“You have a house; you should have bees.”
Those were the words of Nathan Clarke’s Buddhist uncle-in-law. In July 2011, Nathan took his uncle’s advice and began Mad Urban Bees, an artisan honey company that has put Madison’s surplus flower power to great use. Mr. Clarke is the owner, sole employee and King Bee of Mad Urban Bees. His mantra is eloquently simple: “We need urban farming; people need to know where their food comes from.”
Prior to Mad Urban Bees, Nathan was a self-start backyard beekeeper for five years, and when you pick up a jar of Mad Urban Bees honey, you’ll immediately notice Nathan’s dedication to his work. In addition to his environmental sustainability practices, each jar of honey contains a batch number, and each batch offers unique flavors and colors. His honey truly is a diverse product. With each small batch Nathan collects, he and his wife have a tasting in order to come up with the perfect descriptors and recommendations. Think of each batch as a hive’s signature. Batch 301, for example, was extracted this past August and offers: “strong cinnamon and spice flavors.” It’s recommended with warm apples or pears. It takes 1,500 bees to produce a gallon of honey. This can take anywhere from a week to a month and only the honeybee creates an excess of honey.
If images of wine and food pairings are flying into your head, this is exactly the philosophy behind Mad Urban Bees. Nathan’s honeybees work in backyards and on rooftops around Madison, and each hive, even if it’s a house away from its neighbor hive, offers a unique variety of honey. Different flowers produce different nectars that produce different varietals. The range in color and taste of the finished product is the hallmark of the diversity of Madison’s eclectic neighborhoods, something you’ll notice on the shelves at Willy Street Co-op. All Mad Urban Bees honey is unadulterated and completely raw, so the final allergy-fighting product is exactly what the honeybees intended it to, well, bee. The honey isn’t blended or heated, and as long as the honey is kept covered and dry, it will last “thousands of years.”
Let it Bee
The week of my interview with Nathan, I was riding my cycle when a bee flew in my mouth and stung me on the lip. I swore and my lip was swollen for an hour. For Nathan, being stung is just a natural hazard of bees trying to protect their queen and the hive. “I get stung all the time,” he told me. While he can handle bees exercising their right to get mad, the real sting in Nathan’s profession is the use of pesticides that are destroying bee populations at a catastrophic pace. This past June in Oregon, over 50,000 bees were killed in a department store parking lot after a tobacco-based neonicotinoid was sprayed on trees they were pollinating. The purpose of spraying the trees was purely for aesthetics: to keep insects off the leaves. The case left Oregonians with a heavy dose of reality and highlighted the lethality of pesticides on the bee population. Dozens of people rallied to help showcase the ongoing mass death of bees by pesticides, also known as “colony collapse disorder.” In April of this year the European Union enacted a two-year moratorium on neonicotinoids because of their “highly toxic” effect on bees.
If you’re interested in discovering more about beekeeping, Mr. Clarke partners with a company called Round Rock Honey to offer his own beekeeping classes. You can sign up on his website, MadUrbanBees.com. His honey is offered in three sizes at both Willy Street Co-op locations and would complement any gathering. So pick up a jar of Mad Urban Bee honey and you’ll make thousands of hard-working bees and one dedicated beekeeper happy this holiday season.