Sister Bees is creating a buzz in Ludington

A Ludington-based business owned by two sisters is creating quite a buzz.

Sisters Kimberly Ambrose and Kelly Bonnema said the story of their Ludington-based business began as “busy moms and wives, loving the process of being creative and natural in managing our homes.”

Ambrose took up beekeeping nearly six years ago on a 10-acre piece of property in Ludington. “We had four boys, big gardens, laying chickens, and then my husband — the instigator for a lot of things — said, ‘Let’s do honey,’” Ambrose said. “As we enjoyed all that honey for the family, we realized there’s so much benefit to the beeswax.”

That realization led to the development of beeswax-based lip balm, today still a core item in their catalog, and other skin care items.

The sisters grew up in Ludington, and Bonnema made her way to Texas to work in sales and marketing. When she returned to the area, she said, “my skin went into shock, I didn’t know what to do. I asked my sister, ‘What do you use for your skin?’ So she had me try some of the product she was making. The lip balm was the best lip balm I’ve ever used.”

And so the buzz began. From the lip balm, Sister Bees has grown to offer a full line of products including lotion and other personal care items, wellness products, apparel, salves, candles, books and bags, cards, soap, honey, honey mustard, pet products, gardening and beekeeping supplies.

“We love it and it’s fun to have something as a job that you absolutely love to do and you love to promote,” Bonnema said. “We love the things we make and we get excited about it. It’s hard some days to stop working because it’s fun and there’s so much to do. It’s a job for us but at that same time we love it and are super passionate about it.”

The sisters looked to their background to grow the business. They didn’t grow up in a farming family but, Bonnema said, “Ludington is a farming community.” And they had family role models: Their parents had their own business; while mom did the books, dad ran the business.

“When you see your parents operate their own independent business, you think as a kid, ‘I can do this,’ “ Ambrose said.

Sister Bees got an early boost from a ‘five by five” competition in Ludington: Five businesses get five minutes to make a pitch for how they’d use $5,000. They won that, which gave them a position in a bigger program, the Momentum Business Plan Competition administered by the Ludington & Scottville Chamber of Commerce. They won that too: It came with a $50,000 award. 

“In a month we earned $55,000 to grow our business,” Ambrose said. “That’s huge. So then we got to take it quite seriously.”

They hired local people to help with packaging and design and went to a trade show to show others who they were.

“That was our launch right here in our hometown,” Ambrose said. “So they are behind us. They saw us win, that it was a big deal. We went back a year later and told them where we were, what we’ve done and where we’ve been. It was such a cheering section.

“We’re so grateful for our community and where we live and where we get to do business. Our hometown is our cheerleader and they’re supporting us and watching us and helping us.”
Sisters Kelly, left, and Kimberly.
Ambrose started out with two hives and fluctuates between two and three; it’s hard for hobby beekeepers sometimes to keep bees alive in the winter, she said. So they partner with two or three other Michigan beekeepers for the beeswax and product they need.

“We loved the idea that we can partner with people not far down the road from either Kelly or I that this is their passion too,” said Ambrose, who still lives on the 10-acre farm in Ludington. Bonnema is now located in the Holland-Zeeland area. .

Sister Bees is now in around 4,000 stores around the country, but Ambrose and Bonnema are already looking ahead. Ambrose said they’d like to eventually have their own brick and mortar retail shop, and there are still plenty of product ideas.

“I think more of the infused honeys,” Bonnama said. “I like to eat and it’s so fun to try food that’s more and more interesting … as you get older you wonder what else is out there.”

Sister Bees has seen continued growth. Bonnema said that year over year sales have almost doubled, despite the pandemic interruptions.

“There’s definitely some pivoting that has happened because one of the key things is that buyers and sellers talk face to face,” Ambrose said. But the silver lining of the past two and a half years has been the growth of wholesale websites.

“Great wholesale sites rose and became an incredible opportunity for sellers and buyers to become acquainted,” Ambrose said. “Putting our whole catalog on online wholesale sites such as Faire — that’s the most popular but there are many others — and all of a sudden people literally all over the world see your product.

“We exploded. And we didn’t have to sit in a booth at a trade show. We were in front of people as they're shopping in their slippers in the evening for their own store.”

This is how the industry will move going forward, she predicted: A recent trade show “was great to meet and greet people again, and there’s certainly value to that. But online gave us quite an opportunity.”

Last year Sister Bees moved from a smaller space to a large packaging and manufacturing facility that allows the whole team of around nine people to work together.

“We want to make the underlying layers as strong as possible so that we can dream for the next thing,” Ambrose said.

Their sisterhood is foundational to the business, as is faith and family, they said, but they also want to keep it fun. “We love to create something that we love and that we hope that other people will love along with us,” Bonnema said. “You know how when you go on vacation you come home you want everyone to go there? It’s exciting for us when people get excited about our new flavor of lip balm. It’s fun to give back.”