Dave Hunter has a lot of confidence. “We’re going to increase the world’s food supply,” he emails as way of introduction for his six-year-old company, Crown Bees. “Seriously. It’s a big deal, and we know how to do it.” He’s certainly not shy about backing up that claim either. Later, sitting in his Woodinville office, Hunter rattles off fact after fact, outlining just how he plans to increase crop yields and replace the overburdened honeybee by peddling its lesser-known cousin the mason bee to gardeners and amateur beekeepers everywhere.
Compared to the honeybee, which pollinates a third of the planet’s crops but whose population has declined by nearly 30 percent per year since 2006, the mason bee is a superior pollinator and one less prone to spreading disease. (The only downside: no honey.) On average, 400 mason bees can pollinate one acre, while it would take 30,000 honeybees to do the same. With the more-efficient mason bee, Hunter says, farmers can almost double or triple their typical crop yield.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Backtrack 20 years to when Hunter—an engineer by education—wanted to know why a friend had such an abundant apple crop. “Being the engineer,” he says, “I wanted to see how things worked.” Home research led him to the mason bee. After his discovery he fashioned nesting trays out of blocks of wood and started amassing mason bee cocoons. Over the years, the hobby became his passion. And when he was between jobs in 2008, he decided to sell bees full time.
Today Crown Bees has upgraded from Hunter’s garage to 1,800 square feet of office space in a Woodinville strip mall. On its website the company hawks everything a home gardener might need to raise mason bees: cocoons, wooden houses, nesting tubes, and a swarm of accessories (cocoon humidifier, anyone?). Its products are also carried in 250 nurseries across the country, including Molbak’s Garden and Home in Woodinville and Sky Nursery in Shoreline. But while peddling beekeeping paraphernalia may mean more tomatoes for the P-Patchers of Seattle, that’s not Hunter’s main goal. “Retail and wholesale is a mechanism to get into orchards,” he explains. “The backyard gardener is basically funding us.”
Through its Bee BuyBack program, Crown Bees trades nesting tubes and other beekeeping materials for home gardeners’ excess mason bee cocoons. In 2013, the company received 50,000 cocoons back from its customers. That number ballooned to 80,000 cocoons in 2014. From there, Crown Bees sells cocoons to commercial farmers and orchardists at $500 per acre, or about 1,000 bees.
In five years, Hunter plans to be in 2,500 acres in Washington state alone.
Hunter isn’t satisfied with cornering the local mason bee market, though. Crown Bees just opened a Canadian branch on Vancouver Island in late 2014 and has plans to expand to Europe in the near future. The company will also launch a Kickstarter campaign in early March, which Hunter hopes will both boost his network of home gardeners and increase awareness for the mason bee. “There are a lot of people who only believe in one bee,” Hunter says. “They say ‘Save the bee.’ I’m trying to save the bees—and not piss anyone off.”
This article appeared in the February 2015 issue of Seattle Met magazine.