Bob Redmond, Urban Bee Co., WA

Posted on February 04, 2013

WA.UrbanBee.BobRedmond-photobyAmyBaranski.jpgBob Redmond keeps bees in Seattle, Washington. That's right, 25 hives at 15 locations all within the city proper. Some of these are in private backyards, but his focus is working with community gardens such as Alleycat Acres, GroundUp Organics, and the Beacon Food Forest. Bob's bees keep busy pollinating people's gardens and making honey, and Bob keeps just as busy tending the hives, teaching workshops, delivering the honey by bicycle, and more! 

How long have you been keeping bees? I'm in my fifth year. A journeyman by the Washington State Beekeepers Association, but still a neophyte.

Does anyone else help in your operation? Yes...  I work with several other beekeepers, a youth educator, some Permaculture pals, some awesome sponsors, and the gardening community in general. Our big goal together is a more healthy and sustainable food system!

What are your markets? That's an interesting question. I'm not thinking like a traditional businessperson, who wants to identify a market, penetrate it, expand share, grow profits (see above note on "other employment"!). In fact, I recently introduced sliding scale rates for many of my products and services, to make sure people who need to can access them. I also extract honey in extremely small batches, and started hand-labeling all my products to avoid toxic adhesives and plastics. So market-wise, we're kind of going backwards. But on the other hand we are "gathering the tribes" as poet Carolyn Forché calls it: the group of people who know the score and are trying to build a better world. That's the ultimate market.

Do you have any other jobs? Heh... you know it. I do event production and also run a small non-profit arts agency. And have a baby boy. I can't wait till the baby can handle the smoker...

WA.UrbanBee.honey.jpgWhy did you get involved with CNG? I believe in standards for healthy, naturally grown food, and this looked like one of the best options, especially for beekeeping.

Talk about the biggest challenge you’ve encountered as a beekeeper. The hardest thing is keeping bees naturally. There's no easy remedy to things that go wrong. Do I use powdered sugar to reduce mites? Does that even work? (In my experience... not really.) While I could use Mite-Away-Quick-Strips, when I did, the smell nearly knocked me over... if I can't touch that stuff with my bare skin, how can it be good for the hive? (My approach has been to keep the hive better ventilated and sunnier, i.e. healthier to begin with.) I've begun the process of phasing in naturally-drawn comb, but that has its own challenges. A beekeeper friend on Kauai thinks keeping bees is as easy as pie... but he has almost none of the pests or diseases we have in the Northwest (and we don't even have Small Hive Beetles or Africanized bees to worry about!) Long story short, keeping bees or doing any kind of farming without resorting to industrial practices is extremely hard. In the long run, though, it needs to happen.

What things have you done to address challenges or improve operations?  Go slow. My first year, I met a beekeeper named Kristine at the state fair booth where we were volunteering. She--the first natural beekeeper I'd met--said "Doing nothing is almost never the worst thing, and often is the best." This was funny because behind us there was a loud conversation among some of the old heads about feeding bees and no one was listening to what she was saying. As I learned, Kristine was so right. I took her advice to feed my bees only honey (but at the time didn't know about NOT using store-bought honey for this, and also didn't know NEVER to boil honey on the stove... some learning experiences there! (hint: when honey boils, it foams, and makes an unbelieveable mess. Not to mention it becomes dead). So the other solution is: talk to other people. And listen. Lots of beekeepers have lots of opinions, but listening and doing nothing is most of the time the best way. In fact, my visits to the bee yards start by doing just that, even before I light the smoker. By the time I take off the top cover, I already know what's happening inside.

What was your most positive beekeeping experience? In my second year in the bees I was bicycling over to some hives one Sunday afternoon and saw in the distance a big cloud of gnats (typical for July in Seattle). A little closer though and I realized it was a swarm, gathering right in the street where I was biking. People had come out and were waving me down, saying "watch out!" And here's one of my favorite all-time utterances, as I dismounted: "It's OK, I'm a beekeeper." I proceeded to wait as the bees gathered on a cherry tree at face level... there was a little show-and-tell for a while as neighbors and passers-by got as close as they wished and asked many questions. Some of these folks were all dressed up and on their way to service at the Baptist church on the corner. My buddy John came over with a box. We waited while the bees crawled inside. The doors of the church were open and we could hear the preacher's rising and falling cadences in the summer sun. And then as John in his truck and me on the bike and the bees in the box headed out to their new home, the churchgoers--no lie!--lit into a loud echoing chorus of "I'll Fly Away." A great afternoon.


How do you include customers in your operation?
My operation includes putting hives in people's backyards and also in community gardens. With the backyards, sometimes I feel like the homeowners are lying in wait, because as soon as I appear, even if I'm being quiet, and before I even get the smoker lit, they are out there: how are the bees? How are the bees? Frankly, this used to annoy me, but I was so much older then (as Dylan said), and now I look forward to this enthusiasm. The homeowners learn a lot (one person is taking over the hives), and this interest and excitement spreads to the neighborhood. In the community gardens, part of the arrangement is that I get to teach a class to youth in the programs, and that has been a really rewarding experience. For people who subscribe to the bicycle-delivery service, as well as other "friends of the hive," I host a honey-tasting with all the varieties of the season (last year we got 12 different honeys from the neighborhoods), and people came to try them and meet each other. Some brought their kids and so there were a lot of questions and sticky fingers and happy people.

What unexpected customer interactions have been especially rewarding? Next door to one of my backyard hosts is a Chinese family. When I work the bees sometimes the gentleman would wave, if he was at home. One day, late in the season, he and I waved over the fence. The frames were fat with honey and when I waved him over he actually came over. He spoke no English and my Chinese went as far as "Nǐ hǎo." But I cut into the comb and gave him a slice. The hosts showed up and so did the man's wife... we had a great honey tasting party with a lot of laughing. As I learned later, the man kept bees in China and wanted to get some gear here! I connected him with a friend of mind who spoke Mandarin, and shared the local info. This year my goal is to get him on the bee side of the fence again and learn something about how he would do it.

Who is your mentor or hero in the beekeeping world or food movement? Right now without a doubt it's Will Allen. I also love Wendell Berry sincerely, and Novella Carpenter gets a shout out too. But Will Allen has been on the cutting edge of Urban Agriculture for so long, and is so inspirational in his approach to problems: you don't know how to farm fish? Invent an aquaponics system! Need lots of compost? Make your own (to the tune of ten thousand pounds)! Worried the neighbors will vandalize your place? Invite them to help work there! Allen's vision and steady example just remind me how long this row is to hoe, and also how rewarding it can be if we keep at it. When I found out his farm was also a CNG farm, it did make me a little proud too.

What’s your most useful piece of clothing for working with your hives? My only real piece of beekeeping clothing is my veil. People like Michael Thiele of the Melissa Garden go so slowly they don't even use that, but I find a veil really essential for when those bees head-butt me. My new veil is just a mosquito net I got from Gempler's over a vented bee helmet from my local beekeeping supplier. No strings or awkward panels! Plus it fits in my backpack and works with the bicycle transport of gear.

Do you have any hobbies? I try to write a haiku every day. Here's one:

ear to the hive, I knock--