Ballard Bees

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ballardbeesJust when you thought the urban farming movement couldn’t get any, well, farmier, along came something new for people to buzz about. Right on the heels of parking strip gardens and backyard chickens comes the third generation of city-based sustainability: honey bees. From the outside, it looks easy (disregarding the occasional sting) to plunk a couple of boxes in your garden and call it done. Those seeking sweet rewards, however, know it takes a bit more effort to fill a jar with this sticky amber siren.

“It didn’t go as well as I’d hoped,” confesses Willi Galloway, who last year gave urban beekeeping a go. Willi tends a big vegetable garden in West Seattle, complete with clucking chickens and homemade compost. She’s got the sort of resourceful disposition that allows her urban farm to run efficiently. “When I want to do something, I do it fast,” she notes as she ticks off the list of things all first beekeepers must invest in: boxes, frames, foundations, protective gear and of course the actual bees. A seasoned professional (Willi is the West Coast Editor for Organic Gardening magazine) she has always been interested in bees, what with their crucial role in the garden. Pollination between plants is a vital step in food gardening and ensures most fruiting plants will bear. Bees and other insects help this process immensely. It’s part of the reason colony collapse disorder has made headlines in the last several years: No pollination equals no fruit.

Everything started out well for Willi and her new bees, but six weeks in things started to go awry. The store she purchased supplies from sold her the wrong size frames, she needed a new queen, a worker bee started laying eggs (a huge no-no in a productive hive) and finally, the bees swarmed off in search of greener pastures. “I think the bees knew something was up with the hive,” she explains as a potential reason for their departure.
She called on long time beekeeper and educator Corky Luster, a key member of the Puget Sound Beekeeping Association and the founder of the Ballard Bee Company. “Corky swooped in and rescued me,” she admits.  Her hives are still being nursed back to health under his watchful eye. And for all her efforts? No honey—though she hasn’t given up.

Corky, on the other hand, has buckets of honey and something in common with the bees he tends: A background in design. Unlike bees, he’s not limited by nature to waxy hexagons. Corky trained as a sculptor (he worked with marble in Italy for four years) and he now owns a contracting business where he designs and builds homes. When he builds the frames for his hives, each one is carefully constructed and hand-painted—essentially, a classic Craftsman apiary.

He was first introduced to beekeeping by his childhood friends’ German mother.  Since then, he has always loved bees—his affection for them is similar to how folks might speak of a beloved dog. He raises the bees organically and tries to keep them free from mites and disease by using integrated pest management principles (IPM) with his many hives. “I take as much care as I can for my little girls,” he says as we’re standing in his backyard and he’s showing me around the hand-built hives. They are not far from the house, and I ask if this renders his backyard useless.  “We sit out,” he says nonchalantly. “You should come over in the spring—when the light is right, and they’re coming home, it’s like LAX.  It’s like a nativity scene out there,” he conjures wistfully.

Corky resides in the heart of Ballard, along with several chatty chickens (the “feather brigade”) his overly social cat (Faustino), an old cat (Theo), the best dog ever (Boone) and his tolerant, enabling girlfriend, Karen. If it were up to Karen, they’d have a milking goat too, but Corky is saving that up for one day when they have an actual functioning farm.  “I’m just a frustrated farmer under all these city clothes,” he confesses while peering out at the hives.

The idea for Ballard Bee Company was simple. Seattle city ordinance allows for one swarm (with up to four hives) on lots of less than 10,000 square feet; the hives must be kept specified distances away from one’s neighbors and passersby. To compensate for the laws’ limits, Corky took advantage of his bee-free neighbors and started recruiting other yards to host some hives. He started small, managing six hives in Ballard; he also mentors a few hives further north, wherein the ‘landlords’ split the loot and take care of bees on their own, with Corky’s guidance. A hive must produce about sixty pounds of honey in order to survive the winter.  Often, there is an excess, and that’s what Corky bottles and sells retail. Once a year in summer, Corky extracts the honey, shares the extra with the homeowner and bottles and sells the rest to local shops and restaurants.  He also helped one Ballard restaurant—Bastille—install a hive on their rooftop garden. Bastille will, if all goes well, be featuring that honey on their menu regularly.

Standing in a quiet backyard that houses a hive on a warm and balmy day this winter, some bees are humming close to the hive. We lean in to take a look, noting that some have big knobs of pollen on their back legs. This is a very good sign. Corky lifts the top off the stacked hive and pulls out a tray thick with comb and honey, and gives this colony a thumbs up. The hive was near ruin last summer, so Corky left all the honey in the hive for winter stores and hoped the bees would rebound. Having been created from Seattle pollens throughout an entire year, this honey is indistinguishable in flavor (like clover, lavender or fireweed honey can be). Corky holds out a tray thick with honeycomb and encourages me to taste.  “How,” I ask, “just stick my finger in there?” and with a low chuckle he nods as I pierce my finger tip through the thin wax and drag it a few inches, honey starting to drip down my hand and comb clinging to the tip of my finger. I eat the nectar and it is at once floral and sweet, but not cloying. It’s intensely flowery and I promptly classify it as one of the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten.  If city bees are the melting pot of honey, than you can bet for sure that’s one pot I want in on.

The honey is available in Seattle from 106 Pine, Bitters Co, The Cheese Cellar, DeLaurenti, Dish D’Lish, Honore Artisan Bakery, Pasta & Co., Picnic, Veritables Décor, and Watson Kennedy. In the Skagit Valley, it’s available at Go Outside in La Conner, and The Shop Curator in Tweets/Edison

Amy Pennington is a believer in the power of local honey and is officially considering adding hives to her small apartment deck. To see what else she’s cooking, growing and scheming check out her website

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