Cancer survivor and beekeeper Bob Redmond shifts his company’s focus from hives and honey to habitat and ecological literacy.
By: Jackie Varriano – Seattle Times Food Writer
Bob Redmond looks for the queen on a frame of bees from a hive on a roof in Fremont. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
In 2008, Bob Redmond fell in love with bees. He studied them, learned how to care for and manage apiaries, and then started a few hives around the Seattle area, eventually becoming a full-fledged urban journeyman-level certified beekeeper.
In 2009, he started Urban Bee Company, managing apiaries in backyards, community gardens, small family farms and even rooftop restaurant gardens, delivering honey by bicycle. He started an airport research project at Sea-Tac, using bees as biosensors to monitor pollution, and created a sister organization called The Common Acre to help restore acres of pollinator habitat and support pollinator research.
Then, in 2017, Redmond was diagnosed with cancer.
“It’s Stage 4 colon cancer. It forced me to reevaluate my time. It’s not lost on me that I have a GI illness and so does our culture,” Redmond says during a recent phone call.
Things in his life needed to change, and so did Urban Bee Company.
Around 15 years ago, there was an explosion in urban beekeeping. People just like Redmond were starting to think about backyard gardens and repurposing public land for urban agriculture. With that came natural conversations about pollinators and the decline in honeybee populations. Colony collapse disorder was making headlines, and a troublesome quote often attributed — but never with certainty — to Albert Einstein kept cropping up. (“If the bee disappeared off the face of the Earth, man would only have four years left to live.”)
Still, Redmond says, “That’s what people focus on. Einstein didn’t predict the end of humanity. In reality, honeybees are going to be fine because we can keep producing more.”
Redmond says that over the decade he ran Urban Bee Company, he and the greater beekeeping community started to shift away from the blanket “save the bees” mentality that gripped so many.
Now, Redmond says, we really should worry about the “loss of wild bees and the habitats that support them.” While we always can breed more honeybees (and other pollinators), “You can’t go out and make more [wild] Bombus melanopygus bumble bees because you can’t manage them. If they start to suffer, there’s just not a lot to do unless we try to replace the habitat and plant more native plants,” he says.
He says his illness forced him to make some decisions. Redmond realized the world didn’t need more urban beekeepers; it — and his community in Seattle — needed more education. It was time for Urban Bee to evolve.
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