Starbucks Beekeepers See to the Bees’ Needs

By Steve Stolder / Starbucks Newsroom

Ann Burkhart has a favorite story her mother, Carol, told her over the years. It was about how, when Carol was growing up on an Idaho dairy farm in the 1940s, she became acquainted with honey bees.

The bees had formed a hive in an outbuilding on the property and, as she watched them come and go, she felt a peacefulness, even letting them land on her body. She passed the summer that way, the bees behaving toward her as if she was just another part of the western landscape.

Years later, Carol passed her lingering affection for honey bees to her daughter, who grew up to keep honey bee hives in the backyard of her Seattle home.

But these days, honey bees are in trouble, Burkhart knows, due to the issue of colony collapse disorder, a condition where most of the hive’s worker bees vanish, leaving behind their queen, food, baby bees and a few nurse bees. In time, the colony dies.

Burkhart is passionate about food sustainability. At work, she’s a Starbucks manager who creates ethical sourcing strategies for produce and other agricultural products. She’s become increasingly concerned about the plight of honey bees and the devastating effects of their dwindling numbers, pointing out that one in three bites of all food we eat is dependent on honey bees.

“Pollination services are critical to our food supply here at Starbucks,” Burkhart said. “Things like apples and blueberries and almonds – critical ingredients in our beverages and food – are 100 percent dependent on honey bees for pollination. That got me looking deeper.”

It also spurred her to action. Earlier this week, Burkhart was part of a team of Starbucks partners who gathered on the top floor of a parking garage at the company’s Seattle headquarters to set up two hives populated by 10,000 honey bees. The newly formed Starbucks Beekeepers group is part of a wave of response from the business community to the plight of the bees. Members promote pollinator education and awareness while learning beekeeping skills together.

Fighting off a chilly wind, members of the group took turns carefully sliding frames laden with bees into the hives. Gathered with them was John Kelly, Starbucks senior vice president, Global Responsibility, Community & Public Policy, and the executive sponsor of Starbucks Beekeepers. Burkhart wore a white protective suit but eschewed gloves.

“It’s scary,” she remarked with a laugh, “but the coolest beekeepers go gloveless.”

James Lunsford, a veteran beekeeper who has five hives on his property in Olympia, Wash., offered tips and shared stories about his experiences. He harvests 100 pounds of honey a year and finds it restful to pull up a chair and watch his hives “like a fish tank.”

The sighting of a queen bee prompted the group to gather in a circle around the installation and strain to get a good look. “She produces 3,000 babies a day,” said Lunsford with a tone of awe.

The challenges confronting bees

Starbucks Beekeepers came together following a presentation at Starbucks headquarters in Seattle by Danielle Downey, the executive director for Project Apis m., a nonprofit formed 10 years ago to fund and direct honey bee research. It was Downey who encouraged Burkhart to try beekeeping at home. Her presentation also captured the imagination of Chris McFarlane, a project manager at Starbucks.

Burkhart and McFarlane began assembling Starbucks Beekeepers, setting a ceiling of 20 members so everyone could get hands-on experience. They created a formal charter binding members to participate in ongoing maintenance and have worked to reassure others around the building that honey bees make fine neighbors and won’t be buzzing around their lunches.

Downey, who has been working with honey bees for nearly 25 years, said Starbucks Beekeepers will face many challenges.

“It’s never been harder to keep healthy bees,” said Downey. “On average, beekeepers lose 50 percent of their bees every year.

“Even commercial beekeepers lose 30 to 40 percent of their hives every year. If you liken that to people who raise cattle, if you have 100 head of cattle and during the year you’re going to mysteriously lose 30 to 40 of them, people would be freaking out.”

The problem isn’t as stark as it was in the winter of 2006-2007 when beekeepers reported losses of up to 90 percent of their hives, but Downey said it’s still concerning and the margin for error for beekeepers is low. It’s critical that the threat to the honey bee population be addressed on a large scale, she stressed, but small-scale efforts like those of Starbucks Beekeepers also play a role.

“When we grow a million acres of almonds in California’s Central Valley, if we can’t move two million colonies of bees to pollinate them in March when they bloom, they won’t get pollinated. If we lose our managed bees, we’re going to feel it,” said Downey. “There are no feasible options.

“Everybody wins with a higher awareness and a greater concern for protecting bees. Those at Starbucks will see how well or badly their bees are doing and what kinds of things in the environment make those differences. It’s a good thing.”

A lifelong connection

Burkhart’s mother is now 83 and lives in a retirement community in Seattle. On Mother’s Day, Burkhart brought her along as she picked up hive boxes that contained the honey bees and brought them to their new home. Nearly three-quarters of a century after Carol Burkhart shared those moments with honey bees on the Idaho farm where she was raised, she still felt a connection with them. With Starbucks Beekeepers in mind, she plans to lobby the senior campus where she resides to allow residents to raise honey bees.

“She said afterward, ‘This was the best thing that we could do for Mother’s Day,’” said Burkhart.

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