Become an Urban Beekeeper

Ballard Bee Company’s Corky Luster offers advice on how to join the urban-beekeeping movement.
Maria Dolan  |   June 2012   |  FROM THE PRINT EDITION
Luster points out a promising sign: a hatching bee

One mild day in spring, on the roof of Ballard’s Bastille Restaurant, a sweet, summery smell pulsed through the air. Was it emanating from the rooftop beehives, or from the beekeeper busily checking on the bees? Corky Luster, owner of urban apiary business Ballard Bee Company, wasn’t wearing cologne. He suggested the smell was probably coming from the hives’ propolis—a sticky glue composed of various ingredients, including plant and tree resin, which bees use to fill in holes in the hive. “It smells incredible when the weather warms,” he says.

If there’s one aspect of farming that engages every sense, it’s keeping honeybees, from the scent to the humming of thousands of insects to the taste of the harvested honey (to the sting, if you’re unlucky). Seattleites can easily purchase local honey at farmers markets and specialty food stores, but in order to experience the honeybees themselves, increasingly, urban dwellers are keeping their own hives.

Luster, who was raised in Seattle, says that before he began keeping them, he noticed significantly reduced numbers of honeybees during some summers. (Other flying insects with stingers, such as the much more aggressive yellowjackets, are, of course, common in many backyards.) A drastic decline in domesticated honeybees in the United States in recent years has posed a crisis for agriculture, as most flowering plants need a pollinator, and honeybees are one of the most prolific. “It’s a critical tipping point,” says Luster. “Big beekeepers are losing 30 percent of their bees or more, year after year.” There likely are many reasons for the decline, including habitat loss, viruses and parasites. A recent study also points to crop pesticides as a source of bee die-offs. Luster hopes the city’s backyard beekeepers can help make up a little of the loss, and increase awareness of the problem. “My goal is to get educated, good beekeepers out there and get more honeybees back to the city,” he says.

Beekeeping is steadily growing in Seattle backyards—especially among gardeners who want their raspberry canes and cherry trees to bear fruit. “Beekeeping is on the rise, and we’re going to see more and more people doing it,” says Ken Reid, another local beekeeper who mentors people interested in natural, chemical-free beekeeping through the nonprofit Snoqualmie Valley Beekeepers Association. Luster agrees, noting that his beekeeping classes at local urban gardening nonprofit Seattle Tilth are always full, and he is inundated with requests for more information, restaurants that want to host and, especially, requests for more bees.

Legally, Seattle homeowners with yards of less than 10,000 square feet are allowed to keep as many as four hives. But not everyone has the best setup for handling hives.

Braving Bee Hives with Ballard Bee Company from Seattle magazine on Vimeo.

Some considerations:

Cost 
The start-up cost for bees and equipment for one hive is about $350–$400.

Time 
“Beekeeping is very similar to gardening,” says Reid. “There’s a lot of work up front to get everything settled.” After the first pollinating blooms open in late winter or early spring, checking on hives every week or two usually suffices until the fall. (Overwintering bees should never be disturbed between October and mid-February, as they need to conserve heat.)

Location
Bees need sun and warmth, so if the only sunny spot in your yard is also where you park yourself in the summer, beekeeping might not work. If you have a curious dog or young children who might disturb the hives, this might also be the wrong time to keep bees. The bees will need ample sources of pollen, so plant your yard with flora that honeybees like, such as hellebores, lavender, sage and heather. (For a list, and pollinator garden design ideas, see the Pollinator Pathway in resources.)

Neighbors
Bees will leave hives to visit nearby yards, so consult with neighbors. (If the next-door neighbor has a life-threatening allergy, keeping bees is a bad idea.) If your hive is located within 25 feet of your property line, you are required by city ordinance to have a solid barrier 6 feet or higher to keep the bees from flying straight into the neighbors’ yards. (Large numbers of honeybees can be a nuisance if you didn’t ask for them!)

Another consideration is whether you want to raise bees conventionally, which requires some chemicals for killing mites and fungi, or if you’re interested in trying to raise a treatment-free hive, a method that is gaining proponents here in the Northwest. For both types of beekeeping, you’ll need to get the bees in spring, usually from a source that sells honeybees raised in California or from a locally caught swarm. Whichever method you choose, you’ll likely require a class to get started (see resources).

If you think you have an appropriate yard for full-scale honeybee keeping, but aren’t ready for the commitment of tending the hives, Ballard Bee and another local business, Urban Bee Company, offer an option called “hive hosting,” in which interested people provide a suitable backyard for two to four hives, which the staff of beekeepers visit and tend. Hive hosts receive a jar of honey—and, of course, a well-pollinated garden.

More Beekeeping Resources

Seattle Tilth: Beekeeping classes for both mason bees and honeybees take place several times a year. Classes in July and August focus on preparing the beehive for winter. The next Beekeeping 101 class is in September. 

Ballard Bee Company: Honeybee hive hosting, materials, bees and consultation.

Urban Bee: Hive hosting of honeybees and mason bees. 

Puget Sound Beekeepers Association: Offers information about mentoring, education, sources for bees and materials. 

Snoqualmie Valley Beekeepers: Mentoring, education, sources for bees and materials. 

Pollinator Pathway: This mile-long series of gardens in the Central District is designed to welcome honeybees and other pollinators. The website offers a list of pollinator-friendly plants for local gardens. 

Mason bees: Available (next season) at Swansons Nursery and West Seattle Nursery.

Crown Bees: Mason beekeeping materials, bees and information.

If your yard is unsuitable for honeybees but you’d still like to get in on the buzz, consider making room for the orchard mason bee. Small, nonaggressive, solitary and native, these bees don’t produce honey, but they are excellent pollinators, even more so than honeybees. “The mason bee just belly flops into each flower,” says Dave Hunter, who runs the mason bee resource Crown Bees in Woodinville. Hunter says raising mason bees is generally less expensive and time consuming than raising honeybees. For a small backyard, count on spending money on at least 10 mason bee cocoons ($1.50/each), and $30 total for the bees, bee house and other accessories.

Many agree, the rewards of keeping honeybees are well worth the effort. The bees on top of Bastille gather pollen from nearby heathers and crocuses, and, later in the season, move on to the blackberries rampant along the railroad tracks behind the building, creating a floral honey that is then used in the restaurant’s recipes, including the popular Bee’s Knees cocktail. “Talk about terroir,” says Luster, comparing the honey to wine. “You couldn’t get any closer.”