Melissa Elms, left, and Katie Sanchez, co-owners of Bee Free Honee.

Katie Sanchez never meant to invent a vegan-friendly sweetener that’s remarkably akin to honey, or begin a campaign to save honeybees. She just wanted to make apple jelly.

It was the fall of 1999. The exhausted young mother of a special-needs baby, Sanchez was excited when her husband showed up at home one day with a bushel of apples and a trusted babysitter so that she could spend a little time just playing around in the kitchen.

“My son had been born in January,” recalls Sanchez, “and we couldn’t even bring him home until August.” He weighed just 1 pound, 3 ounces at birth, Sanchez says, and “I called him my ‘little block of butter,’ because that’s about how much he weighed. Even when we brought him home, on machines, he simply couldn’t be left alone.”

Being granted two hours of uninterrupted kitchen time was a true gift to Sanchez, a baker for Whole Foods Market bakehouse in St. Paul, Minn., who had grown up with an apple orchard in the front yard. However, she says, “I think because I hadn’t been in the kitchen for so long, I went too far. I wanted to make a pie and some apple butter, and then, at the last minute I thought I’d try making some apple jelly.”

With the babysitter ready to head home, Sanchez found herself rushing through the jelly-making process without a recipe. “I don’t know what I was thinking,” she says, “because that’s not the kind of thing you make up. I’m watching this concoction simmer on my stovetop and thinking that this is obviously not right.”

Not wanting to waste her mistake, she canned it, hoping to come up with a way to use it later.

But the next morning, when she looked at the result, she couldn’t believe how much it looked — and tasted — like honey.

Sanchez didn’t immediately realize, however, that her accidental discovery of what would later become Bee Free Honee was something that other people might want. Vegans don’t use honey in their diets because it’s considered an animal by-product. People with compromised immune systems fear botulism (the spores can be found in honey). She did know from her work trying to create honey-free baked goods at Whole Foods that other commonly used liquid sweetener options such as agave syrup tend to have a thinner texture than honey, and molasses can be overly thick with a very pronounced flavor.

The germ of the idea was born when she began hearing about colony collapse disorder, or CCD, a mysterious disease that has drastically affected bee populations in North America and around the world, including the loss of some 10 million beehives. In a way, Bee Free Honee started as a joke: “I was talking with a friend about the decline of the honey bee and I said, ‘It’s okay, I’ve cracked the code on how to make bee-free honey.’ ”

The basic recipe for Bee Free Honee involves cooking down apple juice, sugar and a little lemon juice for a really long time, resulting in a thick syrup with a mildly applelike flavor that can be substituted 1:1 for honey in recipes.

“It seems straightforward, but it’s a slow process to get the consistency right,” says Sanchez. “We live in a world where people don’t want to take time with a product.” So, while people in the food industry kept recommending to her that she add thickeners to shorten the cooking process, Sanchez soldiered on alone, renting kettles in shared commercial kitchens, making up to 3,000 bottles in a day by herself, from cooking to labeling.

But it wasn’t until Sanchez met Melissa Elms at the Natural Products Expo West in 2013 that she found someone who not only understood her passion, but had an idea of how to take it to a wider audience. It was Sanchez’s first trade show, and Elms, who was there launching an organic apple juice across the aisle, had been working in food distribution and sales for two decades. She thought she tasted a winning product in Bee Free Honee.

“When I met Katie in 2013,” says Elms, “she had done $5,000 in sales with zero revenue, no profit. At one point during that trade show, Katie said to me, ‘Some guy just came by with a big entourage from some farmers market.’ I said, ‘Katie, that was Sprouts Farmers Market [a supermarket chain in 14 states] — that’s a really big account!’ She just had no idea.”

Elms didn’t plan to join Sanchez in the business, but two weeks after that trade show, Sanchez called her and said, “I need you to become my business partner.” But the connection was deeper than a business partnership from the beginning, both say, calling each other “soul sisters.”

Four months later, they applied for, and won, a low-interest loan through Whole Foods’ Local Producer Loan Program, which allowed the business to invest in some new equipment to automate some of the work that Sanchez had been doing by hand. By the end of their first year working together, with Sanchez in Minnesota and Elms in Texas, the business had earned $75,000 in revenue. With the operations now moved into a larger facility in Houston, it is expected to clear $300,000 this year. “2017 is going to be our breakout year for generating more revenue, because we’re prepared now,” says Elms.


Fig Bars, a recipe from the Bee Free Honee website. (Deb Lindsey /For The Washington Post)

If it is their breakout year, as Elms predicts, it will likely have a lot to do with the rebranding effort that puts the focus on dwindling bee populations, with the help of three new investors that came to them through their 2016 appearance on reality television show “Shark Tank,” where entrepreneurs pitch business proposals to potential investors. Bee Free Honee walked away with $210,000 in financial support from Barbara Corcoran, Mark Cuban and Chris Sacca, but more importantly, critical advice for refocusing their message, which led to new labels declaring that 7,500 bees are saved with the purchase of each 12-ounce bottle.

“It can take 10,000 to 60,000 bees to make a pound of honey,” says Sanchez, who raises the concern that bees are so busy making honey for human consumption that they don’t get to eat much of the fruits of their own labor, leading beekeepers to feed them a sugar-water substitute.

“Beekeepers will say the bees love the sugar water,” says Sanchez, “but a child will also eat candy instead of an apple. That doesn’t make it right.”

While a honey substitute company may seem like an unlikely advocate for bees, Sanchez sees it as a natural fit. “We’re not anti-beekeepers or anti-honey,” she says. “Honeybees can’t produce enough honey to meet the demand. It’s a population in crisis. When tuna is being overfished and dolphins are getting caught in the nets, eating more tuna is not going to solve the problem. We need to shift the focus back to the bee.”

The evolution of that focus for Bee Free Honee is the establishment of its own nonprofit organization, Beyond the Blue Orchard (named for a bee native to North America), to which they donate 10 cents from the sale of each bottle to help farmers develop beekeeping operations rather than having to depend on bee brokers who truck millions of bees around the country to pollinate everything from peaches to blueberries to oranges.

“This is farming American-style,” says Marina Marchese, a beekeeper and founder of the American Honey Tasting Society. “We have these huge monocultures, like a million acres of almonds being grown in California, which require a lot of bees for pollination.” She acknowledges that it’s a stressful life for the bees who are traveling around the country, including the chemicals that they are exposed to on each farm, but says, “Bees are livestock. We all lose bees as beekeepers, but what’s really important is to learn why you lost them.”

Bee Free Honee’s pilot beekeeping project will begin with Sachia Orchards, the oldest apple orchard in Wisconsin, which supplies juice for the Bee Free Honee product; Sachia plans to launch with about 40 hives in one 150-acre orchard, using an existing bee population that took up residence in an old barn on the 600-acre property. The goal is to eventually wean from hiring beehives brought in from out of state.

Ryan Cosyns, who runs a beekeeping operation for his family’s almond farm in Madera, Calif., is skeptical about Sachia Orchards’ chance of success, pointing to the bees’ need for multiple food sources once they’ve exhausted the apple blossoms in early spring and the area’s long, cold winters. Now in its 12th year, Cosyns’s bee operations have expanded from pollinating the family farm’s 1,000 acres of almond trees in February and March to renting out 3,000 hives for honey production in North Dakota.

“Bees have to be managed year-round,” says Cosyns. “People from Wisconsin send their bees to California for the winter. I think they’ll have a little more respect for the beekeeper they’ve been using.”

But Scott Kee, vice president of operations for Sachia Orchards, likes the idea of supporting a bee population on site instead of continuing to be dependent on a bee broker. “I get worried about different diseases, so there’s a good business reason to do this,” he said. “If a hurricane hits Florida and wipes out the bees there who are supposed to travel up to my orchard next, what do I do then?”

Although the plan includes planting new pollination sources that will support the bees after the apple trees have blossomed, Kee said he knows there’s plenty of risk involved. “When I told Katie that we might not succeed, she said, ‘I know that but it’s more important for me and the company that you’re trying, because people have got to be willing to try and fail.’ ”

A former chef himself, Kee says of Sanchez, “She has a chef’s perspective. Chefs make plenty of recipes that fail, but they just keep trying.”

There has been pushback within the beekeeping community, but Sanchez and Elms remain undaunted in their quest to support small, local beekeeping operations.

“I fully expect to prove that it can be done — stop saying it’s not possible to pollinate without loading bees in trucks and driving them thousands of miles from one farm to another,” says Sanchez. “The way it’s done today is not the way it’s always been done, it’s just what we’re used to now. And it can be better.”

Hartke is a Washington food writer.

More from Food:

Fig Bars

20 bars

MAKE AHEAD: The dough needs to rest in the refrigerator for 30 minutes. The bars can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 1 week.

Bee Free Honee is available at select Whole Foods Markets, Yes! Organic Markets, MOM’s Organic Markets and Wegmans.

Adapted from a recipe on beefreehonee.com.

Ingredients

3 cups (300 grams) almond flour or almond meal

¼ teaspoon salt

¼ cup coconut oil, liquefied

¼ cup Bee Free Honee (see headnote; may substitute regular honey for a non-vegan version)

1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 packed cup dried figs (200 grams), stemmed

¼ cup apple juice or fresh lemon juice (from 2 lemons)

1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest

Steps

Combine the almond flour, salt, coconut oil, Bee Free Honee and 1 tablespoon vanilla extract in a food processor. Process for 30 seconds to 1 minute, until clumps of dough form that stick together when pinched. (The dough won’t form a ball.) Divide the dough in half, place each half on its own sheet of plastic wrap; shape each portion into two 4-inch squares and wrap tightly. Refrigerate for 30 minutes, until firm.

Meanwhile, wipe out the food processor bowl. Add the dried figs to the bowl and pulse a few times, until coarsely chopped. Add the apple or lemon juice, lemon zest and 2 teaspoons vanilla extract; process for about a minute, to form a paste-like consistency. Let it sit at room temperature until you’re ready to bake.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Working with 1 square of dough at a time, cut in half, forming 2 equal rectangles. Between sheets of parchment, roll out one portion into a very thin rectangle that measures 5 inches by 9 ½ inches. Remove the top parchment. Use an offset spatula to spread a quarter of the filling (lengthwise) down the middle of the rolled-out rectangle, so that the strip of filling is about 2 inches wide with a 1 ½ -inch margin on either side. The filling should extend all the way to the top and bottom edges (no margin).

Use the bottom parchment to help fold the sides of the dough inward so they overlap slightly at the center. Use your fingers to gently press the seam, sealing it. (You don’t have to seal the top and bottom ends.) Slice the flat log into 5 equal pieces, then place them seam sides down on the baking sheets, spacing the bars ½ inch apart. Repeat with the remaining dough and filling.

Bake one sheet at a time (middle rack) for 13 to 15 minutes, until golden and brown around the edges. Let the bars cool for 10 minutes on the baking sheets before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.

Nutrition | Per bar: 150 calories, 3 g protein, 13 g carbohydrates, 10 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 35 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber, 9 g sugar

Recipe tested by Kara Elder; email questions to food@washpost.com

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