SAS Institute has become the world’s largest privately owned software company by specializing in analytics software for other businesses, but this year the Cary company will be making something new: honey.
SAS, which has more than 5,000 employees at its headquarters, decided to bring bees to its campus following a suggestion from an employee who works as a part-time beekeeper. Earlier this month, SAS installed two hives on its campus off Interstate 40 with the help of Bee Downtown, a startup working to promote urban beekeeping.
SAS is among a growing number of companies in the Triangle that are working with Bee Downtown to help boost fragile honeybee populations in the region. Bee Downtown places hives on a company’s property and then maintains them.
This spring, companies such Blue Cross Blue Shield, Bandwidth and Freudenberg IT will install more than 50 hives in the region, which they hope will help rebuild the honeybee population and raise awareness about their importance. For a host of reasons scientists don’t fully understand, beekeepers in the U.S. lost 44 percent of their colonies in the year ending April 2016, according to the Bee Informed Partnership, a nonprofit that tracks bee populations nationwide, which means the production of fruit, nuts and vegetables that depend on bees for pollination is also threatened.
“There is a chain reaction to honeybee decline that is about more than just pollinating pretty flowers,” said Leigh-Kathryn Bonner, founder of Bee Downtown. “Honeybees have been quietly pollinating the world for hundreds of millions of years. They’re an indicator species, and they’re trying to talk to us right now.”
Bonner, 24, was working out of the American Underground, a hub of startups and tech entrepreneurs in Durham, when she started Bee Downtown as a non-profit organization in 2014. She was a junior at N.C. State University at the time, studying international relations with a minor in nonprofit studies, and was inspired by an introductory class on bees and beekeeping. Fellow N.C. State graduate Justin Maness is the company’s lead beekeeper.
Bee Downtown installed its first hives on the rooftop of the American Tobacco Campus, and the next one along the outside wall of the headquarters of Burt’s Bees. In 2015, Bonner decided to turn Bee Downtown into a for-profit company that collects fees from the companies that have hives installed. The company has installed and maintains more than 100 hives at 40 companies. Bonner or Maness will check on each hive once every 10 days to two weeks fall through spring and about once a month during the winter.
For the past two years, all honey that comes from the hives has gone directly to the companies. This year, Bonner said, Bee Downtown will begin taking a portion of the honey and sell it at local shops and farmers markets.
“We are building a community that embraces agriculture and the history of agriculture in our state,” said Bonner. “These companies understand that it’s about more than a monetary return.”
Bonner said that Bee Downtown surveys the sites before hives are installed to make sure they settle on a location that is safe for the company’s employees and for the bees. Fences are generally installed at public sites where multiple beehives, called apiaries, are located, but Bonner said many businesses choose not to have them.
There are between 50,000 and 60,000 honeybees in a healthy hive, Bonner said. The majority of bees remain in the hive, while the mature female bees do the pollinating work. They are able to pollinate up to a three-mile radius from their hive, which means bees in the company’s hives around the Triangle are “covering a lot of area in the community,” said Bonner.
Bandwidth, a communications technology company on NCSU’s Centennial Campus, sponsored the installation of three bee hives on the same day as SAS. Kade Ross, Bandwidth’s executive vice president, dressed in beekeeper’s gear and participated in the installation by using a smoker that helped calm the bees down.
“It was a really cool experience,” said Ross. “There’s a lot of excitement about this internally, and we’re already planning on having tours and bringing families in to see the bees.”
He said the hives are 300 or 400 yards from the office – close enough for more than 15 employees to have already checked them out, and far enough away that anyone who might be wary of the bees doesn’t have to interact with them.
At SAS, Jerry Williams, the company’s program manager of environmental sustainability, also dressed in a beekeeper’s suit and helped with installation of the hives. He said the company is already planning “lunch and learns” about the bees for its employees and is determined to help raise awareness about their importance to the ecosystem.
“I know 10 times more than I knew before,” Williams said. “And it’s just the tip of the iceberg.”
Rachel Chason: 919-829-4629