The fifth-generation business is on the cutting edge of modern beekeeping
BY: Shandra Martinez
From developing specialty tools to harvesting luscious pieces of raw honeycomb, and carefully wrapping beehives for cross-country trips, Hilbert’s Honey Co. is on the cutting edge of modern beekeeping. The company has been known among loyal locals for the unique quality of its raw honey, but it recently has gained wider attention by expanding its retail side and building brand recognition.
The family business is owned and operated by Larry and Geana Hilbert, along with their son – and fifth-generation beekeeper – Keith Hilbert and his wife, Michele.
In 1887, James Hilbert Sr. began beekeeping to pollinate his fruit farms in Elmwood Township in Leelanau County. However, Larry’s great-grandfather discovered he liked beekeeping better than farming and that it was more profitable. Larry’s father, Arnold “Bud” Hilbert, moved the farm to Traverse City to focus on pollination services. That passion for beekeeping has passed on through each generation, and the operation has grown into a major bee hub.
Taking the bees on the road
The honeybees – which are described as livestock – spend summers in the picturesque Traverse City area maintaining nearly 250 pollination locations, including cherries, apples and basswood trees. To escape Michigan’s snowy winters, the bees and staff migrate south to LaBelle, Florida, to pollinate watermelons, Brazilian pepper and tupelo blossoms. Then they make a brief trip to the west in the spring to Fresno County, California, for almond pollination.
“Michigan is our primary hub for honey production, with pollination in surrounding areas,” explained Michele Hilbert. “Florida is where the bulk of our pollination services are.”
The bees are active in Michigan from about May to October or November, depending on the weather, because the bees respond to the drop in temperatures by hibernating. Once it starts getting cold, it’s time to pack up and head south so the farm doesn’t need to winterize.
The hives are covered by large nets and put on trucks during the night or early morning before the honeybees leave to do their foraging. The colonies are covered but ventilated during the trips, so the bees think it’s night. Drivers take turns driving the flatbed semi to Florida to get there as soon as possible.
Last year, devastating Hurricane Ian wiped out half the farm’s 10,000 colonies, a result of direct storm damage and the loss of food in the area. Since then, the farm has been growing its bee population, which is done by splitting hives.
“The honey flow that we intentionally try to get is in the summer and early fall in Michigan and late fall in Florida. The hives usually consist of one or two deep boxes, depending on strength,” Hilbert said.
Growing demand for honey
Honey is a growing revenue source for the business. In 2021, Hilbert’s produced over 200,000 pounds of honey.
“We started as honey producers back with Keith’s great-grandpa,” Hilbert said. “There was always pollination in Michigan, but the pollination out of state didn’t really start until the Hilberts started going to California in the early 2000s. They started going to Florida to keep the bees alive during the winter, and there was money to be made in expanding into pollination in the orange crops.”
In 2019, the business expanded into a custom production warehouse on Five Mile Road in Traverse City. The bigger space houses larger machinery for the extraction and production of the company’s pure Michigan honey, as well as staging areas for the bees.
The family has been wholesaling products nationally for two generations, but in 2020, Hilbert’s Honey Co. rebranded its products and opened its own retail storefront. Michigan is known for a very distinct and exquisite honey created by bees feeding on primarily basswood. The business specializes in honeycomb, a rare product because of the skill and time required to extricate the delicate structures. Over the last 50 years, the business has developed its own tools for the job.
During the pandemic, the company rebranded its product and increased its emphasis on selling honey, and both retail and wholesale sales exploded. Michigan Retailers Association has been a part of that success by providing the point-of-sale system and other resources, enabling Hilbert’s Honey to broaden the spectrum of what it can do for its customers.