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Urban Pollination Company Brings Honey Bees to Rooftops and Backyards Across Seattle Area

February 4, 2013 |

Photo Credit: Ballard Bee Company.

He wasn’t aware of any urban bee pollination companies, and if the idea still sounded reasonable after a night’s sleep, Corky Luster decided he would pursue such a venture. The idea still sounded reasonable in the morning, and so, the Ballard Bee Company began.

As an experienced bee keeper, Corky knew the benefits that honeybees provided: The majority of pollination in the United States is by honeybees, yet in Seattle, he “wasn’t seeing honey bees.” This absence is the reason he decided to get into urban pollination. Ballard Bee Company was the first urban bee pollination company in Seattle; “no one here was doing it” when I started, Corky says, and now four years later, there are other urban pollination companies.

Ballard Bee Company doesn’t have a central location, per say, but rather it is found in people’s backyards, farms, and even rooftops. Around Seattle, stretching north to 135th Street and south to the Capitol Hill neighborhood, and even on farms north of the city in Carnation, you can find beehives stamped with the Ballard Bee Company logo. To make his work and travel efficient, Corky “tries to do clusters of people who are interested.” And as the name suggests, the Ballard neighborhood hosts a number of hives, with 6-7 new hosts joining the company this year.

The property owners, or hosts, pay for hives to be placed in their backyard, and in return, they receive pollination services and honey. Because it costs $110 per month to host a hive, the cost discourages some people, Corky says, and there are also city ordinances to consider, such as the placement of the hive in proximity to a fence, that also eliminates some backyards from eligibility. Yet those that do host a hive often become repeat customers because of the pollination benefits. Gardeners have told Corky that their gardens and fruit trees are more productive thanks to the honeybees, and since honeybees can range for six miles, the entire neighborhood benefits from one hive.

Corky Luster, founder of Ballard Bee Company checking beehives on a rooftop in Seattle. Photo Credit: Ballard Bee Company.

People talk to me about “our bees,” Corky says, and he describes how this sense of ownership has prompted some property owners to change their gardening practices, such as eliminating pesticide use, now that they have a connection to a food source. When he hears these types of comments, Corky says “it hits home,” and justifies why he started the business.

Though there has been opposition from neighbors to having beehives nearby, Corky explains that their fear is usually based on thinking that honeybees behave like yellow jackets or hornets, which are more aggressive. “Most people don’t know there’s a hive there until they see you,” Corky says, and “people don’t realize the value of pollinators,” he adds. “Pollination needs have gone up … [but the] bee population is going down.”

As another incentive for hosting a hive, Corky’s customers receive a 22oz jar of honey every month, discounts on beekeeping equipment year-round, and starting this year, Corky is offering a newsletter to educate people on what is going on behind the hive’s wooden walls. This education component of making people aware of how honeybees are connected to the food supply is one of the reasons that Corky started his business.

Currently, he has 110 hives, down from 135 hives last spring as some were lost to disease, mites, and even bears. Ballard Bees’ goal is to have 130-150 hives; that being the “sweet spot,” says Corky, where he can still remain viable and manage the workload of visiting every hive. Corky is the primary employee, but he does hire interns.

Though there is a growing interest in amateur beekeeping, Corky cautions people to have realistic expectations of the labor and money involved in maintaining a hive themselves. It’s an investment of $400-$700, depending upon whether you want one hive or two, he says. “It’s [also] like gardening,” as you have to visit the hive at least once a week during the spring and summer to feed the bees and make sure they are doing well. Corky remains busy throughout the spring and summer tending the hives; he doesn’t slow down until September when the bees become dormant again.

The Ballard Bee Company has attracted quite a bit of interest in Seattle, thanks to efforts by local writers, such as Willi Galloway, and others interested in sustainable urban agriculture, like Colin McCrate, owner of the Seattle Urban Farm Co. Restaurants also want to feature more local products on their menus, and, to this end, several purchase Ballard Bee honey. One restaurant, Bastille, even features a rooftop garden that hosts four of Corky’s beehives.

While Corky is encouraged to see the “huge rise in urban beekeeping,” with the passage of ordinances in New York City to allow backyard beekeeping and Portland also allowing the practice, he admits that it is difficult to have a viable urban pollination business. “How do you make this a sustainable, viable business? I believe it can be…but people have to be willing to pay for it.” To diversify his income, he provides consulting services, teaches classes, and sells beekeeping equipment.

Yet even with the long hours and challenges of remaining viable, Corky is committed to his business: “It’s a labor of labor of love, and I believe in it.” Even after his years of beekeeping, he is still amazed “every time opening a hive” and not knowing what he will find. And if educating the public and bringing the honey bees back to Seattle isn’t the only motivating factor for his company, Corky firmly believes that “if we give up on bees, we’ll give up on ourselves.”

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