Keeping the Bees Buzzing

We’re celebrating World Bee Day on May 20 with a special conversation between David Tarpy, NC State professor of applied ecology and the head of the NC State University Apiculture Program, and Leigh-Kathryn Bonner, founder and CEO of Bee Downtown. We’ll learn about honey bee health, why it’s vital to spread awareness about the honey bee’s role in agriculture, and how NC State is helping to ensure that honey bee research and dissemination of that research will continue in perpetuity.

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We’re celebrating World Bee Day with a special conversation. We’ll learn about honey bee health, why it’s vital to spread awareness about the honey bee’s role in agriculture, and how NC State is helping to ensure that honey bee research and dissemination of that research will continue in perpetuity. With that, let’s meet our guests.


Fourth generation beekeeper, third generation Wolfpacker. So wolf blood runs real deep in my family.

My name is Leigh-Kathryn Bonner, and I’m the founder and CEO of a business, or bees- ness, as we like to call it, called Bee Downtown. And what we do is we install and maintain beehives on corporate campuses in cities to help rebuild sustainable agriculture while simultaneously providing year-round employee engagement and leadership development programming to our partners. So we have about 500 hives now that we manage up and down the East Coast in six different cities. And we are the keepers for Delta, Chick-fil-A, Microsoft, Dominion Energy, Georgia Power, Vesco Cox Enterprises, Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Porsche, Kaiser Permanente, WellStar Health Systems, and many, many more. We have about 130 corporate partners now that we work with. And the company is going on. It’s getting ready to have its ninth birthday in July.

I grew up in Raleigh, but my mom’s side of the family is the beekeepers. They have a farm in Farmville, North Carolina. It used to be a cattle farm and then has changed over the years. And my mom always says I liked the farm growing up because Papa let me play on it. She had to work it. So she said it’s a very different experience growing up that she had. But that’s one of the reasons why I started Bee Downtown is I did get invited to play and love agriculture in a way that I felt if other people were given that same type of invitation, it might make people just care a little bit more. And if we care, we all care a little bit more collectively, we’ll care a lot more about the environment and the way we treat it. 


My name’s David Tarpy. I’m a professor of applied ecology at NC State University and the head of the NC State University Apiculture Program. Within that program, we’re a collective of right now about 16 hardworking, excellent individuals doing everything from research to extension and outreach with our beekeepers and as well as formal instruction at the college level. So we wear a lot of hats, and our research program is really designed to test hypotheses about ways to improve bee management and overall colony health. 

Our extension and outreach program is really about working with stakeholder groups, primarily the state beekeepers, which is the largest beekeeping community in the nation, to try to improve their beekeeping skills and to try to minimize the colony losses and the health problems that honey bees are facing. And then, on the instruction side, we teach one of the largest classes in the college using honey bees as a vehicle to educate non-science majors about a little bit something about biology and something about science to give them an appreciation of all of the above.


I took Introduction to Beekeeping during my freshman year at NC State because I was not a science person growing up. That was not me. And I was very nervous about taking a science class at NC State and not passing it, but I was like, I can do bees. And I’ve heard that this is one of the best classes at State. I was so excited to take it. And it was for me, one of those like puzzle pieces of, there’s, there’s something that everyone can do to support bees. It is not that you have to be a beekeeper at Bee Downtown. We actually try to steer people away from becoming hobbyist beekeepers unless they are truly 100% committed to understanding that you are becoming a farmer.

And to become a farmer means being deeply educated, always researching and knowing you could do everything right and lose all of it. But at the end of the day, it’s that you have to put in the work for it to go well, and oftentimes it doesn’t go well for hobbyist beekeepers. And David years ago sent me an article about how there’s been, and correct me if my numbers are wrong, but there’s been like a 420% increase in beekeepers as hobbyist beekeepers over the last like 15 years. There’s only a five-year retention rate. So we’re adding more bees in. They’re sick. Their bees aren’t managed correctly. They can make other colonies in the area sick. They can spread aggressive genetics into other hives and through that diversity of genes. But you can have genetics you don’t want.


So honey bees, along with other bees and other pollinators, are important because of their contributions to the pollination of our food supply. So 20 years ago, when I started at NC State, people didn’t really know that or understand that. They kind of questioned why we need a professor for honey, right? Because honey is not really all that important. But if there is a silver lining to a lot of the press coverage of the issues that honey bees and other pollinators have been having, it’s that there’s been this kind of really remarkable public education campaign that bees are critical to our food supply through pollination by allowing seed and then fruit set of about a hundred or so different crops. So it’s been estimated about a third of everything we eat every day, and especially all the healthy stuff, the fruits, the vegetables, the nuts, those are either in part or fully reliant on bee pollination in order for those to be marketable and part of our food supply.


We like to say that honey bees are like the pandas of the insect world. People can get on board with honey bees. You might not get ’em on board with some of the other bees, but honey bees are something that people know enough about, and they know that they get honey from the bees, and there are happy things associated with bees.

So they’re this like gateway into a larger conversation around environmental stewardship that while some people will say, well, you should be focusing on native pollinators. Honey bees are not native, they’re naturalized, but they can get a conversation going in a way that other pollinators can’t. And we can study them in ways that are easier to study than other solitary pollinators as well. So they’re, they’re great storytellers. They’re indicator species, so they can tell us about our naturally occurring environment and its health at a faster pace than humans can recognize, or they’re the modern-day canary in the coal mine if something’s off in our environment. And we need to be thoughtful about what they’re trying to tell us. And they’re a keystone species too. So they’re like a level up beyond just indicator if they go away.

It drastically alters the terrain of our world if the bees were to go away. But luckily, they are a managed agricultural population. So while we lose a lot of honey bees in the United States every year, we can bring the numbers back up to what we need for pollination services. But this is where Tarpy’s expertise comes in much more than mine. But, to me, and my senior thesis, I was an international studies major, but it was on honey bee decline around the world was, it’s a band-aid to an issue. We’re, you know, taking away a lot of genetic diversity by mass-producing bees. And that genetic diversity took, you know, just centuries to build up, and we’re just wiping it clean and putting less healthy bees into the world each and every year. So while they’re not gonna be on an endangered species list, they’re struggling in ways that we really need to understand because something else could enter into their environment and really wipe them out in regards to the fact that their genetic diversity is just not what it used to be.


Yeah, so we tend to, well, the numbers are <laugh> the number of threats to honey bees and other pollinators are myriad, but we tend to focus on kind of three, maybe four main buckets, more four categories. The first is parasites and pathogens. So just like all animals, all bees get sick with certain disease agents, and the numbers are very long, especially in honey bees. And so, trying to keep the bees healthy from all the things that can cause disease is obviously a primary interest for beekeepers. And so a lot of effort in bee management goes into that or trying to mitigate the effects of those disease agents. The second is pesticides that are used in our agricultural environments and other landscapes because what’s good at killing off a pest insect that is eating our crops is usually pretty good at killing off a beneficial insect like bees.

So there’s this natural tension then between, you know, kind of large-scale agriculture and these ecosystem services like pollination upon which they rely. And so there’s this very kind of delicate and fragile balance between trying to get both of those things right, you know so that we can protect our crops, but then also protect our pollinators and other beneficial species. The third area is nutritional deprivation. So bees eat pollen and nectar as their protein and carbohydrate sources, respectively, and they get them all from flowering plants. And so a lot of places just don’t have a sufficient abundance or diversity of these flowering plants so that the bees can have adequate nutrition. So things like conservation of habitat and avoiding monocultures in very large agricultural landscapes. Those things are really important for the long-term health and welfare of all bees, especially honey bees.

And then the fourth one, as Leigh-Katherine had mentioned in honey bees in particular because they are managed, is this potential threat of genetic bottlenecking where there’s not sufficient genetic diversity at the kind of large scale population level where, you know, too few genetic diversity types out there could spell disaster for the managed honey bee community, just like an all other kinds of managed crops or livestock. So we need to be very cognizant of that. So our research program is actually touching on all four of those areas, probably with a concentration that ladder that the fourth area of genetic diversity. So we’ve spent a lot of time doing research on queens, and there’s only one queen per colony. She mates with lots of different males, which brings genetic diversity to the worker force within that colony. And so a lot of our research has shown that as long as queens are adequately mated with a sufficient number of these males, genetic diversity confers benefits to the colony, reduces disease, promotes productivity and honey production and the whole bit. So, so we’re looking at really all of those areas, but with a focus on the population-wide genetic diversity.

I’m very proud of the beekeepers we have on our team. I think they’re some of the best beekeepers that we have in the U. S. They work so hard, so many hours, and they have the opportunity to do what my uncle calls boutique beekeeping. So they get to just baby these hives and love on these hives throughout the year. And because of that, our worst year ever was a 19% loss rate compared to, you know, a 40% loss rate. And last year, we had a 9% loss rate. But what we do with our corporate partners is we say, please just create habitat if you want to love on the bees. I always say, if you wanna become a beekeeper, first, feed the bees first. Learn how to garden, learn what types of food they need in urban environments and be their advocate for creating habitat for all the bees.

Dr. Ambrose always taught people, if you just care a little bit, like just love the bees, don’t spray the dandelions, you know, we’re in no mow May, don’t mow in May. You’ve got an excuse. Take the weekend, and don’t do yard work. Feed the bees. That’s, you know, the best way to do it. 

And I always tell people you are a great beekeeper the day you realize you’re never going to know everything. And that it’s an exciting adventure to be in that world. The day you become a bad beekeeper is when, as my mother says, you get too big for your britches, and you think you know everything and there’s nothing left to learn. That’s when you start to fail as the keeper of those colonies. Because it sometimes is always changing and you have to be willing to listen to nature and learn and grow with the colony as a beekeeper.


So the legacy of the NC State Agriculture Program actually goes all the way back to 1914. So our program, not continuously, but our program has been in existence for well over a hundred years. And so there’s this natural assumption or inclination for the beekeepers to think that once I retire or get hit by a bus, they will refill, you know, this position. But that’s not necessarily true to ensure that though the beekeepers are fundraising a million dollars in order to have an endowed professorship in apiculture, which will be the first of its kind in the nation so that it will guarantee that I will have a successor which will then continue the program in perpetuity. That, along with the 4 million that the beekeepers successfully fundraised from the state legislature and the last budget to build a new research and extension field lab, will really solidify North Carolina State University as one of the premier apiculture programs in the nation.


Well, David, I feel like this is a good segue. We’ve been behind the scenes at Bee Downtown trying to figure out how we contribute to this because Bee Downtown was started because of this program, and it wouldn’t be here without NC State and the Introduction of Bees and Beekeeping class. And so we’re very excited to be donating over $18,000 to the faculty award. So that should be coming in the next couple of weeks as we just pull it all together from our accounts. But, we wanted to find a way to really show as best as we can what it means to us. And we brag about NC State and Dr. Tarpy and his work all the time, and it gave Bee Downtown a foot to stand on as we started. You know, we were a company that was like, yeah, can we put bees on your campus?

And, like, no, you cannot put bees on our campus. Like, can we pay you to take them off of our campus from the tree that they’ve been living in? No, I want you to pay me to put ’em on ’em. But because we had the NC State, you know, entomology department and we had NC State backing Bee Downtown so strongly, it gave people trust in what I was saying and what I was talking about that let this work. So we’re super excited to be participating in helping fundraise for this because it is a super important piece of NC State that needs to stay for forever. It should never go away. It’s part of our history. It’s part of the legacy of NC State as an agricultural school. So we’re excited to participate, but I’m really happy to hear how much has already been raised.


Well, that’s extremely generous of you. And again, thank you so much for that. You know, I think it takes, you know, public-private partnerships in order to make these kind of things happen. And because, you know, the beekeeping community in the state is not kind of this huge kind of multi-billion dollar industry. They serve multi-billion dollar industries, which makes it a little more diffuse and, therefore, a little different and more challenging in order to have those kinds of fundraising campaigns. But I think it really shows that with your leadership and other contributions, it really does add up. And they have really been successful with that, and it just assures the future of the program going forward, and it’s great to see.


And I think one of the biggest takeaways that I got from Dr. Ambrose and what he taught was that by herself, one queen honey bee makes one-twelfths of a teaspoon in her life. And he talked about that a lot of, like, her life’s work seems to be so little when you look at it in the grand scheme of things, but together a colony can produce over a hundred pounds of honey in a couple of months. And so if we can work together like a colony, we do create that lasting change that we’re all super proud to see at the end of the day come to fruition. And so there’s no amount too small or, or too big or too big to add to the endowment, but every little bit it adds up just like the honey that you end up being able to pull at the end of the year.

To learn more about how you can support the North Carolina State Beekeepers Association Faculty Award in Apiculture, visit the link in the show notes.

Thank you for joining us on Farms, Food and You. This podcast is a product of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at North Carolina State University. If you would like to support the show, please share this episode on social media and leave a review on your podcasting app of choice. Let’s talk soon!

This post was originally published in College of Agriculture and Life Sciences News.

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