Citing the “crazy weather” Madison has experienced since April, the hyperlocal honey company Mad Urban Bees announced today that it will close.
“My business is a casualty of climate change,” said owner Nathan Clarke, who founded Mad Urban Bees in 2012. “The way that seasons are changing, the fact that we can have six inches of snow in April followed by 80-, 90-degree weather in May and a 100-year flood in August ... last year wasn’t great and this year was, by far, worse.”
Clarke held his first Kickstarter in 2011 for a small scale honey company that would place hives — currently about 60 — in Madison backyards and rooftops. Every time Clarke put out a call for more hosts, he said, he received an abundance of interest from people excited about protecting some of Wisconsin’s most visible pollinators. Each property owner was like partner, paying Clarke to host a hive.
“Overall the business was growing,” Clarke said. “As I discovered better ways to manage the hives, I felt like I had gotten the model down. Last year it was enough that I bought more equipment, I expanded a little bit. I hit the 100 hives mark which I was happy about.”
But honey production was down last year, and it was down so low again this year that Clarke knew he had to make a change. He explained the situation on the company’s Facebook page.
“When I started Mad Urban Bees in 2012, I extracted 115 gallons of honey,” he wrote. “This year I’ve barely extracted 12. Most of that honey so far has gone towards two CSA pickups, and about 1.5 gallons going to jars at the Willy St. Co-ops.”
Mad Urban Bees’ business model was driven by honey production. This year, the cold April and hot May disrupted honeybees while they were trying to build up populations. Clarke estimated that a nectar flow, when lots of native plants and trees flower at once, happened here only once, in June.
“There haven’t been the resources for (hives) to produce additional honey rather than what they use on a daily basis,” Clarke said. For Mad Urban Bees, “the majority of its income and forecasting was based on getting a certain amount of honey per hive. When that doesn’t work that model can’t hold up.
“However, I think bees can do really well in the city,” Clarke said. “They can help pollinate people’s yards. And honestly when people have hives in their area they’re more conscious about how they treat their yard.”
Clarke wasn’t sure if his honey problems were echoed statewide. He’s heard a variety of stories from nearby beekeepers.
“It’s so regional with beekeeping,” Clarke said. “Bees will go about five miles from their hives. Every 10 miles, you’re in a different bee ecosystem. It really depends on the region and this region has been slammed with crazy weather since the beginning of the year.”
Clarke plans to do one more pickup for his honey CSA next week. He’s looking at a couple of different ways the business could go, either into a new partnership or downshifting into a vigorous hobby. He could also move the focus away from honey and toward bee products like soap, hand salve and lip balm.
“I have a lot of ideas in my head,” Clarke said. “I’m excited about potentially working with other people. They could bring in ideas about how we can connect with businesses, with schools, private land owners outside the city to cultivate bee populations. I’ve thought about having a nonprofit side to the business.”
“There’s a lot of possibilities,” Clarke said. “I’ll still be teaching classes and be active in the community, just on a personal scale, not a business scale.”
In spring, Clarke returned to a more typical day job at an educational publisher on Madison's north side. Soon, he said, he might ask for support to pay the rent on a space at Common Wealth Development, where he still has equipment.
Clarke is sad to be referring to his business in the past tense, but right now, he’s not overly worried about the bees themselves. Wisconsin will keep bringing honeybees in from other states if it has to. We’ll keep them from disappearing, he said, but that is not the bigger problem.
“The majority of the pollinators are native pollinators,” Clarke said. “Those are the ones that need real protection. ... We don’t see what’s going on with them. We can’t know that in our yard there’s nobody home.”