It’s almost summer! Green and growing things abound. And that means busy pollinators.
For this month’s #tapculture Q&A, we caught up with Scottie McLeod of Bee Downtown. The company installs and maintains hives in urban areas at business locations or corporate campuses, and the employees of those companies get to learn from the bees.
Yes, you read that right. People learn from the bees, which conveniently leads us into our Q&A.
What have you learned from bees lately?
Bees move toward stressors, not away from them. When a hive grows really fast, basically to the point there are too many bees in one hive, the hive will split in half. Those bees who leave form a honeybee swarm and go in search of a new home. They may attach to a tree or a car mirror, and they form a tightly packed ball. What’s really interesting here is that the bees at the bottom of the ball can communicate to the other bees when they’re stressed from all that weight, and the other bees move around the ball to take their places.
Another behavior we observe is that, under certain conditions, bees can and do move out of their designated roles to serve the colony where they’re most needed. In normal circumstances, the youngest bees are considered house bees—they clean the hive, tend to the queen, take care of babies—and the oldest go out for water and nutrients. When needed, the older bees can revert back, whether that means cleaning the hive, defending it, or going back to a different job.
What drew you to beekeeping and Bee Downtown?
Everyone on our team is just mesmerized by honeybees. You fall in love with them right away. We are all motivated by being able to help a species that is in decline while also being outside. It’s a joy to be involved in science and agriculture in this way, where we’re keeping bees really sustainably, teaching people about the importance of pollinators in urban areas, and advancing organizations and leaders along the way through our business partnerships.
What do bees need to survive?
If it’s ok, I’ll actually answer this question in reverse. Right now, bees are struggling. And we refer to the reasons as the 4 Ps:
- Poor management
- Poor nutrition
The combination of these four factors creates the conditions wherein we don’t have many wild hives anymore. Bees can live almost anywhere (not Antarctica), it’s just the seasons that vary.
Bee Downtown hives are all in urban areas where bees have:
- Stable living conditions
- Diversity in food sources
- Less likelihood of contact with pesticides
It’s a beekeeper’s job to steward the hive along, stepping in when there’s a problem, but otherwise not interfering. The beekeeper is an enabler of the natural capacity of the bees to do their good work, make their honey, and continue growing.
What plants do you all recommend for supporting bees and other pollinators?
Once bees are brought into the conversation, a lot of other amazing conversations come up too. Our partners ask, “What can we be planting for the bees? How can we make our campus greener?” While plant choice does vary widely by region, we mainly recommend native plants, and both perennials and annuals are great. Plant plants that are native to your area, and they will attract good pollinators.
What does a typical beekeeper’s work day look like?
Our beekeepers check every single beehive once every two weeks. We now have 500 hives that are home to about 15 million bees. So on a typical day, a beekeeper might go to four or five different partner sites, where he or she will check 15-20 different hives. The main purpose is to ensure the queen is healthy, provide any resources if needed, and treat for any disease if present. After that, beekeepers assess the site (maintaining grass, mulch and fencing), and interact with the partners. Beehive tours are a regular occurrence at our partner sites. These involve a group of about 10 employees going out and doing a hive check alongside one of our beekeepers.
During these hive checks, how do you calm people who are fearful of bees?
It’s important to know that bees are defensive insects and will try to protect their home if they’re threatened. Bees only hover within six to 10 feet of their colony, and when they go out looking for resources, they go up and out above the treeline. To be extra safe, we put fences up to create a barrier of about 25-30 feet. Generally, when they’re away from their hive, bees are very focused. Even if they’re attracted to someone’s cologne, deodorant or perfume, once they realize there isn’t a flower in the vicinity, they’ll go away. Swatting is definitely the worst thing you can do with any stinging insect because they will key into that fast movement and get very scared, which triggers their defensive behaviors. So, move slowly or stay really still.
We’ve heard that consuming honey can help with allergies. What makes this practice most successful?
The thinking there is, if you’re ingesting small amounts of local pollen in local honey, you can get your body used to it and reduce your reactions. The key with this strategy is local—in order for honey to be considered “local,” the honey will have been produced by colonies within 100-150 miles of you. Within this area, there will be the same or similar plants and trees that produce the pollen to which you may be allergic. There aren’t a ton of surefire studies that take this practice beyond correlation; however, we hear anecdotally that it works, and many of us at Bee Downtown have had success doing it too.
Ok! We hope you learned more about bees, what they need and how to live alongside them. Bee Downtown now maintains hives in four states—Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia—where thousands of people learn from the bees through hive tours, webinars and honey tastings. Read more in our Brands We Love profile on the company or straight from the source.