Would I want to rub this on my face? That's the question that Jean and her husband Chris ask when they're coming up with new product recipes for the Bubble Farm Soap Co. Their beeswax comes straight from their backyard hives in Alameda. We talked to Jean about what it's like to stand in the middle of a swarm, and how the crankiest bees sometimes make the best honey.
What's your story? How did you end up tending bees in Alameda?
When we lived in San Francisco, I had read something about urban beekeeping and how the Paris Opera House had rooftop bees and sold the honey in their gift store. I thought it was really cool, but urban beekeeping seemed kind of crazy and unreal.
Then in 2007, we met some beekeepers at the Marin County Fair. They told us that there were a number of beekeepers in San Francisco and that the San Francisco Beekeepers Association could help us get started. That September we had two hives in our backyard. The following year we moved to Alameda and brought our hives with us.
Okay, be honest — you're probably an old pro with the bees now, but how many times have you been stung? And did it take awhile to build up the nerve to work with the hives?
Oh man, the bees were super scary at first! I'll never forget the fear and excitement of dumping an entire swarm of bees into a new hive. There's nothing like standing in a cloud of bees. The thing is, swarms are pretty docile and don't tend to sting. So it was actually quite safe.
Since then, Chris has been doing most of the beekeeping. Honestly, he's been stung countless times. Getting stung is part of being a beekeeper. Sometimes the bees are in a good mood and you can practically open up a hive without equipment and not get stung. Other times, there will be a hive that's aggressive and mean — they'll try to sting you through your gloves and veil! But we've noticed that the aggressive hives are the ones that produce more honey.
How do you choose your scents and flavors? Any new combos you'd like to try?
We think about flavors that complement the natural honey and beeswax scent our soaps have. Lavender, rosemary, coffee, mint, etc. My favorite soaps are actually the unscented flavors. I love the way the beeswax smells on its own.
We use only essential oils to scent our soap. We don't use fragrances, which are artificially produced. So we are somewhat limited in our choices. You won't be seeing root beer or any wacky flavors from us.
We're currently working on a pure olive oil and honey castile soap. And we've been talking about creating a ginger honey soap.
What are the basic steps for making the soap? And what's the toughest part of the process to learn?
Making soap is easy. It's just mixing oil with a solution of lye and water. The tricky part comes in figuring out specific oils and proportions and temperatures. We experimented for a year with different recipes before we created a moisturizing soap that lathered up and didn't melt in the shower after a few uses. There was a lot of trial and error.
What's next for you — any ingredients or new products you'd like to test out?
We've been making lip balms and salves. And we're currently planning on making bath salts as well.
You're also a tattoo artist at Diving Swallow. Do you ever use any of those skills when you're working on Bubble Farm stuff?
My tattoo clients have been using Bubble Farms unscented soaps and the salve to heal their tattoos. And the cool thing about being able to draw was that I could design our labels myself. Drawing the bee riding the tractor was fun. Maybe someone will get the design as a tattoo!
What's your idea of a perfect day in the East Bay? What would you do, see, eat, hear?
We love Alameda. We live near Crab Cove and never get tired of watching all the egrets and pelicans fishing for food. The perfect day would be a morning at Crab Cove, followed by a few rounds of pinball at the Pacific Pinball Museum and picking up some comics at Alameda Sports Cards & Comics. Definitely checking in on our bees or seeing how our community garden plot with Alameda Point Collaborative is doing. To cap off the day, we would head over to Oakland for dinner at True Burger or Rudy's. Or if we were feeling spendy, Flora.