“Keep it simple, don’t be scared,” says Brad Swift, founder of Portland Bee Balm, dispensing wisdom for budding beekeepers and the bee-curious. Brad himself felt intimidated at the thought of keeping honey bees before it first became his hobby and then, in 2011, his business with his wife Anika. It took a neighbor showing off his hive to overcome his alarm about “stinging and stuff.” (He doesn’t get stung, by the way.) The following spring, he made the leap and got his own hive.
We spoke with Brad about how keeping bees in the city helps him stay connected to the outdoors, how Portland Bee Balm got its start, and what people can do to support the pollinators that support our food supply.
How does beekeeping connect you with the outdoors and nature?
“It lets me see how the bees communicate and how they operate. The bees go out to gather pollen and nectar…they need the protein in the pollen to create new life, new bees. They can fuel themselves on the sugars in honey [made from nectar], but to create the structure for new life, they need pollen to grow new bees.”
It’s the symbiosis between bees and plants—the interconnected ecology of beekeeping—that fascinates Brad, and for him brings the outdoors back to the city, where it can be harder to feel connected to the natural world.
Brad explains that a bee will go to the same type of flower on each outing—just dandelions or lavender flowers, for example. It allows them to harvest the maximum amount of pollen and to pollinate efficiently, which produces more seeds and therefore more flowers the next year. He says you can spot the “pollen baskets,” the balls of wax on a bee’s legs, and deduce by the color which type of flower they’ve visited.
It’s neat you get to see the world through the bees’ perspective…So what made you want to develop your beekeeping hobby into a business?
“I had beeswax because I was beekeeping and honey harvesting. One day my wife ran out of lip balm, so I started looking up recipes. When putting together my own recipes, my goal was to use as much beeswax as possible. Generally, beeswax is the most expensive ingredient in cosmetics."
"Some products say they include beeswax but use a nominal amount—you’ll see it listed as the last ingredient.”
Brad says it’s important to strike a balance because more beeswax makes the bee balm stiffer. He had time to get it right. For 1 ½ years, his bee balm was a side project to his job at a residential treatment service for psychiatric care for children (rewarding but taxing work). Then he decided to focus on Portland Bee Balm full time. His DIY efforts in approaching owner-operated gift shops in Portland, showing off his natural bee balm and the “Mayan pyramid” wooden display stands he made himself, paid off. The rest is history.
Your original product has just four simple ingredients. Can you talk about their sourcing?
“I initially used wax from my hives—a pound or pound and a half from a hive in a year. Now we source from local beekeepers from the Pacific Northwest. Because of my beekeeping experience, I have good discernment for finding bees that are kept in the right way. Beeswax has different aroma—floral or herbaceous—and there are different gradients of beeswax. I talk to the beekeepers and try their wax and make sure it’s the highest quality.”
He requires the same of the other ingredients he sources, including organic olive oil from northern California—the closest local organic source they could find—local peppermint from Oregon, and coconut oil. For their second product offering, he simplified the recipe further by leaving off the peppermint for an unscented option.
“We do this one little thing, so we can make sure that every step in the process is done with intention and really narrow into the sources.”
Portland Bee Balm also cares about sustainability and tries to mitigate the environmental impacts of producing their bee balm. They partner with local small business to create their marketing products and reduce their use of non-renewable fuels by using soy-based ink and non-pulped wood in their packaging.
Bees are not only a big part of your business but also an integral part of our food chain. What’s the most important thing people can do to support bees?
“You can support a more sustainable agricultural system. Different classes of pesticides that keep monocultural plants alive can hurt bees because you can’t control where bees go…they can visit conventional farms as well as organic ones. Buy organic produce, especially bee-pollinated crops, if you can and if it makes sense for you.”
Brad also encourages people to keep bees: “It’s not that hard. You don’t need a ton of space; you can keep them in your backyard. It’s less work than keeping chickens. I understand it’s not for everyone—some people are allergic. But in general, it’s not that intimidating.”
And Brad’s best advice? “Keep it simple, don’t be scared.”