Leigh-Kathryn Bonner is a North Carolina-based queen bee herself. She was named to the Forbes and INC Magazine 30 Under 30 entrepreneurs list for her work with Bee Downtown—a company she founded at 22 that brings beehives to corporate campuses.
She chatted with us about all things bees, how she started her company, and the surprising fact you may not know about these pollinators.
Tell us a little about yourself.
Leigh-Kathryn: I’m 29, the CEO of Bee Downtown, and a fourth-generation beekeeper. I grew up in Raleigh, NC, but we had a family farm nearby in Farmville. I like to think I got the best of both worlds between growing up in a city with all of the opportunities, but then a farm very close by where I had the privilege of learning about agriculture and where things come from.
How did you decide to keep up the beekeeping tradition?
Leigh-Kathryn: I learned the skill of beekeeping from my uncle and my grandfather right at the end of high school. The bees were on a hiatus from our farm for most of my childhood, but when we reduced the size of our cattle herd, the bees came back and I fell in love with them. There was no stopping me after that.
"...the bees came back and I fell in love with them."
How did you go from majoring in international studies to starting Bee Downtown?
Leigh-Kathryn: I studied International Studies at NC State and took Introduction to Bees and Beekeeping when I was a freshman. I read an article on how beekeeping was just taking off in New York City, and I just kept thinking, "Why is it not taking off in our big agricultural states?" I just couldn't get it out of my head.
I took the inspiration from my family and brought the bees to the city with Bee Downtown. I was interning for the owners of the American Tobacco Campus in Durham, NC, and I asked them if they'd let me put a beehive on their roof. They said yes, and suggested I talk to the company at the end of the building, which was Burt's Bees.
We’re so happy to have the hives on our Durham campus! How did you grow from there?
Leigh Kathryn: Burt's Bees was our first partner ever. I knew that the bees did well in urban environments—when they have stable living environments, they're not as stressed out. They have diversity of food. They have longer blooming periods where food is available to them, so the bees statistically do quite well in urban environments.
And once Burt’s Bees said yes, it snowballed. Other companies heard Burt's got bees and they wanted bees. And now, here we are seven and a half years later with about 500 hives and a hundred different corporate partners that we keep the bees for.
"Other companies heard Burt's got bees and they wanted bees. And now, here we are seven and a half years later with about 500 hives and a hundred different corporate partners that we keep the bees for."
"It takes about 55,000 flight miles to produce one pound of honey. That's over two circumferences of the earth flown by the colony."
What are you up to when you’re not working?
Leigh-Kathryn: My fiancé and I foster puppies. If the mom didn't make it, we'll get them at one or two days old, and we get to foster them through to adoption. And that brings me a lot of joy. We had a little foster puppy this past weekend named Rascal. He was a little wiener dog corgi mix. He was so cute.
I love to garden, love to hike. Nature is healing and it gives me a lot of energy. I love to watch things grow. That brings me a lot of joy.
There’s more to come from Leigh-Kathryn—she shares a pollinator support and self-care tips in part two of our convo!