If you want to save the bees, you may have to start by thinking like one.
That’s the key to sustainable success for 25-year-old Leigh-Kathryn Bonner, founder and CEO of the 2014 Durham startup, Bee Downtown. Bonner claims her passion for beekeeping stems from a simple admiration for their importance in nature.
“Everything a bee touches, it leaves in a better place,” she said. “When you start thinking about life that way, it really shows how many things are connected and intertwined.”
How Bee Downtown made it big
Bee Downtown promotes the practice of urban beekeeping by partnering with businesses in cities to create pollinator pathways and save honey bee populations. Bonner said bees thrive in urban settings because of the diversity of food sources, so installing hives on the rooftops of buildings shows tangible environmental return for the area.
“Hives are truly changing the landscape for the Triangle,” she said. “In the last three years, our bee circulation has reached 54 miles in length.”
With this sentiment, Bonner has scored partnerships with high profile companies such as Chik-fil-A, AT&T and Delta. She started by installing a hive for the American Tobacco Company in Durham when she was just a junior in college, and Bee Downtown is now expanding to Atlanta where Bonner hopes to have at least 50 hives by the end of 2018.
Convincing companies in Atlanta was easier because of the positive feedback from businesses in the Triangle, she said, attributing much of her quick success to the first few that took a chance on her idea.
“As much as I was taking a risk, so were they,” she said. “Now, we have a reputation for not only being great beekeepers, but for being valuable to these corporations.”
Why it matters
Despite the increasing popularity of urban beekeeping, Bonner said 30 percent of the honey bee population is still lost every year, and bees are responsible for pollinating around every third bite of food we eat.
But before you start pointing fingers, Bonner believes there’s more than one culprit to blame for bee decline. She said chemicals, poor management, evolving farm practices and even issues as unavoidable as a sudden temperature drop can leave bees to starve or freeze.
“That happens a lot in North Carolina,” Bonner said. “Mother Nature can be beautifully devastating when she decides to flex her muscles.”
While she’s encouraged by the recent uptick of public interest in the crisis, as a fourth-generation beekeeper with a history in apiology, Bonner understands the underlying issues with industrial solutions like the mass production of honey bees and commercial beekeeping.
“It’s a Band-Aid to the problem, but not a permanent fix,” she said. “Bees still need diverse gene pools to be strong.”
The beekeepers at Bee Downtown try to combat the preventable issues by visiting each of their hives bimonthly to test for mites, supply medicine for parasites, analyze data and pull excess honey to be bottled for the sponsoring company.
Not only does this lengthen the bees’ lives, but maintaining a healthy hive also protects other hives around the city. Bonner said they aim to be “stewards of the community,” and every Bee Downtown employee is required to become a certified beekeeper.
“That’s just everything at the core of our mission,” she said.
After learning about beekeeping themselves, employees at Bee Downtown travel twice a month to educate children in local school systems for free. They relate to the students by calling out their favorite fruits and vegetables – because a lack of bees means a lack of watermelon.
“Kids understand it all very quickly – they fall in love with the bees, and some of them have never even seen a crop field before,” she said. “If a little kid can get it, big companies certainly can.”
Despite all her business ventures, Bonner said education is essential to their bee-saving efforts and gives her hope for how future generations can help. She aims to continue raising awareness and doing her part for urban pollination – and the buzz she creates in the media doesn’t hurt the cause.
“Everybody loves a honey bee, and it helps start a bigger conversation,” she said. “When nature tries to tell us something, we need to stop and listen.”