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Ballard Bee Company

Keeping the Bee in Ballard

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All of the influences of that season are right there, captured in a bottle.

__Corky Luster

Finding what we’re meant to do with our lives and careers requires a certain level of experimentation, courage, humility, and a touch of what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called that “willing suspension of disbelief.” We must be honest with ourselves, first of all, to evaluate what we are capable of, what we have available to us. We must also be willing to try, to fail, and to start over if necessary. But finally, and perhaps most challenging, we must be able to envision what does not yet exist in our world. It takes but a spark of imagination fueled by a well-considered sort of madness that gets us past the excuses. We must first believe in what we can do, what is possible, and then – it is.

It’s at this crossroads of creativity and challenge that Ballard Bee Company begins. In 2008, Corky Luster was a sculptural artist doing fine-finish construction work in Seattle. With a colorful career already under his belt including designing men’s fashion design, fine art, and professional windsurfing, his days as an entrepreneur were about to change once again. After a fitful year of losing work in the economic downturn across the nation, Corky – like many others that year – saw an opportunity to create for himself a career he could only dream about when business was good.

The idea for his own company first struck in an unlikely time, but in an ideal place: a camping trip to eastern Washington with his faithful Flat-Coated Retriever, Boon. The two were ambling through spring fields of endless yellow canola when Corky noticed another visitor; a man, out alone, tending a wild hive of bees in the distance. With a modest amount of experience in beekeeping, he was intrigued, and carried the image of the man back to his campfire that evening.

The idea for Ballard Bee Company came that night in a storm of thought. Relaxing by the fire with only Boon and a six pack, Corky pondered how he could possibly ever bring beekeeping into the city. Well, what makes a farm? he mused. Can a yard be a farm? As he drifted off under a clear sky that night, he decided one thing: that if he awoke still excited as he was that moment about the idea, he would do it. If he woke up in a sprawl of PBR cans and the excitement evaporated along with their contents, he would have to figure out something else. Luckily for the bees – and Seattle – he awoke ecstatically to the former.

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But Corky’s admiration for beekeeping had begun much sooner than that fateful night. There was the glowing bee catching jar his mother had given him as a boy, the friend in college who kept bees and chickens in his backyard (before that was a thing), the dabbling here and there with small hives on his own. But this idea was much larger than that, and propelled by a slowly forming mission. Since moving to Ballard, he had increasingly wondered, Where are the bees? They were to him conspicuously absent from the neighborhoods he knew, a vacancy that would inevitably spell trouble for the urban ecosystem. For a while he excused the problem, assuming someone else would notice and take to solving it. “The solution was everybody else, and that’s when I realized everybody else is you. You’ve gotta do it. And I’m glad I did.”

At first, it started in his backyard. “In Seattle we’re allowed four hives per yard, so I was kind of running out of room.” When he mentioned the idea to start an urban pollination company to friends, they jumped on board. “Your business is only as good as your customers. If you don’t have them, you don’t really have a business. You have ideas.” But within the year, Corky was busier than he’d imagined. What he thought might be an interesting kick turned into a marketable service. “Here we are since 2009, six years later and growing still.” With hives now all over the city and a handful of colonies out of farms in rural Washington, he’s established something people not only want, but believe in. “And I’m still coming up with ideas. The newest is working with restaurants, having them partner with me to buy the bees, buy the hives, and then I manage the bees.” In this system, local businesses support their own urban habitat, and are able to utilize and profit from that investment. Dare we say it – sweet deal.

Despite the hours of solo time spent tending hives, Corky has made his work deliberately collaborative. The point of his work, in fact, is to draw others in to be a part of fulfilling this great need he sees. To do this, he hosts classes around the city that give instruction on beginner level beekeeping. He’s also a retailer for all sorts of home hive propagation gear in his off season. Because of his long-term dedication to keeping bees in the city, he’s become a resource of knowledge and support for anyone interested in hosting them in their garden.

Corky will tell you outright that Ballard Bee Co. is not a honey manufacturer. The honey is just the proverbial icing on top, a byproduct of the mission. What he is most interested in, however, are the bees. “It’s an urban pollination company,” he insists.

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To him, what goes in those beautiful bottles is so much more than amber sweetness. “But if you’re looking for something truly provincial – especially in Seattle – it’s honey.” Meaning, it doesn’t get any more local. “And when you talk about the terroir [the essence of the land], that’s honey.” As he puts it, “It captures the year. All of the influences of that season are right there, captured in a bottle.” The weather, the flowers in your neighborhood, your garden, the sun – all of it extracted and processed by these mesmerizing creatures. Like a fine wine, its taste and components are rearranged and distilled in a remarkable amalgam of flavor.

In a sense, the honey is what helps the medicine go down. Beekeeping is not all honeycomb and happiness. Bees get sick, they swarm and sting, and sometimes fail to produce any honey at all.

In his six plus years in the business, Corky has battled bears, inexplicably violent swarms, and the threat of colony collapse. But he keeps at it, because he’s attuned to the example his tiny friends have shown him, one that translates into relating to human beings. “They do everything for the good of the colony. Everything they do is geared toward its survival. They only live for about thirty days, but it’s all been programmed so that the next generation will be okay.” He refers to the colony at large as a “selfless collective,” and reflects on what that has to say about humanity. “Really it’s what we should be doing as a community. They’re a great example of making sure that everybody’s been tended to. Even when your hive is collapsing, they’ll be down to the last handful of bees and that Queen will still be there, and they’re trying their best to keep her alive, because that’s the only hope to keep the colony going. It’s amazing to see.”

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In creating his business Corky has taken innumerable risks. Financial, personal, even environmental. Like a farmer or a shepherd, his work is seasonal, and susceptible to the elements and a changing climate. It’s humbling, really, to willfully accept the natural order of the world in an age in which you seemingly no longer have to, but Corky considers it a privilege. “Beekeeping slows you down. When it’s just me and the bees, time really does disappear. You’re really there to observe. That’s what beekeepers do: we observe. And when you slow down, you see things in a different light.” Slowing down has for him gone hand in glove (or without gloves, as the case may be) with scaling back his equipment. His handful of tools for the job echo a working testament to his overarching values. No bulky insulating suit, no protection beyond a simple mesh veil across his face. “The more you have, the greater the barrier between you and the experience. So how much can you take out of your life without losing quality?”

Beyond bees, Corky’s medium is truly entrepreneurial culture change. It isn’t an easy job, one that leaves him creatively and emotionally exhausted at times. “I’m never satisfied in some sense. As an entrepreneur, you always have to be looking at something a little differently.” But it’s the anticipation of newness on every horizon that keeps him going further down the path he’s taken. He’s passionate about this movement he’s seen in a new wave of creatives, too, people he considers the risk takers in a burgeoning handmade economy, exhorting that, “This is a new direction. We need to support these people.”

In his own story, Corky has at times battled uphill for the sake of his mission for Ballard Bee Company, but reminded us in a final thought that no matter what you’re up against, if the vision is worth it, “The fruit’s at the end of the branch. You just have to climb out there and get it.”

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