Three of the state’s top 10 crops are dependent on bee pollination, according to the Washington State Department of Agriculture. While beekeeping is often done in rural areas, with some hives being transported farm to farm to foster pollination, a small company is supporting local farms and bottling honey produced in the Seattle metro area through a network of beehive hosts.
Amy Beth and Peter Nolte, owners of Rainy Day Bees, recently sat down with the Local Food Initiative team to discuss how their unique model of hive management and honey production contributes to the larger local food system. Thanks to a few farm partners and dozens of homeowners located around King County who are willing to host beehives, Rainy Day Bees produces micro local honey and candles and is keenly interested in driving education around bee health.
As Amy Beth and Peter began telling the story of how they launched their company seven years ago, Peter was just arriving home from an excursion to relocate some of their hives from the mountains to lower elevations in preparation for winter.
“It’s easier to move the bees at night,” Amy Beth explains, going on to describe how they founded Rainy Day Bees. “In some ways, we stumbled into this model because we had no space to keep the bees ourselves. We were living in a little apartment in Greenwood, and Peter posted on Facebook ‘Who’s stupid enough to allow a brand-new beekeeper to put a beehive in their yard?’”
With a few hives spread out over the city, their first honey harvest produced interesting results. “When we had these first harvests from these different neighborhoods of Fremont and Phinney, and we tasted the honey, we realized ‘this tastes different,’” Amy Beth says. “These [honeys] were in the hive the exact same period of time, and they looked exactly the same, but they had completely different flavor profiles.”
This difference between neighborhoods was highlighted as they expanded their number of hive hosts in the city and in suburban areas, now numbering over 30. But as the business grew, they realized they needed a place where they could raise more bees at a time and have some flexibility in managing the hives year-round. Partnering with local farms seemed like the perfect solution. Whereas urban and suburban yards can only host two to four hives, a rural farm can accommodate significantly more.
“The farm hosts are the spaces where I can make new bees, where I can move hives,” Peter said. “It’s the farms that have the land and the space to handle that kind of flex and allow us to do our city beekeeping.”
“We targeted Jubilee Farm specifically to ask them about placing bees on their farm because we aligned with their values of education and community,” Amy Beth said. “They do such a good job of welcoming people to the farm through their CSA program and with their Harvest Festival. They really want people to be connected to where their food comes from.”
In their first year of partnering with Jubilee, the couple hosted a walking tour of the bee yard during the May Day Festival, and every year since they have set up a booth with an observation hive for visitors to see during the Harvest Festival. Amy Beth says that Jubilee does a great job of uplifting small, local food vendors and is generous with their space at these events.
While the relationship with Jubilee Farm has been easy to maintain, the couple says finding new farm partners has proved challenging. A primary barrier is finding a partner with sufficient open space – about 40 feet by 40 feet – that is located outside of a floodplain.
“We’re not particular about the space,” Peter said. “It’s normal for beekeepers to be kind of thrown in a corner, where you can’t do anything else with the spot. As long as I can get into and out of the space, and the bees aren’t going to float away in the first flood of the year.” And because the bees forage within a radius of a few miles, Peter adds that the bees do not need to be kept in immediate proximity to crop fields, though it is helpful for pollination.
The couple is hoping to find two to three more farms that are interested in partnering with them by providing the land for new hives – no beekeeping management is required by the farm host.
In return, Peter says, “We always want to make sure the farms have a good number of hives because the benefits to them are a combination of pollination and honey. With Jubilee Farm, one of the immediate things they wanted was to know how quickly they could get honey into their farm store. And that feels like a through line with most of the farms I’ve talked to.”
The couple also sells the Jubilee Farm honey at farmers markets, labeling it with the farm name, as they do with all of their honeys labeled by Seattle neighborhood.
“We love that we’re getting to share about a farm we love at the markets every week. We talk about this great biodynamic farm where we raise our bees, so it’s really mutually beneficial,” Amy Beth says.
Their labeling system is illustrative of their commitment to transparency. When asked how their local food production fits into the larger food system in King County, Amy Beth describes their values-driven approach to marketing.
“There is a big lack of transparency in our food system in general and, rather than telling you that our honey is ultra-local, we show you it, by telling you exactly where the bees were,” she said. “Then you get to make the decision as a consumer, ‘Is that local for me?’ You have the information.
“Honey is also something that is hard for people to know the language in which to ask for what they want. People want a unicorn that is local, organic, raw honey, but that’s not actually a thing because we don’t have organic certification in the United States for honey. The best way to have transparency into what you’re buying is to know your beekeeper.”
Rainy Day Bees is also determined to increase education around beekeeping and bee health. Amy Beth and Peter both come from backgrounds in drama and theatre, which drives their approach to this outreach work.
“We teach classes at local schools on bees,” Peter says. Amy Beth adds that for younger children, they put on “interactive experiences, using creative play around the lives of honeybees.”
Other efforts focus on sharing beekeeping knowledge with adults, from an education table at Shoreline Farmers Market to bee experiences booked through Airbnb and Field Trip Society. Peter is also an active member of the Puget Sound Beekeeping Association.
Through this association and through maintaining communication with the amateur beekeepers who purchase bees from Rainy Day, Peter hopes to improve the health of local bee populations, which have been harmed in the past few years from uncontrolled pests and diseases. Amy Beth says they hope to begin offering “102 and 201” level classes on beekeeping, which has a steep learning curve and involves different levels of care for the bees depending on the season.
As Peter begins to collect the final honey harvest and prepare hives for the winter months, he says now is the perfect time for farmers to contact him about partnering as a farm host in 2022.
“I’ll be evaluating new urban yards and new farmyards probably October through December give or take. By the end of January, I will have confirmed pretty much all of our new yards for the year,” he says.
Between the farm hosts and those hosting beehives in the city, the couple is ensuring that these critical pollinators have what they need to pollinate and produce honey – and the team at Rainy Day Bees is proud of the way non-hive hosts are engaged, too.
Amy Beth says, “My informal slogan for our company is ‘Know your beekeeper, farmer, neighbor.’ We love that people take ownership over the hives in their neighborhood that are not even in their backyard, but they feel like they helped by planting things, saying ‘I saw honeybees on my lavender, and I contributed to this honey by making sure that the bees have nectar.’”
Rainy Day Bees products can be found at Shoreline Farmers Market, Cone & Steiner, and the Jubilee Farm Store. Readers can also visit them online rainydaybees.com/ to learn more about the honey, candles, and services they offer.
Local farms interested in the benefits of becoming a hive host can reach out to Peter at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos provided by the Rainy Day Bees Instagram account: @rainydaybees.