Hive Mind

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BY CAROLINE FERGUSON
PHOTOS BY CHARITY BURGGRAAF

65a8232-683x1024Husband-and-wife team Paul and Pat Perkins are the only two employees at Seattle Urban Honey, but their workers number in the millions. At any given moment, their Green Lake backyard is literally buzzing with activity, their industrious crew producing a gentle hum as they y from buckwheat to borage and back to their four colorful hives.

Meanwhile, 56 more hives across the county are filling up with the honey that Paul and Pat sell at the University District Farmers Market every week — that is, until they sell out, which can easily happen by winter.

Most of the Perkins’s bees work under the watchful eye of volunteer hive hosts, who keep hives on their own property in exchange for a cut of the yearly honey harvest (and a significant pollination boon to their own gardens, to boot).

The resulting honeys are categorized not by flower varietal, but by ZIP code, and they reveal a surprising diversity of terroir, even within Seattle city limits.

The 98115 honey, harvested near Northgate, has notes of mint from the linden trees that line Roosevelt Way. Lower Queen Anne honey, on the other hand, has a lychee-like perfume — most likely a blend of Japanese knotweed and aster, Pat theorizes. “It’s this honey that’s almost black,” she says. “It tastes good, it’s mild, and you hold it up to the sun-light and it’s ruby-red. It’s just gorgeous stuff.”

An attempt at producing a buckwheat honey at one hive host’s property in Carnation was derailed by the field of clover that had been planted as a cover crop, but the 98014 honey it produced was pleasantly citrusy, a welcome mistake.

Paul and Pat’s penchant for beekeeping started as an after-work hobby. Their daughter, inspired by an architecture school assignment to design a honey house, bought them a series of beekeeping classes as a Christmas present in 2005.

“We took the lesson, bought the bees, got a hive,” Pay says with a laugh. “And then another hive!” Before long, they had four hives and were producing more honey than they could eat.

For Pat and Paul, beekeeping changed from a hobby to a bona fide career almost by accident. In summer 2009, they paid a visit to the Phinney Farmers Market, hoping to swap tricks of the trade with the market’s usual honey vendor. When they arrived, though, they got word that the vendor was taking the next three weeks off. Figuring they’d have three weeks’ worth of honey to sell, the Perkinses went to the market manager to make their case.

_65a8214They got their foot in the door — and then some. “Turns out the fellow wasn’t able to return that season, so we just kept going!” Paul says. “I think the reason that they went to us – because there’s plenty of other beekeepers that drive into Seattle – is that we were the most local.”

There was just one problem: Paul and Pat’s backyard hives wouldn’t produce nearly enough honey for an entire season’s worth of sales. Ergo, hive hosts.

Hosts, who the Perkinses select informally, based on personal relationships, have made it possible for Pat and Paul to sell year-round at the University District market since now. But the Perkinses still do all of the heavy lifting when it comes to hive management. Because hive hosts are volunteers, not paid employees, Pat and Paul provide the equipment, harvest the frames, and even pull weeds around their hosts’ hives.

Their job will get a little easier later this year, when they install Flow hives in their backyard apiary. The result of a wildly successful $4 million Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign, Flow hives are designed to extract honey with minimal stress to the bees. Instead of the traditional method of removing individual plastic frames from the hive to be spun in a centrifuge, extracting from a Flow hive is as simple as turning a tap (though apiarists will be quick to remind you that Flow hives are not a substitute for attentive and careful beekeeping).

Taking good care of the bees is paramount in the face of declining pollinator populations, a phenomenon that has confounded scientists for the past few decades. The majority of the world’s flowering crops rely on pollinators to reproduce, and since the end of the 20th century, many pollinators’ numbers have been plummeting on a global scale.

Seattle Urban Honey is one of a number of local projects that seek to foster Seattle’s pollinator population, including Ballard Bee Company, Pollinator Pathway, Urban Bee Company, and West Seattle Bee Garden. For their part, the Perkinses have collaborated with the University of Washington’s Center for Urban Horticulture, which hosts several hives on a research plot. They also use all-organic practices — pesticides and antibiotics are thought to contribute to colony collapse disorder — and often hand out packets of bee- friendly seeds at their farmers market stand.

“We’ve become more aware of native pollinators as we’ve learned about bees,” Pat says, examining the insects that buzz from flower to flower in the bed outside their honey house. “They’re even more in danger than honey bees.”

Danger, though, couldn’t seem farther away from Pat and Paul’s tiny backyard apiary, with its busy hives and blossom-scented air. It’s a place where, if you only pause and listen, you can hear the faint hum of a city buzzing with life.

Caroline Ferguson is a freelance food and agriculture writer from Seattle. She is a regular contributor to Edible Seattle, and her work has also been featured in Seattle Met Magazine, Visit Seattle, and RENDER Feminist Food and Culture Quarterly.

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