Corky Luster always has projects going. Last year when his beehives did especially well, he decided to create the Ballard Bee Company and market honey. “I thought I would bottle it and start selling it,” Luster said.
Luster’s first sale was to Anne Catherine Kruger, chef and owner of A Caprice Kitchen. He was walking his dog by her restaurant one day and thought, “I’ve got to sell it to somebody.”
For the label, Luster “wanted something with a little more edge,” and avoided the typical country theme. Photo by Emily Fairbrook.
“It was so fortuitous. It just worked out,” Luster said. “She gave me the courage and positive energy to keep selling.” Kruger’s restaurant uses fresh and local foods, so when she discovered the Ballard Bee Company was within five miles she immediately got excited. “I think it’s really important to support other small businesses and farms,” said Kruger. “I can really tell the difference. The ingredients just shine all by themselves.” A Caprice Kitchen is located at 15th Avenue Northwest on Northwest 70th Street.
Recently, Luster’s honey has become so popular he’s had to turn down interested stores. Luster is selective because he harvests just once a year but supplies stores and restaurants year-round. “No big stores,” said Luster. “I want [Ballard Bee Company honey in] specialty boutique stores and places I go to. I want to support them.”
However, Luster plans on expanding. He’s building new hives and expects to have 40 this summer. He’s also planning on marketing comb honey in addition to extracted honey. “It’s going to be a big product next year,” Luster said in reference to comb honey. To get around having more than four hives — the legal limit for one yard in the city — Luster places hives in other people’s yards.
“Sponsors” get free hives on their property and are rewarded with a jar of honey and pollinated plants. Those who choose to lease a hive get all the honey at the end of the summer. Luster manages all the hives. This spring, Luster is adding more sponsors and just announced plans to place hives in the garden on top of the Bastille Restaurant.
As the Ballard Bee Company keeps growing, Luster is considering hiring an intern. “I’ll be really tough on who I pick,” Luster warned. “I’m going to make them learn the unglamorous stuff.”
For now, the Ballard Bee Company consists of Luster and his partner, Karen Percelle. “Our staff Christmas party is pretty quiet,” Luster joked. But Luster’s life is far from quiet. In addition to working full time for his remodeling company, he mentors other beekeepers, teaches classes at Seattle Tilth and is involved in the Puget Sound Bee Keepers Association.
Corky Luster and Karen Percelle beside two hives in their backyard. Photo by Emily Fairbrook.
Both Luster and Percelle enjoy the community aspect of “urban beekeeping.” They believe it’s a great benefit to their yard, neighborhood and wildlife. They’ve noticed an increase of berries on their trees, and more birds and less bugs. “I think everybody should have bees,” Luster said.
One unique aspect of keeping bees in the city is the increased human interaction. Luster’s bees are gentle, and he constantly checks their temperament with his hands. Aggressive bees sting more so Luster knows when to split up a hive. Luster intentionally doesn’t wear gloves when he suits up so he can get stung.
“A lot of people push high productivity, but they can be defensive,” Luster said. “I have to consider neighbors. If there was an issue with allergies or aggressiveness I probably wouldn’t [have hives] here.” Luster and Percelle are thankful they have great neighbors who enjoy the benefits of bees. The occasional free jar of honey doesn’t hurt the relationship, either.
A close-up of the inside lid of a hive. In the summer, 60,000 bees live in one hive. Photo by Corky Luster.
When asked about the current honeybee scarcity, Luster said he hasn’t noticed anything with his own bees, but knows farmers who have.
To cut down on problems, Luster uses the Integrated Pest Management model and throws away bee supplies every three years. He also uses natural tricks such as sprinkling powdered sugar on the bees. This encourages the bees to groom each other, killing mites. “All these little things add up and we have healthier bees,” said Luster, adding that there are no proven solutions to the dying honeybee problem.
In the future, Luster and Percelle may move to a farm, but for now their day jobs are in the city.
“This is a great way to be involved in an aspect of it,” Luster said. For Percelle, it’s a perfect balance. She works at Nordstrom full time, teaches yoga and is “a part-time bee mistress.”
“I get to do exactly what I want to do,” said Percelle. “There are a lot of people trying urban farming — it’s nice to be a part of that.”
Here is a complete list of retailers that carry honey from the Ballard Bee Company.
(Final photo courtesy TKTJ Design. Contributor Emily Fairbrook is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory.)