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Urban Bee, a Capitol Hill honey producer, creates small biz buzz

Beekeeping in Capitol Hill has kept Urban Bee owner Bob Redmond busy as a … well, you know.

With seven years under the netted hood and 15 apiaries in backyards across the city, the 18th Ave E headquartered Urban Bee has turned into a neighborhood institution. It supplies local, naturally grown honey to various Capitol Hill retailers, runs a bicycle-delivered CSA for subscribers and even has a nonprofit arm that spreads information about ecological sustainability and restoration.

“I didn’t start it with a big business in mind,” Redmond said. “By two years, we were in eight spots. Hives themselves are scattered all around the city. But we process all the honey here in Capitol Hill.”

It started with friends, and friends of friends, offering up their backyards around the city to housing bee hives. Now, Redmond runs Urban Bee with two part time employees and, “very informally,” his wife and three-year-old son.

(Image: Urban Bee Co.)

(Image: Urban Bee Co.)

“Being an agriculture producer is kind of insane,” he said. “There’s so much to do with management, with maintenance, process the honey, process the wax. And then you have to run a business on top of it.”

But to the 49-year-old beekeeper, the effort to encourage local agriculture and sustainable ecology has been worth it. He continually mentioned how much they work within the apiaries’ communities to make sure both the residents of the hives, and nearby houses, are safe.

“We take great care that there’s enough habitat and not too many colonies out in each neighborhood,” he said. “The whole block knows about it. There are many concerns in this business and habitat is the foremost.”

(Image: Urban Bee Co.)

(Image: Urban Bee Co.)

Redmond said his journey from curious to keeper began when he was a Hugo House resident writer in 2005. There he spent his time exploring the community gardens and pea patches around the city.

“I was literally living in a garden and writing about the experience there,” he said. “The more I read about bees, the more I realized all the things that were going on around me. And then a friend said, ‘You should be a beekeeper.’”

That comment might not inspire others to action. Or, if it did, it might just lead to a hobby. But Redmond said he has an inclination towards broader aspirations.

“I’m an entrepreneur by nature,” he said. “I had the zeal to keep following that particular path. But the cool thing about the bees is that it’s really, really urgent.”

It’s not just a business to him, it’s an way to spread information and action about sustainable environmentalism.

“Our ecology is in peril,” Redmond said. “Global warming is, to make a twisted metaphor, just the tip of the iceberg. It’s a state of emergency. After leaving my social service and arts career, I was ready for something more urgent.”

And, as he sees it, bees and their sustainable habitat is not only pivotal in protecting the global ecosystem, but they also make an excellent marketing tool.

“At the crossroads of all of these issues is pollinators,” he said. “Plus it’s a real gateway because people love honey bees.”

The Capitol Hill Ecodistrict shares that love. There is a plan to create a “Pollinator Pathway” along 11th Ave to connect the area’s green spaces.

Redmond, meanwhile, set up a nonprofit wing of Urban Bee, an action and education based outreach entity called Common Acre. It performs regional research and cultural activism to promote a healthy ecology for the Puget Sound.

He says that dedication to offering local honey responsibly has paid off to his customers.

“The reception has been fabulous,” he said. “People say this honey that Urban Bee produces is ‘the best’.”

He only supplies to two local shops, letting them take care of further distributing. Redmond sells to retailers Sugarpill on E Pine and Broadway and Rainbow Natural Remedies on 15th Ave E.

Additionally, he has had a partnership with Theo Chocolate in Fremont for a few years. Theo has used Urban Bee as the exclusive honey supplier for all their candies.

“I’d love to say ‘yes’ to more places, but when you have a really limited product, the best use of your time is getting it to the customer,” he said.

He likes to get it to the customer by bicycle.

Redmond started out making deliveries to customers on his bike, taking them from “Shoreline to Columbia City”, but he soon realized that was not a very efficient use of his time. So, currently, Urban Bee offers some limited ‘beecycle’ delivery from Capitol Hill to Beacon Hill/Downtown.

Also, Urban Bee has launched a Community Supported Agriculture program, which delivers a different apiary’s honey to subscribers one a month — also delivered by bike.

While larger expansion opportunities have risen over the years. Redmond wanted to take small, careful steps to ensure the local nature of the business continues. It’s important to him to continue being a part of Capitol Hill and the honey to be a part of the city.

“I’m of the mind that slow and steady wins the race,” he said. “I could tell you, down to the GPS coordinates, where your honey came from.”

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