IN 2008, BOB REDMOND fell in love with bees. He studied them, learned how to care for and manage apiaries, and then started a few hives around the Seattle area, eventually becoming a full-fledged urban journeyman-level certified beekeeper.
In 2009, he started Urban Bee Company, managing apiaries in backyards, community gardens, small family farms and even rooftop restaurant gardens, delivering honey by bicycle. He started an airport research project at Sea-Tac, using bees as biosensors to monitor pollution, and created a sister organization called The Common Acre to help restore acres of pollinator habitat and support pollinator research.
Then, in 2017, Redmond was diagnosed with cancer.
“It’s Stage 4 colon cancer. It forced me to reevaluate my time. It’s not lost on me that I have a GI illness and so does our culture,” Redmond says during a recent phone call.
Things in his life needed to change, and so did Urban Bee Company.
Around 15 years ago, there was an explosion in urban beekeeping. People just like Redmond were starting to think about backyard gardens and repurposing public land for urban agriculture. With that came natural conversations about pollinators and the decline in honeybee populations. Colony collapse disorder was making headlines, and a troublesome quote often attributed — but never with certainty — to Albert Einstein kept cropping up. (“If the bee disappeared off the face of the Earth, man would only have four years left to live.”)
Still, Redmond says, “That’s what people focus on. Einstein didn’t predict the end of humanity. In reality, honeybees are going to be fine because we can keep producing more.”
Redmond says that over the decade he ran Urban Bee Company, he and the greater beekeeping community started to shift away from the blanket “save the bees” mentality that gripped so many.
Now, Redmond says, we really should worry about the “loss of wild bees and the habitats that support them.” While we always can breed more honeybees (and other pollinators), “You can’t go out and make more [wild] Bombus melanopygus bumble bees because you can’t manage them. If they start to suffer, there’s just not a lot to do unless we try to replace the habitat and plant more native plants,” he says.
He says his illness forced him to make some decisions. Redmond realized the world didn’t need more urban beekeepers; it — and his community in Seattle — needed more education. It was time for Urban Bee to evolve.
“What we’re eating is completely tied to what we’re growing and how we’re planting and the pollinators and how we cooperate with that species,” he says.
So Urban Bee Company became Survivor Bee — the word “survivor” in part a nod to surviving his illness. There are still hives, and there’s still honey — plus propolis extract and a variety of salves. Redmond says, “We just cut out the part that was mostly about this really resource-intensive boutique food source and elevated the discourse and made it richer.”
Survivor Bee is about classes on bee medicine and events like the one held at Town Hall Seattle in February in partnership with the University of Washington’s Center for Microbiome Sciences & Therapeutics to discuss and explore the connection between bees, gut health, soil and cancer. Redmond says they expected a crowd of about 50, but he ended up moderating a panel with over 300 in attendance.
Through teaching people about ecological literacy, Redmond hopes to help people realize, “We have to restore the balance between humans and nature. The question is bigger than saving the bees. The bees are part of it. That’s the one thing I want to impress upon people,” he says.
Now, instead of delivering honey by bicycle, Redmond focuses on using bees as a teaching tool to help people learn about the agricultural system and discover ways they can participate on a personal level.
Sure, he says some of that means people will become beekeepers. But hopefully others will plant diverse native landscapes that support native pollinators. He also keeps some honeybees in the context of educational opportunities, like those on the roof of the new Watershed Building in Fremont. It’s one of three living buildings in Seattle, and Redmond’s honeybees were an essential part of getting that certification.
Redmond says that due to COVID-19, he’s had to move more slowly than he would like, suspending in-person classes and events until gathering in groups is safe again. Still, he hopes to offer online options this fall. (See what he’s got planned at survivorbee.com.) “We have to continue this dialogue, and now is the perfect time to do it,” he says.