“The bee is more honoured than other animals not because she labours but because she labours for others” – Saint John Chrysostom, 347-407
Apart from being a source of food, medicine and wax, bees are a source of life on the planet as our food system depends on them pollinating almost three-quarters of the plants that produce 90% of the world’s food. At the same time, they are a major income generator1, and in many developing countries, in particular, apiculture (bee keeping) has become an important entrepreneurial activity, helping to eliminate poverty. Even so, though bees have been in existence for 110 million years, they have been in decline for more than a decade. In the USA and Europe, hive losses of 30% or more have been recorded. As they are an indicator species, these losses indicate that all is not at all well with the planet and measures need to be taken to rectify the situation.
In the USA, one female entrepreneur, fourth-generation bee-keeper Leigh-Kathryn Bonner, is doing just that, but with a difference. While still a student at North Carolina State University, she developed the idea for Bee-Downtown and in 2015, at the age of 22, she decided to launch the venture full-time rather than take up a job opportunity with American Tobacco Campus. Her parents gifted her $15,000 on the understanding that the venture had to be profitable within a year or she must take up the job offer. It was!
Essentially Bee-Downtown involves selling hives to corporate partners and maintaining them on their behalf. In her first year of operation, she sold 50 hives in the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina. Apart from producing honey, the hives proved popular with their partners’ employees, who did not just learn about bee-keeping and the workings of the hive but were encouraged to apply what they had learned to their own personal and professional lives. At the same time, they came “to understand the environmental and economic impact of pollinators and how they and their organisation together are part of the solution”. As a result, 95% of the participants claimed to be prouder of their employers because they could be seen to be helping to create healthy honeybee populations and to save the planet.
Over the years, the venture has expanded and by 2019, 200 hives had been sold, creating a 60-mile healthy honeybee corridor containing some 9.5 million bees, together with a Bee-Downtown Leadership Institute. This employs biomimicry techniques to train corporate employees in how to solve complex human problems and learn about leadership. The partner companies pay an annual fee for the hives and the programmes, the amount paid being dependent on the number of programmes, events, classes and leadership development sessions they want for their employees.
In its first year of operation, Bee-Downtown made $17,000 in sales. By 2018 this had risen to $750,000, and the business was well on the way to making $1million in 2019 when the pandemic struck, and business came to a screeching halt. It had to adapt, and with the support of Lenovo, it transformed into a business with a virtual footprint. By applying the biomimicry techniques, it espouses in its training programmes, it introduced, for example, virtual hive tours for their partners’ employees and their families, thereby enabling them to see their bees during the lockdown. Though the transformation was not easy, they did not lose any of their contracts and actually found that they could train even more of their partners’ employees than ever before.
By learning about and from the bees, therefore, Bee-Downtown was not only able to “thrive in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environment” (Bonner, 2021) but to continue to make a difference to its partners’ businesses.
The Bee-Downtown business model embraces the Triple Bottom Line of Profit-Planet-People and addresses the UN’s SDGs 15 (Life on Land), 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production), 4 (Quality Education) and 17 (Partnerships for the Goals). The venture is very much an economic enterprise that is concerned for the environment and the well-being of employees and their families. As Leigh-Kathryn acknowledged, “We are for-profit and doing good. But we shouldn’t be the exception to the rule. All businesses should develop this way”.
- Between $235 and $577 billion worth of global food production is derived from bees.
Bonner, L-K (2021), Bee-Downtown: the unlikely pairing of Bees and technology. Lenovo Story Hub. Available: News.lenovo.com
Cheng, M., (2018), How this 25 Year-Old entrepreneur is convincing companies like Chick – fil -A and Delta to save the Bees. Inc Newsletter. Available: https://www.inc.com/michelle-cheng/30-under-30-2018-bee-downtown.html
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