Though you might not know it, Seattle has a thriving community of DIY beekeepers. Here's a look into their world.
Imagine Seattle from the perspective of a bee.
Roads don’t matter. Traffic is just noise. Lakes are vast swaths of desert, meant only to be doggedly crossed in search of what may be growing on the other side. Buildings are nothing but giant stone mountains around which (and sometimes inside of which) food sometimes grows.
To a bee, any source of pollen is attractive: the wildflowers by the side of the road, the tomato plants in your yard, the hanging baskets of flowers cheering up outdoor malls and — especially — the omnipresent jungles of feral blackberry bushes. A humble patch of dandelions pushing through a construction site is a mini-oasis, an empty lot overgrown by weeds is a forest of delights.
But Seattle is far from ideal beekeeping territory. It’s wet (bees won’t fly when it’s raining) and the winters are too long, the nectar season too short. But what Seattle does have is a vibrant urban-farming ethos, a community where people keep chickens and grow squash in their yards, taking advantage of abundant rainfall and mild temperatures. And where there’s gardening, bees have a place to thrive.
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When I say “bees,” I’m talking specifically about honeybees, a European import that, while not indigenous to the United States, is essential to pollinating our many nonindigenous plants (like those blackberries.) There are some feral hives around, perhaps in chimneys or the odd hollow log, but by and large, the honeybees in the area are domesticated little communities kept alive by the tireless efforts of Seattle’s beekeepers.
And there are lots of bees.
Jeff Steenbergen, the current president of the Puget Sound Beekeepers Association (aka the PSBA, pugetsoundbees.org), estimates that there may be a hive on every other block or two in the city — in backyards, in community gardens or even tucked away on the upper floors of high-rises and office buildings. According to Steenbergen, a city is actually an ideal environment for bees — and in some ways far better than a more rural area. A country bee, its hive often amid a theoretically idyllic field of clover or almond trees, has abundant food of only one kind. But a city bee can choose from the wide variety of flowers, trees, ornamental shrubs and backyard gardens condensed into an urban footprint. There’s always something blooming in the city, so the bees have a cornucopia of sugars to choose from — maple in April, then blackberries, maybe some knotweed toward the end of the summer, and everything in between.
And urban honey gives new meaning to the concept of “eating local.” While grocery-store honey is produced by bees feeding off monoculture fields of clover or other crops, trips to local farmers markets in the city can yield honey bottled by neighborhood, the flavors of your several-block radius condensed into a golden goo with notes of whatever you pass on your morning run mixed with whatever is growing in your neighbor’s window box. Companies like Peter Nolte’s Rainy Day Bees sell Victory Heights honey, for example, and Ridgecrest honey; Bob Redmond’s Urban Bee Company even sells hyperlocal honey bottled according to whose yard it came from. And in the city, every batch of honey from every hive is different.
“They might be over here working someone’s peach tree and apple tree, and the hive next to them might be working the maple tree down the street, and that honey will have the nuances of maple,” says Steenbergen. “There are a lot of things that bloom that we don’t even think about.”
You may know a beekeeper and not realize it; unless you seek them out, you may not realize that the humble wooden boxes placed next to backyard fences house the city’s population of honeybees. For many hobbyist beekeepers, it starts, oddly enough, with chickens; indoctrinated into urban farming by the idea of growing fresh vegetables and raising poultry, they see bees are a natural next step and a way of pollinating their gardens (and getting some free honey).
In fact, Seattle’s beekeeping community has flowered in the last 10 years, due in part to the mentorship of beekeeper Corky Luster, former owner of the Ballard Bee Company. Luster has since moved to Oregon, but has left behind a thriving community of enthusiastic apian professionals who each keep anywhere from two to 100 hives throughout King County.
Most beekeepers begin by taking a class or 10 at the PSBA to see if the practice is for them, and/or attending the organization’s “work parties” at their apiary at the Washington Park Arboretum. There, they can watch master beekeepers crack open a hive to illuminate what conditions should and shouldn’t look like inside.
Beekeeping is a challenge. Something between a hobby and labor of love, it requires hours of careful fussing and sometimes heartbreak when a hive dies — which happens up to 50 percent of the time according to Steenbergen. Mites, wasps, spiders, moisture and disease must all be kept at bay to keep a hive thriving, allowing the bees inside to collect their pollen, make their honey and feed their baby bees.
Of course, this is mostly warm-weather work; by October, Seattle’s bees are finished with pollen collection and are busy collecting gums and saps to produce the sticky propolis they use to plug up gaps and holes in their hive, and beekeepers are making sure their bees have enough food (honey) to cozily winter. Then the hives are sealed up throughout the drizzly months until the bees’ version of the city blooms again in spring, when the bees, like everyone else in Seattle, once again peek their little heads out into the sunshine.
Update, Oct. 17, 11:51 a.m.: An earlier version of this article misidentified Seattle’s public arboretum as the “University of Washington Arboretum.” It is in fact the Washington Park Arboretum, and is a public park that is maintained by the university, but not owned by it. The error has been corrected.