Though Ryan Smith didn’t grow up with bees, a few threads in his and his family’s history came together for Massey Honey.
In 1907, his great-grandfather, Richard Massey, co-founded Massey’s, now the Nielsen-Massey purveyors of pure vanilla extracts. “Food has been part of the family history.”
Ryan attended an agricultural college to become a veterinarian. “I got to see the bee hives on campus, and I was fascinated. I wasn’t enrolled in bee-keeping class, but one day when I knew the class was going to be tending the hives, I put on a bee suit and went with them. Under the suit, no one could tell that I wasn’t one of the students in the class.”
He told fellow veterinary students that he was going to become a bee keeper, but they thought he was joking. It turned out he wasn’t. Soon after graduation, he got his first hive. Then he began helping people who found a feral hive on their property and wanted it moved. “People aren’t happy with a hive in their garage or in a tree in their front yard. But this was right around the time when the bee population was starting to decline, so they also didn’t want to see it destroyed.”
The word spread that they could call Ryan, and he would move the hive to a location that was safe for the bees and people. “It is important to rescue bees. One of every three bites of food we eat comes from something that bees pollinate.”
Ryan was soon joined doing the bee relocations by his father and his brother. Little son, Maiz, is on his way towards being a bee keeper, too, and he even has his own small-size bee suit. “We went from one to three, and within a year we had rescued 100 hives. In the process I was learning the practice of dividing large hives.”
At first the mission was simply to rescue bees; the family didn’t expect to harvest the honey. But they got to the point when their mission had grown really big, and a lot of honey was being produced.
The Smiths live in Orange County, where there isn’t much rural landscape. They made a virtue of necessity by enlisting people who wanted to help bees and were willing to “host” a hive on their property. “We formed relationship with those people and helped them safely have bees on their land.”
They formally launched Massey Honey in 2009. They kept the Massey name as a tribute to their family history, and also because Ryan’s middle name is Massey along with his father’s and son’s.
“When we began gathering the honey for Massey Honey, we were very focused on the value of raw honey. There are serious issues with honey – especially imports --- being tainted by being cut with corn syrup or adulterated with antibiotics and agricultural residue, such as pesticides and herbicides. Also, the honey that is sold in pourable form can only stay liquid because it has been filtered and heated. All the nutritional value is gone. We wanted to provide the best of what nature produces, which meant avoiding all these practices.”
As the Smiths started to grow Massey Honey, they began to move hives around the state to take advantage of the wide variety of agricultural crops grown in California. “In Temecula, we partnered with an organic orange grower to put our hives in his groves. He got free pollination and we got orange blossom honey. On another Temecula-area ranch the bees could produce buckwheat honey. In Fallbrook we found an avocado partner, and on the Central Coast, our bees pollinate sage plants. Soon we were partnering with organic growers in Oregon (for raspberry honey) and in Washington (for blackberry honey).
Since the bees gather pollen and nectar from the plants they visit, the flavors of those plants are imparted to the honey. The worker bee takes the pollen and nectar, combined with an enzyme in the bee’s own body, back to the hive, where other bees fan their wings to gently evaporate water from the mixture. It is put into the hexagonal compartments of the hives and capped with wax. That “ripened” honey is what the beekeeper gathers and we enjoy.
“We produce raw honey because that’s the best – and most authentic -- honey there is, and we want everyone to have access to real, pure honey. Plus, there’s an aspect that’s not just feeding people. It’s also helping the bee population on which so much of our food supply depends.”
Ryan gladly acknowledges, “The bees are doing all the work, we’re just protecting them and assisting them. They are truly amazing. Being out in nature with the bees, seeing what they do, is a special pleasure.”