Creating a buzz: Urban beekeeper lands a honey of a deal

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Nathan Clarke has found a delicious way to merge two unusual pursuits. He’s been raising bees since 2005 and is also a home brewer, producing private batches of honey-lime beer and mead, aka honey wine. In 2013, he launched Mad Urban Bees to produce his own honey smack dab in the middle of the city.

“Madison has plenty of waterways and greenery,” Clarke noted, which helps because bees only gather pollen within about two miles of a hive, so the flavors they introduce vary. Because of the wide variety of flowers and trees in the city, Clarke has detected hints of mint, pear, caramel, citrus, herbs, and cinnamon in his honey.

Early on, he launched a Kickstarter campaign looking for $7,000, but he raised more than $10,000. He ordered bees, purchased equipment from a retired beekeeper, and had a lawyer draw up a contract for volunteers willing to host hives on their properties.

“I don’t want bees in a well-manicured neighborhood because everyone will be spraying their yards. My honey is chemical-free.” — Nathan Clarke, Mad Urban Bees

This year, 100 active hives will produce for Mad Urban Bees, with two hives allowed per yard. People pay $60 a year for the opportunity, and the waiting list exceeds 200 names.

Locating hives and hosts takes careful consideration. “First, I make sure I don’t have too many hives in a single area. I look at the neighborhood and access to parks or waterways. I don’t want bees in a well-manicured neighborhood because everyone will be spraying their yards. My honey is chemical-free.”

Likewise, he interviews the hosts. “This is a business transaction,” notes Clarke, 39. “Bees are live animals. I treat them as livestock. They need to be cared for to produce, and to make sure they’re pleasant to be around.”

Once a week, from May through July, Clarke visits all his hives to ensure they are developing correctly and not showing signs of swarming or the presence of the Varroa mite, a big problem in the industry. He’ll harvest 15 to 16 hives at a time, extract the honey from the combs, conduct a taste test, and build a flavor profile.

Currently, he does the work in his basement, where he transformed a room that meets all Department of Agriculture specifications. In his first year, he filled 5,500 bottles by hand. Last year, production increased to 8,400 bottles.

Clarke aimed high when setting his price point. “I found the most expensive Wisconsin-produced honey sold in stores and I matched it,” he said. “This is an artisan, high-end product.” It is sold at a number of retailers around town.

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A $40,000 loan from Summit Credit Union allowed him to upgrade from a hand-crank extractor to an electric version and to purchase a dishwasher for sterilizing. This year, he may also hire additional help.

“You need a lot of capital in the beginning of the year because you’re replacing bees and hives, but it’s also the slowest time for honey sales.” To compensate, he started a honey CSA (community supported agriculture) whereby members can purchase fresh honey that he delivers every three weeks. The first year, he had 30 subscribers. Last year, he had more than 100.

By the end of April, Clarke had sold all of his 2014 honey — about $52,000 worth — and netted about $15,000 in profits. “There’s more demand for my product than I can supply,” he acknowledged.

Perhaps he’ll use some of that money to keep his bee suit in tip-top shape. He claims he’s been desensitized to bee stings, but they’re still an occupational hazard.  “I’m allergic to bees,” he admitted.

Mad Urban Bees LLC
2010 Vahlen St., Madison, 53704  
608.622.7965 | madurbanbees.com

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