Bees and the City: A Surprisingly Good Combination

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner, founder of Bee Downtown at American Tobacco.

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner started out as an intern for American Tobacco’s non-profit hub MissionPost last year while working towards an International Studies degree at NC State.  The third-generation bee keeper has now graduated, with an additional non-profit minor, and created a non-profit of her own, headquartered in American Underground, ATC’s entrepreneurial hive (pardon the pun).  For this young lady, it’s all about bees.

The roof of American Tobacco in downtown Durham is no longer a place where only the birds perch.  Bonner has installed six rooftop hives, sponsored by several Bull City companies, two by American Tobacco and one by Bull Durham Beer Company, in addition to her pièce de résistance, a clear observation hive out front of Burt’s Bees on the campus.

A New Non-Profit: Bee Downtown
Why bees in downtown?  Believe it or not, urban settings are the perfect pairing with bees.

Bonner began with two hives on the rooftop at American Tobacco last July.  At the time she was interning for ATC Vice President of Real Estate Michael Goodmon, who suggested she turn her bee keeping plan into a start-up.  She actually thought up the idea while spending a semester abroad in Barcelona.

For a Spanish class assignment Bonner had to do a presentation on a local newspaper article she found interesting.  She had brought a jar of her family honey as a gift for her host family in Spain.  The woman with whom she was staying shared an article with Bonner about rooftop beekeeping in the U.S. for her assignment.  That got Bonner to thinking.

“I wondered why we weren’t doing that in North Carolina, because our urban populations are so healthy,” explained Bonner.

Then one night she couldn’t fall asleep because of a bug buzzing in her room.

“It sounded like a bee,” she said, “and I thought up the idea of bees on the roof at American Tobacco.”

She pitched the idea to Michael Goodmon on her return to the States.  And Bee Downtown was born.

“Being able to work for CBC is a dream,” said Bonner.  “You’re constantly dreaming and innovating here.  I wouldn’t have known to do that but for where I’m working.”

Bee Downtown

Bee hives now adorn the rooftop at American Tobacco in downtown Durham.

The Urban Flight of the Honeybee
In addition to Bull Durham Beer and ATC, three other organizations have sponsored rooftop hives including local clothing company Runway, the Durham Garden Club and Burt’s Bees.  The hives are brightly painted with themes appropriate to each company. The observation hive outside Burt’s Bees’ headquarters has turned out to be a big draw for school groups.

These sponsors will get first dibs on purchasing any honey produced by their hives. Bull Durham Beer is planning to create a new honey brew in the fall, using the honey from their hive.  Once these hives become productive, which Bonner is hoping will happen next year, they can produce up to 200 of the honey-bear-size jars annually.  However, to keep the hives healthy she won’t take all the honey off of the hives.

“It’s an awesome movement that’s started out in Durham to be a bee-friendly city,” said Bonner.  She shared that bee populations are declining at a rapid pace.  The bees actually do better in urban areas, for several reason, including the fact that cities don’t have the pesticides that rural areas can have.

“They do amazing in urban setting,” she explained.

Bees can travel up to three miles from their hives.  The bees now camping out at American Tobacco are within reach of the Duke Gardens, so Bonner says they are spoiled rotten.

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner, founder of Bee Downtown, with the observation hive out front of Burts Bees.

It’s fascinating, really.  Bees have a dance language to tell each other where flower sources are blooming.  They enjoy the flowers and then use the sun to navigate to get home.  Bonner says it’s all about geometry.  Bees have the second most complex language besides mammals.

We mentioned Bonner is a third-generation bee keeper.  Her grandfather started the family tradition – while earning a Boy Scout badge – which was then picked up by her uncle, Jerry Flanagan.  Flanagan is a Master Bee Keeper, one of the top in NC.  She followed in her uncle’s footsteps, taking a bee keeping class from one of the world’s leading bee researchers, John Ambrose, while at NC State.  Ambrose died recently but was a mentor to both Flanagan and Bonner.

Branching Out
Right now Bonner’s start-up, Bee Downtown, is not-for-profit, but they’ve had so much interest in the rooftop and clear hives that she will be adding a for-profit leg, to help be able to support the bees year-round.  Some of those proceeds will go back into the non-profit.

And another group of bees is about to hit the jackpot.  CBC President & CEO Jim Goodmon is having Bonner install hives at CBC’s headquarters in Raleigh.  The four CBC-themed hives will be themed to represent CBC, WRAL-TV, and FOX 50.  They’ll be placed on the roof of the WRAL studios building, so they won’t be on the same roof where SKY 5 lands!

Talk about some happy bees.  It will truly be a win-win for the bees and the many azaleas and other flowers in the gardens.

Stay tuned to capcom for details when the CBC bees arrive.  Bonner’s uncle will be coming to assist her with the installation.

Bonner is very appreciative of the support she’s found at Capitol Broadcasting Company.

“I would not have any bees anywhere without Capitol Broadcasting,” she said.

We have to believe the bees must be buzzing about the whole arrangement, too.

Thanks to Leigh-Kathryn Bonner for these capcom photos.

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