Before moving any further we thought we’d ask the experts, so we met with Corky Luster, founder and owner of the Ballard Bee Company. If you're a Northwest native you may recognize his honey from around town; it’s delicious and if you’ve never tried it, you should definitely pick some up!
The Ballard Bee Company isn’t just about honey; it exists to bring bees back to the city, teach people about the role of bees in our ecosystem, and see neighborhood gardens benefit from the return of the bees!
Last year some of the DIY team got to witness the yearly migration of honey bees from California up to Seattle. Believe me, standing in a basement full of millions of bees buzzing is a quick way to get over any qualms of beekeeping.
We compiled a list of questions and sat down with Corky to learn from a real pro.
What exactly do bees do and why are they good for gardens?
Flowers can’t pollinate themselves. The plant needs to get the pollen ... [and] many flowers need a mechanism to get that pollen to the other part of the plant. Flowers entice bees with something sweet to drink: nectar. The bee has to go past the pollen, and as they come to drink the nectar, the bee moves the pollen [around the flower.
Honeybees are very efficient pollinators. A honeybee is a species-specific pollinator, which means they go to the same plant constantly. (They don’t go from raspberry, to dandelion, to apple.) They stick to a specific flower, and this creates a better fruit.
What type of bees should I get if I live in Seattle?
North America has 4,000 species of bees. I specialize in one called the honeybee; its scientific name is Apis Mellifera. Though it is not a native bee, it’s a very important bee for gardeners and farming.
I sell two breeds of Apis Mellifera: the Italian honeybee and the Carniolan honeybee. They're great beginner bees, because they're very gentle and fairly predictable. They’re also resistant to some of the [common] diseases that bees get.
Other types of bees that are popular among beekeepers include mason bees, bumblebees, and leaf cutters. Each have their own advantages.
How much space do I need for one hive?
You can keep a beehive on your patio. In France, from what I understand, there are more beekeepers in Paris than all over the rest of France. People keep them on their balconies and rooftops! A beehive is about the size of a file cabinet, so all you need is a small area to work around the bees.
Bees need sun—good, early sun. The more sun they get, the better, because they like to be warm! You also need a little area for you to work in. That's all!
On average, beginners have a 5,000 square foot yard. In Seattle you’re allowed up to four hives in the city limits. Bees can fit anywhere in your yard, as long as the location is good for them in the sun—that's key.
Do bees make honey for themselves? If I start keeping bees will I be able to collect honey?
Bees create honey for themselves. They don't say, "Hey, we're going to make [honey] for you." A lot of times they have a surplus and the beekeeper is able to take that honey.
As a beekeeper, you have to manage how much honey they're going to "winter" with. Normally in the Seattle area, I like to say 40-45 pounds. Some people say 65-70 pounds. I find 70 excessive, but one thing you don't want to do is take so much that you've killed your bees because they've starved.
Is beekeeping a year-round activity?
The beekeeping year usually starts March. In general, a good clue when crocuses and dandelions are opening and the ambient air is around 55 degrees in the spring—that's really the start of the season. Those are the pollen and nectar sources the bees are going to start feeding from, right off the bat.
The season goes until about October. When furnaces are going on in the house, the bees are starting to stay in a little longer.
What is the time commitment for beekeeping?
If you're starting with two hives—which I recommend— set aside 30 minutes to spend observing your bees and learning about them. Once you open the hive, it's really addictive. I would say give yourself an hour to really enjoy the whole process. As far as how often you go out to your hive, in the beginning I would say about every week.
Do I need to feed my bees in the winter?
Most beekeepers feed their bees sugar water. A lot of this is supplemental feeding. Bees are an insect that really need to be managed. When you put them into a hive, they're not out in the wild; they're really counting on you to make sure they have resources they need. Going into winter, our goal is for the bees to survive winter.
Between October and March, the bees are pretty much in the hive eating the honey and clustered up. The colder it is, the tighter this ball of bees become. On warmer days, they break, they can go outside, go to the bathroom, look for food, and then come back in. They need that air to warm up.
That ball of bees in the hive keeps themselves warm at about 95 degrees. It doesn't matter if it's minus-10, they're just heating that tight ball. What they do is they're shivering; that generates heat, like when we shiver. Their muscles start generating heat. That core is really warm, and the queen is in the middle.
Is beekeeping dangerous for people with small children or pets?
Bees are stinging insects, so you have to use a little common sense.
Small children should be supervised. As they get older, they have to learn that these bees are gentle but you can't go knocking and rapping on their hive. I think it’s a great learning experience for children.
The same goes for pets: I’d suggest creating a little fence to keep dogs and kids away from the hives. [I've] had dogs for a long time, and typically if they get stung once they learn not to mess with the bees.
Never keep a dog in a kennel or tied up outside where there is a hive, because if for some reason the bees decide to sting the dog, he’s trapped in the kennel or on the rope and can’t get away.
Would you consider bees pets?
You'll hear people talk about their hives almost as personalities and pets, saying things like: "That one's not so nice in the morning, but later it's as sweet as can be." When I'm out there and working with the bees, I see them as pets in the sense that I genuinely care for them—but I also realize bees are insects that we're raising.
Has beekeeping taught you anything?
Patience, learning to relax, to be in the moment. When things start going a little sideways with bees—let's say the hive becomes a little more defensive—most people's instinct is to rush and finish.
Actually, that has the opposite effect: slowing down relaxes the bees. And if you can focus on certain things, tasks on the hand, and you really think about them, I think it'll take you far in life.
You also learn to think on your feet. Bees are constantly throwing curve balls at you. You have to be able to analyze, react, and implement what you're going to do all at once sometimes. Sometimes it's not that easy. Over time, you just get better and better at it.
Bees are constantly telling you what they need. It's learning. They're like books. Every time I open a hive, there's something they're asking from you. As you grow as a beekeeper, you start to recognize that. You learn to let go of some things as a beekeeper. Most of us like to have control of our lives. You can't control the weather, and so you learn to roll with it a little bit. I think sometimes that's good; it just lets you know that you're living in this world and not everything you can control.
Think you’re ready for the next step? Take a Class:
Ballard Bee Company offers amazing classes for beginning beekeepers. Contact Ballard Bee Company to sign up: (206) 459-4131
- Beekeeping 101 Introduction to Beekeeping: February 27th, 1-3 p.m | $40 or $70 for both classes
- Beekeeping 201 Beginning Your Apiary: March 12th, 1-3 p.m. | $40 or $70 for both classes
Ready to get started?
You can also purchase your basic beekeeping kit from Ballard Bee Company. A beginner kit ($292) includes:
- 1 gallon frame feeder w/ cap & ladder
- Telescoping top with inner cover
- Screened bottom board
- 4 Western Hive Bodies
- 40 Frames with waxed Ritecell Foundation
- 1 Entrance Reducer
Flowers to plant that attract bees:
Not everyone is ready to get their own hive, but anyone can plant flowers that will attract and feed bees. Swanson's Nursery compiled a list of plants that are great for both attracting and feeding bees!
Lavender, Eryngium (Sea Holly), Agastache (Licorice Mints), Sedums both ground cover and taller types Echinacea Monarda (Bee Balm), Asters, Borage, Salvia, Kniphofia (Torch Lily), Scabiosa (Pincushion Flower), Achillea (Yarrow), Gaillardia, Rudbeckia, Allium, Culinary and Ornamental Oregano, Bronze Fennel (common Fennel is now on Noxious weed list)
Lantana, Sweet Alyssum, Annual Salvia, Annual Butterfly Weed, Gaillardia, Rudbeckia, Sunflowers
Buddleia (Butterfly Bush), Mahonia(Oregon Grape), Rhamnus (Cascara), Holodiscus (Oceanspray), Spirea Douglasii (Douglas Spirea), Rosa Nutkana (Nutka Rose)