Sunday, October 12, 2014

Busy Bees Abuzz at Burt’s Bees

By Jim Wise October 9, 2014 

— If you happen to be visiting the American Tobacco campus, there’s a spot where you can watch thousands – really, thousands – of workers on their jobs, just as busy as – well, bees.

That’s because they are bees. About 15,000 of them, busy as can be coming in, going out, breeding more bees and making beeswax and honey for the Burt’s Bees company, all in a glass-walled hive built into an outside wall of the office lobby.

So, indoors or out, you can watch the bees going about their business in a two-foot by six-foot live-work space. The hive opened to the public last week.

Detail photo of a dense cluster of honeybees at work Wednesday morning, October 8, 2014 in the new six foot tall, two foot wide observation beehive in the front wall of Bert's Bees, at 210 West Pettigrew Street, Durham with up to 15,000 honeybees embedded in six frames in the front wall of the business. The largest observation beehive of its kind in NC was installed this week on the American Tobacco Campus to help educate the public on the importance of the bees to our human and environmental health. The hive is two sided - the bees at work can also be seen while inside the lobby of Burt's Bees. HARRY LYNCH —

“Anyone passing by can see it, everyone can see it,” said Leigh-Kathryn Bonner, an N.C. State University senior from a beekeeping family, who came up with the idea. “Free.”

The observation hive, and two other hives on top of another American Tobacco building, are intended to promote urban beekeeping and help counter a nationwide drop in the honey bee population, causes unknown.

“There’s no smoking gun,” said Bill Thering, a Pikeville beekeeper who built Bert’s Bees’ hive. But, he said, “Bees in this country really are on a downside.”

Fewer bees is a serious concern – according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the honey bee population declined by about one-third each year in 2006 through 2007 (, threatening the fruit, nut and vegetable production that depends on bees for pollination.

‘Outside the hive’

Bonner, an international studies major who is minoring in nonprofit management, started a nonprofit last February, Bee Downtown (motto: “Thinking outside the hive”), to spread the word about “colony collapse disorder” and encourage interest in urban beekeeping.

“Bees are very happy in American Tobacco,” Bonner said. “There are bee-friendly flowers throughout the campus.”

Honey bees do very well in town. There’s a variety of nectar sources available – as opposed to the monoculture typical of rural farmland – and they have a mutually beneficial relationship with increasingly popular urban farms and gardens.

“Each town and city has a flavor of its own,” said Paula Alexander, director of sustainable business at Burt’s Bees.

Bees from the observation hive access the outside world via tubing that extends more than nine feet above ground level – to keep them separate from people. Once outside, according to Thering, bees orient themselves by fixing on some kind of landmark so they know where to come back to. Any kind of landmark will do.

“You could put up a cow, you could put a stone,” Thering said.

In Burt’s Bees’ case, it’s a picture of company founder Burt Shavitz. The company made two grants to finance the American Tobacco hives through its Burt’s Bees Foundation – besides donating space in its wall.

“What a great place to showcase this,” Alexander said. “And have a conversation piece.” 

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