Twelve years ago, Thomas Bray inherited San Benito Gold Honey, the business his father Leon Bray founded 40 years before. These days, he sells his honey and pollen from a little trailer on Hwy 25, about a mile and a third south of Hwy 156, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday through Sunday.
Bray’s honey, two-thirds sourced from hives in San Benito County and one-third from hives near Camp Roberts in Monterey and San Luis Obispo counties, is magical. Light, sweet wildflower notes from the local honey are contrasted by dark caramel-like undertones of the sage honey gathered 100 miles south. According to Bray, the addition of sage honey also keeps his product from crystallization.
“Nobody’s got that combination but me,” Bray said. “It is 100% pure honey, not adulterated, and everybody always gets excited about the flavor. The bees bring you good food, and my honey just hits every taste bud in your mouth.”
Bray has 200 hives with about 100,000 bees living in each one, and he says beekeeping is a pretty simple thing.
“You take the hive to a desirable location where they are going to pollinate the kinds of plants you want for honey,” he said. “Then you come and tend to the hives once in a while to make sure the bees are alright.”
Bray does not hire his bees out to farmers, keeping the local honey source strictly to the wildflowers.
“Farmhouse people ask me all the time,” he said. “But big outfits from back east come out here every year seasonally and they bring the hives out here on trucks to do the almonds and the seasonal crops. Usually, small-time beekeepers like me don’t have enough bees to do something like that.”
While Bray sells his honey year-round out of his trailer on Hwy 25 and in off-the-shelf sales through Hollister RV at 281 San Felipe Road, the season for honey is very short. The rest of the time is spent just trying to stay alive.
“Bees only produce honey from about the beginning of March to the middle of June,” he said. “The rest of the year, they kind of retreat back into their hives and go into survival mode.”
Bees (and honey) are as much a part of agriculture as water and, like plants, bees suffer during times of drought. Bray said the lack of rain has been one of the big threats to colonies, with the recent drought conditions causing the death of thousands of his bees.
“I had to take the whole year off once because these went on strike during a drought,” he said. “There wasn’t any food for them out there. You can try to feed them artificially and give them food and water, but they don’t like that. They like to go out and get it themselves. And if they can’t, they kind of retreat back into their hives.”
Bray is quick to tout the medical properties of honey, some authenticated, and some still up for debate. Besides soothing coughs and sore throats caused by colds, the beneficial property of honey in medical treatment has been known since ancient times. A 2021 study by Hanaa Tashkandi cites use by the Sumerians as early as 2100 B.C. to speed the healing of wounds by inhibiting bacterial growth. Honey also contains antioxidants that may be useful in reducing the risk of heart disease.
From his trailer, Bray also sells pollen, which he said is a good source of protein in both its natural state as little granular balls and as a powder. It has a delicate and sweet taste, with a hint of dry ground corn, that vanishes quickly on the palate.
For allergy sufferers, Bray is a firm believer in the idea that eating honey and pollen can help you with springtime sniffles.
“What is giving you allergies is the plants growing around you,” he said. The bees are pulling from the same plants, and all that is in the honey. It builds up in your system, so it is already there on a bad allergy day. Your body doesn’t react to it because it is already in you.”
The idea that local honey may help with allergies is still somewhat in dispute. A 2002 study comparing raw honey, processed honey, and corn syrup across three control groups indicated no significant reduction in allergy symptoms.
However, a 2013 study comparing two control groups eating raw honey or corn syrup, with both groups also using antihistamines, showed a marked improvement in allergy symptoms in the honey group after eight weeks. That improvement lasted a month after they stopped using honey.
Several studies have found honey also to be a useful prebiotic. Bees add an enzyme to honey that partially breaks down the sugars and acts as an aid to digestion. Honey is also lower on the glycemic index than sugar, being 40% fructose and 30% glucose as opposed to sugar’s 50-50 proportion.
While honey may or may not have an impact on allergies, it does present one significant health risk. According to the Centers for Disease Control, honey may contain bacterial spores that are linked to infant botulism and should never be given to children younger than 12 months.
While sitting in his trailer waiting for customers can be lonely at times, Bray enjoys his work.
The customers love me,” he said, “and I love them too. Everybody’s pulling in, and they’re all happy, jumping out of their cars to come see me. And I am always upfront with them, giving them better honey than that processed stuff you get in the stores.”
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BenitoLink thanks our underwriters, Hollister Super and Windmill Market, for helping to expand the Eat, Drink, Savor series and give our readers the stories that interest them. Hollister Super (two stores in Hollister) and Windmill Market (in San Juan Bautista) support reporting on the inspired and creative people behind the many delicious food and drink products made in San Benito County. All editorial decisions are made by BenitoLink.