This spring and summer, there will be hundreds of thousands of new residents in Atlanta affected by Georgia’s infamous pollen season. These buzzing Atlantans (no, not Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets) will be busy traversing thousands of acres across the city to make it a more fertile, flowered and sustainable place.
They are honeybees, and they’re being brought to Atlanta by a fourth-generation beekeeping entrepreneur who has partnered with eight of the city’s largest companies to put hives at their headquarters as a sustainability and employee engagement play.
Bee Downtown is a three-year-old startup founded by Leigh-Kathryn Bonner, an entrepreneur whose family roots lie in apiology (the scientific study of beekeeping). Though Bonner wasn’t always sure she would follow the family path, while in college she became fascinated — and concerned — about the declining state of the honeybee.
Over the last few decades the global honeybee population has shrunk, due to human-centered causes like decreased habitats, less food and pesticides and chemicals. Between spring 2016 and 2017, one-third of the honeybee colonies in the U.S. were lost.
The problem goes way beyond a lack of honey and flowers. Honeybees are the world’s number-one pollinator, pollinating 80 percent of what grows on the planet. That means honeybees touch roughly every third bite of our food and contribute more than $150 billion to the world’s economy annually.
Instead of discounting urban environments, Bonner took a different approach to beekeeping. Bee Downtown is specifically geared towards beekeeping in cities, using a subscription-based pricing model that allows companies to pay an annual fee for the installation, maintenance and data-collection of beehives on their property.
Durham-based Bee Downtown already has installed 100 hives for 40 companies, including IBM, SAS, and North Carolina State University, in North Carolina. Bonner and her team of four visit the hives every two weeks during pollination season. With a partner company called Hive Tracks, they have developed a turnkey data collection program where companies can see the environmental effects of their hives and add it to their year-end reporting.
Bee Downtown also involves the employees, hosting a celebration when the hives — each of which is hand-painted by local artists with the company’s logo — are put into place. They teach biomimicry classes to employees and encourage them to stay involved with the bees.
The companies even get to keep the honey from their own hives. By its second year, an urban beehive can produce about 40 pounds of honey.
“The employees get so invested in the bees, they want them on campus just as much as we do,” shares Bonner. “They want to take care of them, and it really becomes like leadership training for these companies.”
“A lot of sustainability programs are one and done. If you sign with Bee Downtown, you’re in it for the long haul,” says Bonner. Companies commit to a minimum of three years when they bring hives on campus.
The innovative model recently earned Bonner a spot in Inc Magazine’s 30 Most Inspiring Young Entrepreneurs under 30 list.
In 2017, Bonner decided the company was ready to expand. She applied and was accepted into Engage, the startup growth program and fund backed by 10 of Atlanta’s biggest companies, along with Invest Georgia.
“Because of our sustainability component, Atlanta was first on our list,” Bonner says. However, she was at first unsure about entering a program primarily geared for young technology companies — though there’s a data collection element of Bee Downtown, it hasn’t followed the typical trajectory of a tech startup. Bonner has largely bootstrapped the company, living off a family loan until she got the business off the ground.
Engage would be their first venture capital investment. She decided the opportunity to work with companies the likes of Delta, Chick-Fil-A, Cox Enterprises and more was too good to pass up and joined the first cohort of Engage.
“Those first couple of weeks I didn’t know what I was doing,” says Bonner. “But I quickly found out that several of these CEOs of these huge companies had beekeeping in their backgrounds.”
She sold them on her vision, and over the next few weeks, eight of those companies — AT&T, Chick-Fil-A, Cox Enterprises, Delta, Invesco, Georgia Power, Home Depot, Intercontinental Exchange and Invesco — will be getting their own hives. The Georgia World Congress Center will also become a home for Bee Downtown honeybees.
Bonner says that each of the hives covers about 18,000 acres, a three-mile radius.
“When we map it, the hives start to overlap and create, through the city, this corridor of beehives,” says Bonner. She’s aiming for 50 hives in Atlanta by the end of 2018.
“This has been such a team effort,” says Bonner. “As soon as we shared our vision, everyone was just on board and invested. We couldn’t have asked for more — we love Atlanta.”
All photos via Bee Downtown