Leigh Kathryn Bonner with Bees at ATC

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“I guess I’m still addicted to it. I’ve never been on drugs, but I imagine if you had cocaine it wouldn't be any different.” 
Jerry Flanagan, Master Beekeeper and uncle of Bee Downtown CEO & founder Leigh-Kathryn Bonner, has some strong thoughts on beekeeping. For Bonner and the rest of the “Flanagan Clan”, as they’re known in their eastern NC hometown of Farmville, beekeeping is both a profession and a lifestyle. 

Bonner started her company over two years ago as a junior at North Carolina State University. Bee Downtown deals in the installation and servicing of artist-decorated and beekeeper-approved apiaries for local businesses or offices. Bonner’s bees are adorning the roofs or windows of WRAL, Burt’s Bees, the American Tobacco Campus and the home of Capitol Broadcasting president Jim Goodmon, with plans for a network of 50 mostly-urban hives by the end of 2016. 
In just two years, Bonner has earned recognition from various media outlets and top honors in competitions such as NC State’s Lulu eGames. Now, in one of the biggest developments for the Durham business to date, she's been named one of four international OpenIDEO Climate Innovation fellows (introduced in the video below).

Credit: IDEO
The inaugural fellowship awards winners with six months of directed mentorship from OpenIDEO—a collaborative online design community created by the global innovation and branding firm IDEO—giving Bee Downtown and social ventures from California, Uganda and Jamaica assistance in both building businesses and building brands. At the end of the six months, Bonner plans to release a final video story highlighting the company’s progress and showcasing a more refined brand identity. She calls the opportunity a dream come true for her small startup.

"I am so excited to have the chance to work with experts from around the world in fields I see an opportunity for Bee Downtown to grow," says Bonner, who professes a love for IDEO's work. It was a firm she considered applying to before she decided to pursue Bee Downtown full-time last May. 

The Climate Fellows program, announced last fall, gives her the chance to learn the non-beekeeping aspects of her business from the firm she's always admired.

Reinventing her beekeeping heritage

But to really understand how such a niche company has come so far in just two years, you have to understand the Bonner and Flanagan family. Bonner grew up in Raleigh, but trips to the family farm were frequent and much anticipated. They involved cultivating corn and tobacco and raising animals. And most importantly, keeping bees. To get a closer look at the family, take a peek at the video here:

Credit: Wei Wang
At one point, Bonner’s uncle takes out a family photo and points out all the children who turned out to be beekeepers. Out of the 20 or so family members in the photo, six of the children are now beekeepers. “So far…”, as Flanagan ends with. 
While she’s a fourth-generation beekeeper, Bonner was never forced or asked to “work the bees”. From a young age, she found herself deeply fascinated with these often maligned insects. She was an old-fashioned farm child, more fascinated with dirt and plants and insects than barbie dolls or tea parties. Fast forward to the present day and the bee-obsessed farm girl is an NCSU alumna with a degree in international studies and a CEO title. She is both Regina George and Cady Heron. For the non-Mean Girls fans out there, you’re just gonna have to google it. 
It’s this juxtaposition of environments that lead to the unique identity of the person and ultimately the company. Splitting a childhood between forward-thinking and highly-developed Raleigh and a farm known affectionately as “Redneck Disney World”, Bonner found herself imbued strongly with influences both urban and rural. It’s no surprise then that her company is one of duality. On one hand, it's raising bees with the mission to heal the declining population of pollinators. On the other, Bee Downtown is marketing the image of social and ecological consciousness to clients. 
Colony Collapse Disorder has become increasingly common over the past 15 years, and beekeepers in the U.S. reported losing about 50% of their bee populations during 2015 according to Bonner. This isn’t just a problem for tea drinkers or Winnie the Pooh—honey bees contribute more than $15 billion to the U.S. economy and aid in the production of 90 commercial crops in North America. 
Bee Downtown wants to help combat this flight of the bees through rooftop colonies that can then form satellite settlements, helping to restore honey bee populations to healthy levels. According to Bonner, bees actually perform well in urban environments, taking advantage of our penchant for blooming flowers and trees to use as a food source. Given that bees can forage comfortably in a three-mile radius, the choices for sustenance are nearly endless for these guys, Bonner says. 

Beekeeping for urban progressives

The second prong of the business is pure image. Durham is a forward-thinking community that places a strong emphasis on culture and the environment. Companies want to be seen as progressive here, and what better way to promote this image than to offer up their properties as haven for a species in decline. In addition to rooftop apiaries, Bee Downtown has observation hives like the one housed in safety glass in the facade of Burt's Bee’s. These enclosures provide the perfect opportunity for businesses to not only impact the environment in a positive way, but make this commitment seen by consumers. 
Additionally, this exposure to bees on tours or in local storefronts can lead to an appreciation for and fondness of an insect not necessarily loved by all of us. For something so important to our ecosystem, it’s vital that people learn to accept and understand just how vital the bee is to our existence. Bonner describes it as “more of a movement than a business. We're trying to create an educated region. We’re putting bees places, having people own them, and having people create bee-friendly spaces to bring life back to yards and bee communities.” 
Even though Bee Downtown has a compelling philosophy along with the accolades, it hasn’t been easy for Bonner. She's a rare young female in both beekeeping and the startup community.
"To be a very young female beekeeper in business, I got a lot of criticism," she says. Part of her challenge was overcoming the “the southern ‘Yes ma'am, yes sir environment’” she grew up in. But because of the supportive community she has found in the American Underground and the beekeeping community, she’s gained the confidence to be a bona-fide businessperson and CEO. 
Come spring, Bee Downtown will expand its network of hives and apiaries to the Research Triangle Park, East Durham Children’s Initiative, Common Ground Green and Murphy’s Naturals. These are just the finalized contracts, but Bonner says she has more under wraps for the company. She hopes to expand outside of the region too.
Before hanging up the phone, I asked Bonner if she had any bee-centric puns she wanted to get out of her system for this article. Perhaps my favorite is a line she uses in tours at the American Tobacco Campus. When holding one of the segments of the hive up for tour members, she likes to say that, “Beauty is in the eye of the BEEholder”. 

While I have five or six more ready in the interview notes, I’ll leave it at that.