Building a better beehive in Milwaukie
Jill McKenna and Matt Reed were concerned about the decline of the honeybee, and so in 2009 the Milwaukie couple founded a company called Bee Thinking. They started out selling custom-built beehives, then branched out into high-quality beekeeping accessories and gift items made with honey, all in a small shopfront in Southeast Portland.
But the company ran into problems and was forced to close last May. The failure also prompted the end of their marriage, and both moved out of Milwaukie.
"We lost everything," McKenna said.
But shortly after Bee Thinking closed, Ed Shearer stepped in to buy the company. He hired McKenna and Reed and refashioned the company as an online enterprise renamed Bee Built.
"I'm a small business guy, and I was asked to talk to Jill and Matt. I was struck by two things: the quality of their product and the fact that beekeepers are passionate people," Shearer said.
The new business, based out of a warehouse on Milport Road in Milwaukie, has 10 employees who mill lumber and construct hives.
Bee Thinking had grown quickly with no capital, Shearer noted, especially after Reed appeared on "Shark Tank" and "Beyond the Tank." But in 2016, Bee Thinking was awarded a contract by an Australian company and tasked to build tens of thousands of beehives to very exacting standards.
"That was a new area for us. We had never done that scale of production before," Reed said.
"We didn't have any investors, so we had to borrow money to produce the hives."
Then Bee Thinking's suppliers, who actually built the hives, sent them defective products.
"They had a huge number of returns, and they couldn't recover financially from that. The bank foreclosed on their assets, and I bought the company," Shearer said.
The three have made significant changes to the way they do business at the new company.
"Bee Thinking used middle-to-upper-grade wood for the hives, and we have switched to the highest grade of wood we can buy and still maintain sustainability," Shearer said.
Also, McKenna and Reed used to take orders from customers and then scramble to fill the order, which could take weeks, as the hives were built.
"We changed that model. We don't sell anything unless it is in stock. You can buy it if it is on our website and it will be ready to ship," Shearer said.
"This allows us to have a higher-quality product, and we don't have to scramble to get something out the door."
Shearer said he chose to call the new company Bee Built, because it refers to the team's desire to build the best hives possible for the bees.
"And we have always encouraged the bees to build their own honeycombs in all our hives," Reed said, while McKenna added that cheaper hives use a wax foundation, but Bee Built produces only foundationless hives.
The company produces only three kinds of hives: Langstroth hives, a traditional hive with stacking, rectangular boxes; the Warre hive, which uses bars instead of frames; and the top-bar hive, which uses individual bars across the top of the hive cavity.
Bee Built also sells beekeeping accessories like the Ultimate Hive Tool, made by a local blacksmith, and the Comb Cutter, which allows the keeper to efficiently remove the honeycomb nearly intact, McKenna said.
"We have decided to focus on beekeepers and their needs and to almost totally stay away from gift items," Shearer said.
McKenna, who is in charge of marketing, creative and web content, said the best thing about Bee Built is that it's a more logical way to run a business. She said she lived with chaos for nearly nine years with Bee Thinking, and now feels she is part of something with a stronger business foundation.
For Reed, the mill manager in charge of the product cycle, the new business allows him to make some of the improvements he has always wanted to make but never had the time to do.
"We're making the best beehives from sustainable wood, and I am really excited about that," he said.
"We're one of the few companies making hives from Douglas fir and there are great benefits. It's durable, lasts a long time and resists scratching," Shearer noted.
"This is all new for me; this is the first time I have been involved in this new industry, and I'm learning a lot."
Because the company is trying to improve the plight of the honeybee, "the business has a bigger purpose than just making money," he added.
Bee Built is one of the only beekeeping supply companies that is a Certified B Corporation. The company is new to this program, and so has been granted a pending status for one year, and then will be re-evaluated, Shearer said.
According to bcorportation.net, "B Corps meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability, and aspire to use the power of markets to solve social and environmental problems."
"There is a set of standards, and every company has to meet those standards, but in a different way" depending upon the purpose of the company, Shearer said, adding that every company will be recertified annually.
Because Bee Built is involved with ecological standards, the company has relationships with nonprofit organizations and is giving 5 percent of its sales to the Natural Beekeeping Trust, Shearer said.
B-Corp certification is important, Reed said, "because it shows we are accountable and transparent. We're not just about making money, but we want to be equitable and do good in the world."
Bee Built uses only Forest Stewardship Council-certified Pacific Northwest lumber because "we don't want to harm the forest," McKenna said.
"A lot of beekeeping suppliers don't know or care where the lumber is coming from," she added.
When McKenna and Reed had a retail outlet, they hosted many workshops to educate the public about beekeeping and the plight of the honeybee. With their new location in a warehouse filled with power tools, workshops are not feasible, McKenna said.
"We're putting more of our resources into online videos on our website," McKenna said, noting that there are tutorials on beekeeping and hive building, among other things.
"We're looking to partner with other advocates of beekeeping," Shearer said.
"The pollinator decline continues, and the problems will not be solved until the United States follows the lead of Western Europe in banning the chemicals known as nicotinoids," McKenna said.
Shearer added, "I'm excited about this new venture; we have a great product and great customers. This company has a bigger purpose: to take care of bees in order to help the world," Shearer said.
Save the bees
To learn more about Bee Built and to see their product line, visit beebuilt.com.
The warehouse is located at 1887 S.E. Milport Road in Milwaukie.
Appointments available by request.