The Bee Attitude: Celebrating 130 Years of Hilbert’s Honey by Ross Boissoneau | Jul 25, 2022
Jacob Hilbert (age 7), 6th generation beekeeper
After 130 years of promoting pollination and caring for their hives in Traverse City, the Hilbert family knows this to be true: Blessed are the beekeepers. Here’s what they’ve been up to for the past five generations and where you can buy Hilbert’s Honey locally. This article first appeared in Traverse, Northern Michigan's Magazine. Find this article and more when you explore our digital issue library. Want Traverse Magazine delivered to your door or inbox monthly? View our print subscription and digital subscription options. It’s a sweet dream of a business—most of the workers don’t get paid, yet the workplace is typically buzzing with activity. The new 10,400-square-foot warehouse in east Traverse City hums with machinery and is filled with the sweet scent of honey, which is being extracted from the honeycombs and processed for bottling and selling. The crisp, black labels on the jars simply read Hilbert’s Honey Co., stamped with a white H in the middle of a hexagon reminiscent of a cell in a honeycomb. It’s a far cry from its humble beginnings in 1887, but the company is flourishing, thanks to the passion for beekeeping and honey production that has survived and thrived across five generations. Larry and Geana Hilbert own Hilbert’s Honey Company in its latest iteration. They are the fourth generation of Hilberts to stand with the bees—their sons James and Keith represent the fifth. It’s a business fraught with risk and rich with reward, fighting against obstacles that would have been unthinkable in 1887, and succeeding thanks to savvy business strategies, profound dedication and a growing awareness that our most important pollinators are in a most precarious position. Photo by Brian D. Smith Photo by Brian D. Smith The family business began more than 130 years ago, when Larry’s great-grandfather James Hilbert Sr., known as George, decided that hosting bees and their hives was the best way to encourage pollination on his fruit farms in Elmwood Township. And with that came honey. But honey wasn’t a full-time job back then, and he also owned the Hurry Back Saloon at what is now the site of Doug Murdick’s Fudge in downtown Traverse City. (A sign from the saloon now graces the Music House Museum in Williamsburg.) By the time of the Great Depression, the Hilbert farm boasted 30 to 40 workers. Honey was just one of the components, as the farm was also home for operations in fruit, vegetables and dairy products. In the midst of World War II, Larry says his family would seek butter on the black market and combine it with honey. It became a favorite, both for its taste and the fact that the honey made the product shelf-stable enough that a lack of refrigeration wasn’t problematic. “It was a huge treat,” Larry explains. It wasn’t all sunshine and sweetness, though. By the time Larry’s father, Arnold “Bud” Hilbert, returned from the war, Larry’s grandfather, James Jr. (a.k.a. Eldridge), had basically abandoned the bees and the honey side of the business. So, Larry’s dad started anew with 10 hives, this time in Traverse City. Fast forward a few years to the next generation; Larry and Geana began going out, and she became smitten—and not just with Larry. “We started dating and she fell in love with it,” Larry says, meaning the family business. Which wasn’t really what he was hoping for. “I was allergic to bees as a kid. I had no intention of being in the bee business,” he says. Happily, it turned out Geana had fallen in love with him as much as the business, and the two were married. While Larry worked at Chef Pierre and helped out with the family business, Geana opted for honey full time. “I had no job,” she says. “I started working for his dad and I loved it. But Larry was worried about being allergic.” Then their prayers were answered. Larry got stung and had a normal reaction. His allergy had disappeared. Even better, Larry’s father had decided he’d had enough, and he wanted out. Larry and Geana—make that Geana and Larry—stepped up to take the helm. “There was no doubt in her mind,” Larry says. She was ready for the challenge. Photo by Brian D. Smith And it is a challenge, on many levels. Start with the extraction process. The bees have to be safely removed from the honey boxes. Workers (the human ones) evacuate them using a modified blower or a fume board, which produces a gas that hurts the bees’ eyes but is actually harmless. The boxes are then loaded onto a truck and driven to the extraction and processing facility, which becomes, well, a hive of activity. The dozen or so workers open the wax combs and “decap” them by using a machine with a chain, similar to a chainsaw. While there are systems that require fewer people but more of an investment, the machine the Hilberts use is a huge advancement from how Larry’s forebears did it. “Back in the day, they’d scrape them (by hand). It was a lot of physical work,” he explains. The process typically takes place over four or five weeks, from the end of July through August. Larry says the weather conditions affect exactly when harvesting takes place. “It’s after the honey flow,” he adds—which is not, as one might think, when honey is actually flowing. It is the time when bees have the best opportunity to collect nectar, i.e., when there are abundant sources of nectar and the weather is suitable for bees to forage. As summer turns to fall, the opportunities for pollination and honey-making decrease. “In fall it gets colder, there’s less sun, the hive is slowing down, the queens are laying fewer eggs,” Larry says. The warehouse is mostly empty of both people and bees as they await the next harvest season. When things get quiet here, that just means it’s time to head to sunnier climes. The Hilberts load up for the big move south, putting four hives on a pallet, then stacking the pallets up to four high on semi trucks. The bees head to Florida, where they get back to the business of pollinating and the queens start laying eggs again. The Hilberts themselves soon follow. A couple of months later, they’re off again: Come the end of January, they ship most of their bees to California to pollinate almonds, leaving the weaker colonies in Florida to build strength and help pollinate watermelons. In the spring the Hilberts split all the hives, taking a portion of an established colony and transferring it to a separate hive, thereby creating two colonies. The end goal is to have two colonies, each with sufficient worker bee populations, stores and their own queen, thus making more honey. Their work in the sunshiny states done— “There’s not as much going on there in summer,” Larry says—the bees return to Michigan after the danger of snow and freezing is past. And the cycle begins again. Larry credits Geana’s enthusiasm for honey as a major reason for the company’s continued success. “She’s been a driving force,” he says. Today, Hilbert’s Honey has grown to become a major player in the industry, with more than 7,000 beehives. As evidence, look no farther than the 10,400-square-foot building that opened in 2019 to house the extraction and production sides of the liquid gold business. While it’s always been successful on the wholesale side, it’s only within the last couple of years that Hilbert’s has entered the retail world, including both branding their own honey in stores and embracing e-commerce. Photo by Brian D. Smith Photo by Brian D. Smith Photo by Brian D. Smith So, what’s the big deal about their honey anyway? Isn’t honey just, you know, honey? Not necessarily. As bees feed on different plant blossoms, it gives the honey decidedly different flavors. And since the Hilberts move their hives around the country, they are able to produce honey from a variety of plant species. For example, their Brazilian pepper-honey is the result of having their hives in Florida where their bees feed on pollen from Brazilian pepper trees. It offers a taste unlike any other. “It’s a very robust honey. It’s different from anything in Michigan,” Larry says. “In Charlevoix, which is as far north as we go, it (the bees’ pollen source) is basswood,” adds General Manager Jason Tamm. “It’s a light honey.” While the honey they sell is a tasty treat, that’s not always the case. For example, Larry says the honey produced from the almond blossoms is very bitter. That’s one instance where the pollination process, rather than the honey, is the desired end result. Larry says the honey produced when the bees feed on tea trees in Florida is sweet, but not something they would sell at retail. “It’s a bakery-grade honey,” he explains. Although they can’t keep track of every bee, they know where the hives are, as some 175 land-owners let the Hilberts put the bees on their property. Larry says that includes a number of the same people every year, but things change over time. People die, or the property sells, and new owners maybe aren’t sure they want the bees nearby. “We’re always looking for new locations,” Larry says. The Hilberts see it as a win/win relationship for both landowners and themselves. Whether they place the hives with farmers, gardeners or simply those who want their plants to thrive, the landowners reap the benefits of the busy pollinators. Plus, they get a case of honey for their trouble. The bees will travel up to a mile from their hive, so the Hilberts do their best to make sure they’re not placing their hives near other beekeepers’ hives. That’s easier in some places than others—for example, Larry points to South Dakota, where beekeepers have to register their operation as well as where they are placing their hives. It’s not a business without risk. Natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods, tornados or forest fires can decimate the hives. Drought, late-season frosts or the like can do the same. “We deal with weather all the time,” Larry says. This past year, temperatures were cooler than the norm, setting back production. “We were about two weeks behind,” Jason Tamm says. The Hilberts also face other challenges, including the loss of habitat, diseases, pollution and pesticides, as well as climate change. They know it’s important to mitigate the risk. As Larry says: “Don’t put all your bees in one basket.” While murder hornets and pesticides have been in the news as hazards for bees, Larry says those aren’t as much of a worry for them at this time as the threat of a larger predator. “In Northern Michigan, the biggest [problem] is black bears,” he explains. “They were never a problem for my dad in 40 years, but there are a lot more bears than there used to be. I lose $10,000 to $20,000 (annually) to bear attacks.” Other concerns are growing as well. Most fruit growers are careful not to spray during times when the bees are pollinating, but the growers’ neighbors may not be so careful. “We do get hit pretty hard by chemicals, and lose a certain percent,” Larry says. “When we move north to south, we also lose some during the trip.” Mites, disease and colony collapse disorder also impact the industry, as well. “The murder hornets are out on the West Coast. That’s scary for everybody,” Larry says. “The nature of the business has changed dramatically.” In his grandfather’s time, wax moths, which could take over a hive, were the biggest and just about the only problem. “Now there are two different mites, as well as beetles, pesticides, fungicides and herbicides,” Larry says. “Neonicotinoids, a relatively new class of insecticide, don’t affect adult bees, but when the adults feed the pollen to baby bees it has a very negative effect on juveniles.” The Hilberts use nutritional supplements for the bees to help mitigate the impact of potential threats. Still, they say they are always picking up dead hives. Photo by Brian D. Smith Each generation of Hilberts has been about innovation. Beyond the honey butter, Geana says Larry’s grandfather was one of the first to market comb honey. Larry’s father was among the first to put bees on a pallet. And as tastes and needs change, the product line continues to evolve. “Honeycomb has become more popular, especially for charcuterie boards,” Jason notes. It’s a challenging way of life. Given the travel, hard work, dealing with landowners and farmers … not everyone would embrace it. “It’s a different kind of lifestyle,” Geana agrees. While technology advancements have mitigated some of the backbreaking labor, it’s still a physical endeavor: placing the nearly 200 hives, collecting the honey, putting the frames on the truck and unloading them once they get to the production facility. Fun fact: A gallon of water weighs about 8 pounds, while a gallon of honey comes in at 12 pounds. “It’s a young man’s deal,” Larry acknowledges. He’s seen it firsthand. “Once Dad got to about 52 or 53, he just started slowing me down. He was more in the way.” So rather than becoming a burden as they get older, Larry and Geana are starting to let the next generation take their turn. “We still go out from time to time. We’ve become more like consultants.” The company boasts tens of thousands of workers, but far fewer if you’re just counting the two-legged variety. “During harvest season, there are 13 to help harvest quickly,” Geana says. There are five beekeepers full-time in the field, with additional help as needed. Overall, there are between 12 and 25 employees, depending on the time of year. Of course, this is still a family business. So, when there’s a big push, even Larry and Geana’s grandchildren help out. “We work with the grandchildren who are age-appropriate,” Geana says. “They earn a lot of money and learn about bees. Some are more interested than others.” Could there be a sixth generation of Hilberts? It’s a little early to say for sure, but it’s a possibility. Likely a family legacy James Hilbert Sr. never imagined in his wildest dreams when he first brought bees to his farm. A sweet thought indeed.
Where to Buy Hilbert’s Honey A part of the popular Taste the Local Difference program, Hilbert’s Honey is available at stores across the region, such as Anderson’s IGA, Bunting’s and Leland Mercantile in Leelanau County, Oleson’s Food Stores, Peninsula Market on Old Mission, Oryana and Harbor Springs IGA. And if you’re not near any of those, you can always shop online: Shop Hilbert’s Honey.
Ross Boissoneau has covered the business, culture and lifestyle scenes in the region for more than 30 years. He’s written for numerous local and national publications, print and online, including Something Else! Reviews, the Ticker and Local Spins. Brian D. Smith is a photographer whose work focuses on storytelling. He is influenced by the qualities of his subjects and summers spent at his grandfather’s cottage in Bear Lake, Michigan.
Photos by Brian D. Smith