom in his junior year at Cornell University that would forever change his life. He signed up for a beekeeping course. Throughout the ’60s he sold honey to health food stores, and since then, his sales have continued to climb due to what he sees as young people being more in tune with their health.

“If you were on an island and all you had was water and pollen, you could live,” says Stein, who enumerates various health benefits of honey: It has the highest concentration of amino acids, which the body needs; it’s antiseptic, so bacteria cannot live in honey; you can apply it to burns and sores for relief. Honey has also been known to help people suffering from seasonal allergies.

Bill Lewis of Bill’s Bees, a vendor at the Saturday Santa Monica Farmers Market on Arizona Avenue, says another boost to sales has come from people having more awareness of the plight of the honey bees and how critical they are to the food chain.

Or, as Stein puts it: “They pollinate 90% of what we eat. … No bees, and no vegetables or plants or foods.”

Stein began his beekeeping career in Long Island, and then in 2000 he moved out to Canoga Park, where he’s been in business ever since. The bees on his property make wildflower honey, which means his property is full of wildflowers. He has other beehives in the surrounding area in different orchards and fields, like orange and blackberry, which make orange and blackberry honey. Each variety has a different taste.

Lewis, like Stein, is a veteran beekeeper. He fell in love with bees as a Boy Scout, when he bought a beehive from a Sears catalog in order to earn a merit badge.

In 1991 he moved to Little Tujunga Canyon in the San Gabriel Mountains, and the bees found him — they moved into the wall of his house. Then he discovered 11 abandoned colonies on his neighbor’s land. Now, he can count more than 900 colonies under his care.

Lewis’ motto for Bill’s Bees: “We get stung so you don’t have to.”

All kidding aside, “I like that my job is different every day,” he says. “I’m my own boss, and I set my own schedule.”

On the day we speak, Lewis is driving to Oregon to retrieve his hives.

“Making honey in California was almost impossible this summer,” he explains, referring particularly to scarce rainfall. “Drought and fires impact our business.”

During the 2017-18 Creek Fire (in Kagel Canyon and the Angeles National Forest north of Sylmar), 100 of Lewis’ colonies burned up.

Lewis points out the many struggles of selling honey: loss of location, parasitic mites and pesticides.

Stein also believes that chemicals are a huge problem contributing to the widespread death of bees.

“Chemicals are sprayed in the sky,” Stein begins, “They’re going into the groundwater, going into the roots, then the bees take it back to the hive, regurgitate it, and the baby bees suck on it and die. We have to stop spraying.”

But beekeepers like Stein and Lewis are committed to making and selling local honey.

Stein uses honey in sauces for BBQing, on cereal, waffles and pancakes. His signature dish is broiled chicken, which, after it’s broiled, he brushes with honey and puts it under the flame for a bit longer to crisp it up.

As my conversation with Stein comes to an end, I ask if there’s anything people don’t know about bees.

“They don’t like the color red,” he says. “They don’t like flannel, they don’t like sweat, and they sense when you’re nervous.”