Backyard beekeeper Jill Reed may not be born in Portland, but her sustainable paradigm for local business Bee Thinking, certainly fits the Portland ideology of staying sustainable and proactive for the environment. Her environment just happens to be foundationless beehives.
Alongside co-founder and husband, Matt Reed, Jill has formulated a tasty business resulting from an incident involving a bee trapped in their kitchen nearly ten years ago. A powerful interest in indicator species as well as an ethically embracing business model has led to expansion on her retail shop, soon to be store front to Southeast Hawthorne and currently tucked away gracefully around the corner of Poplar Ave.
Offering an ethical work lifestyle, the Bee Thinking staff hive is home to key players hailing from such mega corps as Microsoft and Google. This local hive is offering Portland redefinition of what it means to work with a cause as they buzz towards larger staff and company growth within their ethically bound dedication to Portland, nature, and of course – bees.
How do you find creativity in your company?
I would say as far as creativity, it’s the cornerstone of our business. The reason why is because when we started this, the country was in deep recession. It was 2008 the first time we decided we were going to do something; we sold our first hives in 2009. In our research to start beekeeping, we noticed that it seemed that there was a one size fits all kind of game being played; and the retailers were really catering to commercial beekeepers. Well, we’re backyard beekeepers. So my husband, Matt, researched different hives that make more sense for the backyard and we came up with two types that had kind of fallen out of fashion, and started producing those. So it was something that had been forgotten, that we revived.
We started blogging about the process of building hives in our garage and people started reaching out immediately, wanting these hives. They were beautiful designs, and if you want four or five hives in your backyard, you know, you want them to be attractive. People really responded to what we were doing, kind of unbelievably to us, the business just took off.
Had you been interested in bees before the business?
Well, my husband has always been interested in indicator species that can predict or show something that’s wrong with the balance of ecology. Bees are exactly that. He was interested right away, but I was the more unlikely of the two. I grew up just outside of Chicago. I can remember the bug spray trucks coming down in the summer in the middle of the night, just spraying those chemicals all over and then coming through the windows. That’s what I grew up with, the notion that bugs are bad. So it’s a totally different way of encountering the world for me. But it has been nothing but outstanding to have a relationships with the bees. At this point we have three apiaries in our neighborhood. Depending on the year, we have anywhere from thirty to fifty hives.
How do you connect with Portland through Bee Thinking?
We teach classes and have a really robust range to offer. Our beginning beekeeping classes almost always sell out. We offer it at least four times a month, if not eight. It’s incredible. We also have mead-making classes, candle-making classes…we just want people to be able to use hive byproducts in a way that benefits their family and their community.
We did just partner with the Clackamas County Green Corp, which is the juvenile detention program that teaches youth about gardening, farming, and agriculture. So we just started working with them to get their hives in great shape, and they get classes from us as well as a part of our education outreach.
Other than partnering with your husband in business, how does Bee Thinking work in tandem with your personal life?
We have an 18 month old son who is tentative but fearless, and I know that won’t always last. But right now he has such a great ambition for being outside and encountering nature, which is so important to me and Matt. And Portland is a beautiful place to do it.
What do you feel attracts people to what you are doing?
I think that part of what we’ve found for our business is that people are just so much more interested in their food supply and having control over it more than ever before. I think that’s partly why people respond to us. They want to have that relationship and understand the growing seasons and growing cycles. Food doesn’t just appear on the store shelf, it comes from somewhere. I think that’s part of what people are enthusiastic about. The other branch of our business is Mead Market. Mead is the fastest growing beverage category right now, it’s bananas! A lot of our retail is bottle sales for the mead that we carry.
What is most important about the business you have created/continue to create here?
Having a mission-based business is everything to us, and it’s something that we’ve wanted since the time that we met. We wanted to do something that we could believe in – to do something that actually mattered. We wanted to be able to go to work every day feeling like somebody learned something and that we didn’t harm the world, we helped it. That’s super important to us.
Number one for us is always leaving enough honey for the bees themselves. Excess honey we will sometimes retail from our shop, but it always sells out within a day or two – which is a lovely problem to have. But bees come first. Beeswax can be helpful for anything, from conditioning wood to making balms and lotions. We actually have a woman on staff who is a chef, and does really extensive honey pairing and cooking and will be offering cooking classes for us this year. It’s great because she has a take on honey and bees that none of us do because she’s a chef. So her perspective is really rounding out what our education is and what have to offer the community.
What are some other unique specialized staff you have on your team?
We have an entomologist on staff, and she is available for speaking, consultation. She does our beginning beekeeping classes. Her specialty is actually native pollinators, so that’s also been a big help to round out classes as far as Mason bees and planting for pollinators for the Pacific Northwest.
We actually have a database of what everyone on staff is interested in, so that we know what to utilize different people for. We love being able to draw on everybody’s experiences and interests to make our company a rounder broader place. We don’t want anyone to feel pigeon-holed or that they have no place to grow.
How do you sustain a creative and dynamic talent base with a local and relatively young business?
I think one of the benefits of being a small growing company in Portland is that everything’s on the table. If you can make a good case for something you want to do for the company, you’re going to go do it and see if you can prove it. And that’s a very luxurious place to be in as a small company. It’s fun, it’s really fun. I hope it keeps things fresh for everybody.
The amount of time that goes into building a small business and working for a small business is not generally fun. So if we can make it fun in other ways and worthwhile for people to be here, hopefully we can continue to attract such dynamic and vibrant people with a lot of experience to offer.
What are Bee Thinking’s next steps?
Well Portland’s such a great place, because everyone’s so receptive to small business. We’ve had nothing but a great experience so far. Portland really values how critical small business is to the economy and to the culture of the city. So, we want to be able to continue engaging the community.
Mead Market is expanding to have a Hawthorne Blvd. side store front. It’s so exciting to see that category grow, and to be able to encounter locals and visitors with a product that is so sensory and that they haven’t necessarily experienced before. It’s such a huge growing industry that there’s everything from session style mead to the sticky sweet style mead. For a wine drinker or a beer drinker there’s something for you that you haven’t had before and it’s going to blow you away. We’re even going to have growler fills in the new shop we’re expanding in to. We’re building out with Portland local Field Work Design. We’re going to be using cedar and other materials that echo the hives themselves. It’s going to be a space where people can really come in and experience the byproduct, including tastings.
We have a really intensive plan to expand our education program this year too. People are asking for more and more classes and we’re rushing to keep up. That’s the one thing about small business – you’re always behind because people want more, hence, our staff growing at such a rapid rate. We want to make sure that people are getting what they need, especially knowledge and education.
What does it mean to you, to be a Portland Creative?
It means being a part of something really vibrant and vital that’s constantly changing and growing. It means being supported by the community and by the city. We are endlessly grateful to be doing this in Portland, because I don’t think it could happen in another city. Where I’m from, everything is so regimented and dependent on government and taxes that we could never thrive in a major metropolitan city the way that we have here. Portland allows us to build roots and become a strong company that we can perhaps then take elsewhere and still remain with our roots here, which is an honor.
Nature itself is the root of all creativity, and that’s such a beautiful thing to be able to experience every single day. I think that as long as we keep sight of that, we will keep growing in the ways that we want to.
Take a class, sip some mead, and learn more about hives here!