We are working with North Carolina start-up Bee Downtown to host three honey bee hives at our Atlanta Headquarters campus. In addition to helping build a healthy and sustainable honey bee environment, we are supporting a local effort to foster entrepreneurship through the program’s affiliation with Atlanta-based venture fund, Engage VC.
We spoke with Bee Downtown founder and CEO Leigh-Kathryn Bonner to find out why bees are showing up on corporate campuses across the southern U.S.
Walk us through why bees are crucial to our ecosystem?
Every third bite of food you eat is thanks to a honey bee and 70 of the world's top 100 food crops are pollinated by honey bees. However over the past few decades we have seen a massive decline in honey bee and other pollinator populations around the world. In 2015 alone, the United States lost almost half of its honey bee population, and each year we continue to lose about a third of our honey bees. Honey bees are the world's number one pollinator and without them we would lose not only 80% of our fruits and veggies, but also honey bees pollinate alfalfa, which is what we feed cattle. So without the bees, meat prices would skyrocket and we'd lose much of our dairy as well.
How does installing hives on corporate campuses make a difference?
While honey bees and pollinators around the world are suffering, there is hope because recent studies show honey bees thrive in urban and semi-urban environments. Unlike rural bees used for pollination that are moved throughout the year on the back of 18-wheeler trucks and only fed one food at a time, city bees have stable living environments, benefit from diverse food sources, and are able to have better pest management practices. When a corporation installs hives on their campus they are not only impacting their campus, but three miles in every direction as that’s the distance a honey bee will fly in search of food. This equals about 18,000 acres of land that a beehive can positively impact in a matter of days.
What has been the employee reaction to them in your experience so far?
Every time we install hives on a campus, we have mixed reactions (which are completely warranted!) in regards to excitement and potential safety concerns. We hope to calm any fears anyone may have - honey bees are incredibly docile and will not bother you if you don't bother them. We have over 7 million bees across corporate campuses in North Carolina and have never had an issue with safety. What we have found is that employees become very attached to the bees and care deeply about their success. Because of this we created an employee engagement opportunity for employees to try on a different kind of suit, a bee suit, and work the hives with us to learn about how a successful company is very similar to a successful hive. Our tours rank in the 95 percentile for favorite employee engagement experience of the year, and 92% of the employees want to take the tour again!
Where did you get this idea?
I am a fourth generation beekeeper so my passion for bees and nature run deep in my blood. Bee Downtown started by mistake. I couldn't keep a beehive at my apartment complex at NC State University, so I asked the company I was interning for in Durham if they'd let me put a hive on their rooftop. The campus the company owns also houses Burt's Bees world headquarters and Burt's Bees, who didn't have bees at the time, wanted bees as well. Media picked up on the story and other companies began asking if we would bring honey bees to their campuses too, as it was a fun and highly marketable environmental initiative their employees and the community were excited about. I started working on the business, or beesness as we like to call it, full-time in 2015. My parents invested for my living expenses for one year after they had me do a family Shark Tank Episode in our living room, under the condition that in one year I had to be profitable, pay myself a livable wage, and show sustainable growth. After one year I was able to show them I had succeeded in each requirement to continue pursuing my dream and here we are now!
How has Engage VC enabled you to grow your company?
Bee Downtown is a completely different company than what is was when we first began this wild and crazy journey with Engage. I honestly felt a bit out of place the first week because I was the only non-tech company and I didn't know if Bee DT was a fit for what the corporations that are part of Engage were looking for. When I began meeting with the corporations, and hearing their stories, while also sharing mine, I realized this really was where Bee Downtown was supposed to be. Engage VC helped me redo our pricing, build-out our growth strategy, make not only connections, but true and lasting relationships with some of Atlanta's most influential people, and gave us a place to call home during our first expansion.
One of the best parts about Bee Downtown is through working with companies like yours, we are able to stand as a platform for farmers, beekeepers, and the entire agricultural community with people that truly have the ability to make a difference in the world. It is our joy to share the stories of the partnerships because it truly does bring such joy and hope to people that feel they may have lost their voice.
Where do you want to see it go next?
At the end of the day, the bees are, and will always be our first priority. So we will go where ever the bees take us. Our hope long term is to build a company that challenges the way people think about innovation and encourages people to build businesses that leave the world a better place. We hope to expand Bee Downtown to major cities across the United States starting next with Dallas in 2019 and eventually plan create a product line of green products created by a trusted name in agriculture. We can't do it alone though, and it has truly been a humbling experience to see how the companies and their leaders in Atlanta have gone above and beyond to bring Bee Downtown to life in Atlanta.
Founder and CEO of Bee Downtown Leigh-Kathryn Bonner