As it turns out, bees happen to be city people.
That’s the revelation that South End resident Noah Wilson-Rich stumbled upon while installing a bee hive in the backyard of his landlord’s property on West Concord Street nine years ago.
Now, not only has Wilson-Rich produced groundbreaking research worldwide about the success of bees in urban environments, but also he has founded a pretty sweet company – Best Bees Company – that maintains hives all over the City and sells local honey.
“It’s been amazing since we started in 2010 and we’ve been in the South End the whole time,” he said during a recent morning at the Albany Street headquarters. “About nine years ago, I told my landlord that I was starting this bee research company in my living room at my West Concord Street apartment where I still live. I figured I had better tell him and he was okay with it. Then I asked if he would put a hive in the back and he agreed to that too…After a while, I noticed they were doing so well in the South End. I wanted to know why they were flourishing in an urban environment and doing better than the bees that were in the country setting. They were living longer and producing more and were healthy.”
This was particularly interesting because it came at the time when bee colonies were suffering from collapse and disease, and national headlines about the worrisome status of bees had the general public enthralled with that story.
Everyone wanted to save the bees.
So, as a bee researcher, Wilson-Rich was particularly curious as to why his bees in the City were doing so well somewhere that one would think isn’t the best place for bees.
As it turns out, Wilson-Rich found that the City is actually a good host to bees, and the plant life has more variety to keep bees fed than in the suburbs.
They accomplished that by doing DNA testing on the honey produced by bees and finding out what plants were being used to produce the honey. The surprising result was that the City has more food for bees, thus making them healthier.
They analyzed bee colonies in Duxbury, and transposed that with colonies in Dorchester and Boston.
“Bees weren’t doing as well in Duxbury as they were in Boston, which you wouldn’t think would be the case,” he said. “Duxbury is considered to be so much nicer, but for the environment, it’s not. Those big, green lawns are actually not good for ecological health, which is what hurt the bees.”
Those findings were made world famous when Wilson-Rich gave a Ted Talk online, and his findings were picked up all over the place.
At one point, he realized he had made it big when he saw himself on the television in an airport while traveling.
Yet, even more interesting, is that he transformed that research into a business plan – melding the two into one.
The Best Bees Company now has hundreds of hives on rooftops in Boston, Chicago, New York, Pittsburgh and other cities. In Boston, the company has a fleet of seven vans that service hives all over the region. Customer pay for the hives and the maintenance, and they get to keep all of the product – which is the local honey (in Boston, most of the local honey comes from the Linden Tree, he said).
In exchange, Wilson-Rich conducts research on all of the hives – using technology that monitors them in real time and provides critical data for research into urban bees.
“It’s really like a complete circle,” he said. “We can enjoy the product, but each hive gives us a look at what’s happening with the bees, and we can get the data to work with, which provides us information we can share with the City about increasing sustainability, and that helps bees and also gives people a lot more honey.”
One of the big breaks for the company came when the owner of Beacon Capital decided he wanted hives on all of his properties. Reaching out to Wilson-Rich, the company soon went national and allowed him to enter into a new area of research – bees in high places.
As it turns out, again, bees do even better on skyscrapers.
That will also be a Ted Talk on June 30, where Wilson-Rich will discuss the data he uncovered about why bee colonies thrive on tall buildings – noting that it has a lot to do in his opinion with not having to use as much energy to leave and return to the hive.
“Bees are just skydiving off the tops of the buildings and that saves energy,” he said. “When they return, the rising heat lifts them to the hive and they use less energy.”
Throughout Boston, though, there have been stalwarts to the program – including many hotels like the Taj, the Fairmont Copley and the Four Seasons. Most of the hotels use the honey in their recipes or in the bars. Some actually use it as gifts for guests.
At the Taj, on a recent morning, Director of Field Operations Jessica O’Keefe checked on the hives on the top of the Back Bay hotel. The bees buzzed around the rooftop and seemed very happy feasting on the flowers in the Common and Public Gardens.
Taj officials said they love the program, which they’ve had for several years, and plan to feature it in an upcoming renovation.
Meanwhile, back on Albany Street, Wilson-Rich said he’s glad to have maintained his research and start a thriving business at the same time while keeping a footprint in the South End.