Company Looks to Keep the Buzz of Innovation Growing in the Triangle

by David Dean

DURHAM, N.C. -- Businesses across Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill are buzzing – with bees, thanks to Bee Downtown, a unique startup installing and maintaining beehives in urban areas. With a mission to rebuild healthy honey bee populations in cities, Bee Downtown is committed to educating communities about the benefits of bees and how businesses and individuals can collectively help save them.

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner founded the company in 2014 during her junior year at North Carolina State University. A fourth-generation beekeeper from North Carolina, she took her passion for honey bees, agriculture, and entrepreneurship and put it to use in cities to help rebuild healthy honey bee populations.

“Every third bite of food you eat is thanks to a honey bee,” Bonner said, adding, “In a world full of tech and apps, we have made the choice to bring the simple beauty of agriculture and bees back into the eyes of an urban environment.”

The annual value of honey bee pollination can be counted in billions of dollars to U.S. agriculture. Unfortunately, in the last year alone the U.S. lost 44 percent of its honey bees. With fewer honey bees, plants do not get proper pollination and, as a result, produce fewer fruits and lower yields of seed with negative impact on quality, availability and price for consumers.

(Photo courtesy Bee Downtown)
Surprisingly, cities are good spots for hives: for example, 62.5 percent of urban bees survive the winter compared to only 40 percent of their rural cousins, while producing markedly higher honey yields. This is due, in part, to less pesticide use along with more diverse food sources, stable living environments, and longer blooming periods of flowering plants.

In 2015, Bonner and her team installed about 50 hives with 18 businesses. Participating companies range from large businesses like Burt’s Bees and Capitol Broadcasting Company, to small startups like Runaway Clothing Company, to schools like East Durham Initiative Preschool. The Bee Downtown turnkey program allows these businesses to have an environmentally friendly initiative, but the success of the initiative doesn’t depend on employees volunteering time after work, since Bee Downtown team members do all the maintenance. The company provides the bees and the yearly maintenance and participating businesses receive all the honey their hives produce, along with seasonal updates of the hives success and annual classes for employees to go out to the hives and work the bees with a Bee Downtown beekeeper.

In addition to free honey and a value-add experience for employees, participating businesses can also capitalize on the high-visibility of the Bee Downtown operation. Hives installed at the American Tobacco Campus have been featured on Country Music Television, Our State Magazine, National Geographic and cited in the New York Times, while Bee Downtown’s clear six-foot-tall beehive at Burt’s Bees world headquarters attracted over 5,000 people in four days during a recent festival in the Durham area.

Bee Downtown has been working on developing a new portion of its business focused on large groups of centralized hives for community apiaries. These centralized apiaries will allow businesses to participate in helping to save bees even if they don’t have space available to install hives on their property. The centralized apiaries -- about 30 hives each -- will be in frequently trafficked areas so participating businesses will be able to use the hives for marketing, community involvement, and showing their commitment to the environment, with Bee Downtown providing tours to draw visitors and increase education and sustainability.

“As our hives in the city grow and eventually split into two with one half of the colony flying off to establish a new hives elsewhere, our bees will over time act as feeder populations to rural areas,” Bonner explained, adding, “It is not an instant fix to the issue, but we believe the best way to rebuild healthy honey bees is a slow systemic approach that will, over time, produce strong hives.”

More information is available online at

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