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Urban Bees For Hire: A Thriving Hive Business

Seattle's Ballard Bee Company hopes renting hives to urban gardeners can ease the risk of 'beemageddon.'
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As a child, Corky Luster spent his summers catching members of Seattle’s then flourishing honeybee population. “Bees amaze me,” says Luster. “A beehive is a super-organism, a selfless collective that thinks of the whole rather than the individual. Even now, each time I open a hive, I smile.”

In the years since, bees have started to rapidly disappear due to a range of problems including mites, fungus, viruses and a mysterious phenomenon called Colony Collapse Disorder. The American honeybee population has shrunk by a third just in the 7 years CCD has been recognized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The bees’ decline threatens the pollination needed to grow most of the foods we eat (about one in three mouthfuls, that agency estimates). Thinking he could help, the now 51-year-old Luster rolled up his sleeves and got down to business. The urban hive business, that is.

Large-scale commercial beekeepers make most of their profits renting their bees to farms across the country, assisting with pollination of local crops. After a road trip in 2009 where Luster saw commercial pollinators in eastern Washington, he imagined creating small-scale version. “My big a-ha moment was asking, ‘Why can’t someone’s backyard be a farm? Why not create an urban pollination company ?’”

His Ballard Bee Company is now four years running and 135 hives strong. For a one-year contract and a monthly fee of $110, Seattle residents or businesses can host two to four hives in their yards or on rooftops. Luster and two interns install and maintain the hives, feeding the bees or harvesting honey from spring through autumn, and ensuring their survival through the dormant winter season.

At the peak of summer a single hive can house upward of 50,000 bees, so for backyard agriculturists the true hosting perk is plant pollination. “Bees will travel a mile and a half to forage, so neighbors, parks, wildlife, the whole community benefits from a hive,” explains Luster.

Hosts also receive two 12-ounce jars of locally-extracted honey each month and a newsletter. Luster harvests 45 to 65 pounds of honey per hive annually. He sells special varieties, such as light and dark cream and wildflower honey to restaurants, specialty shops, and online with prices ranging from $12 to $22.

Since his launch, similar businesses have sprung up around the country, as well as on Luster’s home turf, such as Seattle Bee Works, Seattle Urban Honey and Urban Bee Company, but when Luster began, he didn’t have a model to follow. “I was really winging it,” he says.

Although BBC began as a simple hosting business with twenty hives, in just four years it has doubled its profit and expanded offerings to include equipment, such as apiarist’s kits for beginning beekeepers. Luster has also expanded to beekeeping education. He developed a curriculum he teaches to roughly 150 new students a year, partnering with non-profit urban ecology organization Seattle Tilth.

BBC’s revenue model breaks down to roughly 20% from hive hosting, 40% from honey sales, 35% from equipment sales, and 5% from teaching. In Luster’s mind, each element of his business supports another. “Honey sales support the hosting program, hosting helps cover day-to-day operations, education creates new beekeepers, and they purchase equipment. It’s a vertically integrated business.”

Luster says this sustainable model is key to achieving his original goal: to cultivate Seattle’s honeybee population. He estimates that the number of professional and hobbyist beekeepers in Ballard has doubled since his business began. Luster’s own hives alone host roughly 6-6.5 million bees in a good year.

The greatest challenge facing Luster is simply bee loss. While years vary, beekeepers confront an average bee mortality rate of 30%, according to surveys conducted by The Bee Informed Partnership, an apiarist consortium. Luster weathered his worst season yet in 2012, with a 45% loss sustained by his urban hives. That year his rural hives experienced only a 15% loss. Undaunted, he says, “Every year is a gamble and you need to be in the game long enough to average out.”

Still, Kevin Bayuk, co-founder of the Urban Permaculture Institute of San Francisco, thinks urban beekeepers may be the answer to reviving North America’s honeybee population. “Urban bees tend to be more removed from industrial agricultural poisons, and urban beekeepers tend to maintain healthy hives through their careful attention. Decentralization and diversity,” he adds, could be an “effective response to Colony Collapse Disorder.”

On the horizon for BBC are partnerships with like-minded companies, such as Ballard restaurants The Walrus and The Carpenter and The Whale Wins. The restaurants’ chef, Renee Erickson, began as a backyard host of BBC’s hives. She says she now plans to retain Luster to establish and manage hives for her restaurants. Says Luster, “The most satisfying thing about what I do is making a positive impact. These days there aren’t many businesses that can say that.”