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Chancellor Woodson Talks Bees, Entrepreneurship with Bee Downtown Founder

In Red Chair Chats, NC State Chancellor Randy Woodson sits down with alumni, faculty, staff and friends of the university to show off the strength, talent and innovation of our Wolfpack.

The chancellor is joined by alumna Leigh-Kathryn Bonner in our fourth episode of the series. A 2015 graduate with a degree in international studies, Bonner has been named a Forbes 30 Under 30 social entrepreneur for her work as founder and CEO of Bee Downtown. The company sets up hives on corporate campuses to teach about the importance of healthy honeybee populations and, as she puts it, bring a little bit of the magic of agriculture back into cities. 


Chancellor Randy Woodson: Hello, everyone. Welcome to another edition of “Red Chair Chats.”

This is a time when we sit down with NC State alumni and friends of the university to talk about everything Wolfpack. And we’ve got a great guest today in Leigh-Kathryn Bonner. Leigh-Kathryn is a 2015 alumni of NC State and is the CEO of a company called Bee Downtown. She is a fourth-generation beekeeper, a third-generation Wolfpacker, kind of a big deal.

Forbes magazine named her one of the top 30 under 30 people in the country as CEO of Bee Downtown, which is a real tremendous social entrepreneurship effort. So, Leigh-Kathryn, it’s so good to be with you.

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner: Oh, I’m excited to have you here today. When we knew the chancellor was coming, we tried to make it as fancy as we could in here.

Chancellor Woodson: It’s big. It is very fancy. So not everyone knows about Bee Downtown. We’ve got hives on Centennial Campus, and we’re very proud of that, but tell our listeners today what Bee Downtown is all about.

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner: Yeah. What we do at Bee Downtown is we install and maintain beehives on corporate campuses to help rebuild sustainable agriculture, while simultaneously providing year-round employee engagement and leader development programming. So in essence, our hope is to help cultivate great places to work through agricultural education.

Chancellor Woodson: Now as a fourth-generation beekeeper, you came to NC State. What drew you to NC State? I’m thinking it wasn’t agriculture, but it turned out to be in the end.

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner: In my family, you go to NC State, and that was not really ever in question for me. I wanted to go to my family’s alma mater, and I brought today, just for you to see. So this is my grandfather’s. He swam at State College, not university. And I’ll still wear this to games. It’s his wool Letterman sweater.

Chancellor Woodson: Oh my gosh. This is gorgeous. And well cared for.

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner: Yeah. And it is one of my most prized possessions, that sweater.

Chancellor Woodson: And when did your grandfather graduate from NC State?

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner: I’m pretty sure 1956 or ’58.

Chancellor Woodson: Well, you’ve cared for that sweater. I don’t see a lot of evidence of moths.

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner: No. My sister, she did go to Carolina, but she-

Chancellor Woodson: Well, we can’t keep them all. We try.

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner: Well, we got her back. She now likes to say she’s got the highest degree from anyone of NC State in our family. She has her master’s, her MBA. So she now likes to say she’s the highest-ranking Wolfpacker in our family.

Chancellor Woodson: Well talk about what inspired you to create Bee Downtown, and how NC State played a role in the early development of the company.

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner: NC State is why Bee Downtown is here today. I was in first-year college at NC State. I studied international studies, ended up studying international studies, but my first-year college class was Introduction to Bees and Beekeeping. My uncle took that class with Dr. John Ambrose a generation before me. And Dr. John Ambrose was my grandfather’s friend. And so NC State being a school where science classes are not easy to get good grades in, I was like, “This is bees. I can get a good grade in bees, I know I can.” And the way Dr. Ambrose taught about a very serious issue in agriculture, and around environmental sustainability, is that you just have to do a little bit. And if all of us collectively care a little bit more about the environment, care a little bit more about a honeybee, then we will be able to change the world. And I just deeply appreciated the way he taught in that way. And it stuck with me, and I ended up going through, and majoring in international studies. But the idea of, I could do something with bees, never left my mind.

So I studied abroad. It’s what you do with international studies. And while I was studying abroad, I came up with the idea for Bee Downtown. I read a news article about beekeeping in New York and how it’s taking off, and urban beekeeping is very good for honeybees. There’s less chemicals. There’s less stress. They’re not moving. They have diversity of food. So I thought maybe we should bring that into our agricultural states, and NC State bought in from the get-go.

I participated in the eGames, I won the eGames. I was going to take the full-time job that I’d been offered in Durham at American Tobacco campus, and Donnie Goins, one of the judges and an NC State alum, he said, “Where’s your mom? Is she here? Where’s your dad? Is he here?” And I said, “My mom’s here.” He said, “Are you going to do this when you graduate?” And I said, “I don’t think so.” He said, “Yeah, yes you are.” And he said, “Let me go talk to your mom.” And he convinced my parents. He said, “Let her give you the pitch she just gave me, and help fund her for one year.”

They did. The rule was pay myself a livable wage, show growth, and be profitable. Donnie was the only person that ever really invested in Bee Downtown up until a certain point. He believed in it, and all of NC State believed in it. I was late to classes. I had to leave classes early because bees were flying around Burt’s Bees where they shouldn’t be, at our first partner, and I’m running out the door, and professors are shouting after me, “Just get your work done, but go get ’em!”

And the support that NC State gives to their students — what I tell people is if I had tried to start Bee Downtown at any other university in the country, it would’ve never worked.

Chancellor Woodson: Well you were a trailblazer, and NC State is now, as you know, one of the top entrepreneurship universities in the country. And social entrepreneurship is a big part of our curriculum, but you were early in that process of really the reinvention of NC State for entrepreneurs. So, thank you for blazing that trail.

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner: It’s been an honor. Think and Do the Extraordinary is what NC State does best.

Chancellor Woodson: So what’s the deal with these bees? Why do they run off? We have two hives at The Point, at the chancellor’s residence, and a couple of years ago they swarmed, and wound up outside of the hive, and then this magical person came and picked out this one special bee, and the next thing I know, they all headed back to the hive. So what’s that about?

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner: That’s called swarming, and this is, the spring is the time of year for swarming. A honeybee colony is meant to reproduce. That’s what they do best. And when a colony gets too big, they will decide as unit to split into two, and they will fly off, about half of ’em, with the original queen bee. The rest of the bees will remain in the colony, in the hive, and they will create a new queen.

Chancellor Woodson: Create a new queen? Is that like they anoint?

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner: They will make multiple at once. They want good succession planning. So we teach a lot about business analogies that you can pull from the beehive around building high-performing teams and effective leadership. And they make multiple queens because if something goes wrong with one, they want there to be another one that could step in. And for us in our business world, you train people, lots of people, up to be able to take the next position.

So they will swarm, we’ll come collect ’em, or a beekeeper will come collect them. And then we like to say, you get “free bees” out of it as well. All the puns at Bee Downtown.

Chancellor Woodson: Well, a bee pun. Who knew today that you were going to get… and genetics, the reproduction of bees, it’s one of the most… I’m not going to go into it, although I could lecture on it for a while. The genetics of bees are really fascinating.

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner: Yes. It is. It’s one of the things we also teach about, is diversity matters. If there’s no diversity in a beehive, if the genetics are all similar, it will crash. But if you are working to have diversity of genes in your hives, our beekeepers will create queen, they’ll rear queens with good genetics. SAS, their campus always has really good genetics of bees, so we’ll create queens off of that.

Chancellor Woodson: Well of course they do.

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner: Yeah, exactly.

Chancellor Woodson: Statistical analysis of genetics.

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner: Exactly. But if you don’t have good genetics, it will crash. In our human world too, diversity is so important. We need to have it in lots of different areas, and it’s the same for the beehive as well.

Chancellor Woodson: Why is maintaining a culture of bee production so important for agriculture?

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner: So what I like to say is, I grew up, our family farm was about an hour away. And I had the privilege of being around agriculture and seeing what it takes to turn something from seed to harvest, and what it means to love and adore the earth. But I grew up in Raleigh and I got all the amenities and opportunities that a city has to offer, but the bees are, every third bite of food we eat, is thanks to a pollinator. Seventy of the world’s top 100 food crops come from bees, but we, we don’t know agriculture anymore in cities. Too many people are too many generations removed from the farming family that they had, where there’s been a loss of respect for agriculture.

So our bees on Cox Enterprise, Delta, MetLife, Cisco, Microsoft, New York Stock Exchange, on their campuses, they’re not there to pollinate, necessarily, the food that we’re eating. They’re there to bring a little bit of agriculture back into cities, a little bit of the magic back for people to learn and have a renewed sense of respect for the hard work.

Everybody always jokes about NC State, “the ag school” and it’s-

Chancellor Woodson: It’s not a joke.

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner: And I’m like, yeah, it’s a privilege that we have a school where we see cows, and our milk comes from cows, and we get to learn about agriculture because it’s, we need to learn how to love our earth, and farmers know how to love the earth. We’re the most destructive species ever on the planet, humans. And we’ve forgotten what it means to deeply adore our earth, and the word cultivate, which is an agricultural word, means a deep sense of adoration. And so, it is my favorite thing to be able to tell people I graduated from the ag school. I didn’t graduate with an ag degree, but I graduated from the cow school, and I’m very proud of it.

Chancellor Woodson: I think you’ve earned, as evidence from all these bee boxes, an agriculture degree.

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner: Yes. 

Chancellor Woodson: So, all right. I’ve been dying to know. Not everyone has a hyphenated first name. Growing up, you’ve gotta tell us, where did Leigh-Kathryn come from? And when you were young, you had, probably had the largest name in your kindergarten class. So you had to come up with something that your classmates called you. So tell me about Leigh-Kathryn. Are those family names, or?

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner: They are. So very southern. You name people after everybody so that nobody’s upset. My parents named me after two of the strongest women in their life. So my great grandmother, Ida Leigh, who had the green thumb, the farmer, all very nature-oriented. And then Kathryn, my father’s grandmother, she was the entrepreneur. And she ran a bar for shift workers in Philadelphia and worked sunup until sundown. So we joke that I did get it. I got the entrepreneur piece from my dad’s family, and the deep, hardworking piece from both, but then I got the farming piece from my mom’s family.

Chancellor Woodson: That’s a great story.

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner: It’s a long name. I came home from school the day we learned how to write names at school, and I came home crying, and I told my mom, “I’m never gonna learn how to write my name. It’s so big. There’s too many letters.”

So I get, my whole family calls me Leigh-Leigh. My extended family calls me Leigh-Leigh. And then Leigh Kat, LKB, LK. I kind of answer to anything. 

Chancellor Woodson: Well, I noticed you’re LK out on the wellness chart.

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner: Yes, the wellness bingo game here at Bee Downtown.

Chancellor Woodson: Tell us a fun fact about bees. What does, our listeners, what can you tell them about bees that they don’t know, and they would find bizarre? We’ve already talked about swarming. So you can’t use that again.

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner: Yeah, I can’t use swarming again, OK. We’ll talk about honey, cause everybody loves honey.

Chancellor Woodson: I love honey.

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner: So a pound of honey, a pound jar of honey, takes about 55,000 collective flight miles from the bees to produce. So that’s over two circumferences of the earth flown, in order to produce one pound of honey. It truly is liquid gold.

Chancellor Woodson: I mean, 55,000 frequent flyer miles could get you a free ticket.

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner: Exactly.

Chancellor Woodson: That’s a big deal.

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner: Yeah. And they do it all the time. They’ll bring in, a colony of bees can bring in seven pounds of honey in a day, or nectar in a day. So they’re very busy, busy bees. And they’ll, they will, from the moment the hives went in on Centennial Campus, and they’re at your house too, they start to impact 18,000 acres of the surrounding community.

And we have bees at Centennial Campus, we have them at WRAL, we have them at AJ Fletcher Foundation, we have ’em at Murphy’s Naturals. So the three-mile radius that the bees are going to fly begin to overlap. And what the companies do is they say, “Well, we want to make sure our entire campus is planted to where it’s healthy for the bees. We don’t want to hurt the bees.” And when they do that, they make their campus better for all of the pollinators. And that creates the ripple effect that Dr. Ambrose taught me about, of you do a little bit, and collectively you do a lot.

And so we have about 500 beehives this year with over a hundred corporations from D.C. to Tampa, Florida. And we get to watch companies fall in love with nature again, and they’re the, many of the largest corporations in the world, and when you go public on the New York Stock Exchange, now you get a jar of honey of the Intercontinental Exchange, the owning company of the stock exchange. You get a jar of honey. And to just know that that happens, and these corporations are so proud of what they’re doing in agriculture, makes me happy because I love agriculture, and I love the stories, and the lessons. I think that we can all learn a lot if we just stop and listen to nature.

Chancellor Woodson: OK, so what do we have today? I’m pretty excited.

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner: So we’re going to do a honey tasting. This is one of the programs we run with our partner corporations, where they get to learn how to become basically a sommelier of honey. So we’re going to start with Bandwidth’s honey. This is from Centennial Campus.

Chancellor Woodson: A good pour, by the way. You really are a sommelier.

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner: You know, we don’t skimp here. 

So this is your wildflower honey. So you can go ahead and you can smell it. You can also give it a taste.

Chancellor Woodson: So I should taste Centennial Campus in this honey.

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner: Exactly. You should taste some Wolfpack in there. 

Chancellor Woodson: Wow.

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner: So what you’re going to get are some nice florals. You’re also going to get a little bit of that fresh-cut grass. It’s very light honey, but wildflower honeys are known to be very complex. So we’re actually the reigning champions for the best tasting honey in the United States.

Chancellor Woodson: The reigning champions?

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner: Yes. Georgia Power’s campus won “Best Tasting Honey in The U.S.,” the largest honey competition in the country.

Chancellor Woodson: Wow.

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner: And it’s a wildflower honey. So they’re complex. They’ve got a lot going on with them, and they’re very memorable honeys, but we don’t know what flowers the bees went to.

Chancellor Woodson: Now this isn’t like a wine tasting. I’m not supposed to spit this back out?

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner: No, you get to eat this.

Chancellor Woodson: Oh good. Good. Because it’s gone. And it was fantastic.

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner: It’s a very good honey. 

Chancellor Woodson: And you know that we keep, the entomology department keeps hives at the chancellor’s residence. And a very similar flavored honey to what’s produced on Centennial because turns out, chancellor’s residence is on Centennial.

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner: Yes.

Chancellor Woodson: Same wildflowers.

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner: Yeah, lots of great florals. So we’re going to go to the spring. This is going to make you feel like springtime. And this one I really love. I’m a fan of lighter honeys. So this is orange blossom. So this is not a honey we produce, this is a honey from Florida, and it is from the orange grove. 

Chancellor Woodson: And it’s one of the, orange blossom honey is one of the most frequently found in supermarkets and stores.

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner: Yes. Absolutely. So if you give that one, you can smell it, you can taste it. You’re going to get, it’s very bright, it will remind you of springtime. It’s got a little bit of a bite, a sharpness that’s a citrus. It’s very light. I get more honeysuckle in this. It takes me back to being, just like eating honeysuckle as a kid. A little bit confectionary. It’s a sweeter honey than

this one is, but it is, it’s the one you’re going to find at the grocery store. And about 70% of the honey that you find at the grocery store is high fructose corn syrup, or it’s been overheated and it’s no longer got healthy properties. So it’s really important to know your farmer, and know where your honey is coming from. It’s not like the maple syrup industry that you know, if it says maple syrup, it’s maple syrup. Most honey you have no idea where it came from.

Chancellor Woodson: Wow. That’s a problem.

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner: Yes. It’s a big problem.

Chancellor Woodson: We need, sounds like, well, let’s not ask for government intervention, but that sounds like a problem that needs to be solved.

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner: Yes. It’s hard for beekeepers too, because they work so hard and their honey is sold at a lower price point than it should be. And it’s, you want to support your local farmers.

So this next one is the one that I think you’re going to probably get the most memories from.

So we’re going to head into, this is actually a spring honey. This is tulip poplar honey. So this is grown on the east coast, tulip poplar tree. This is one of my favorite trees because people don’t realize that it flowers because the flowers are up high. You know all of this, but it is a beautiful tree that we have on the east coast. So this one, definitely give it a smell. I’m actually going to have you change out your spoon.

Chancellor Woodson: See, you’ve gotta really do this right.

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner: You’re welcome to just throw it on the hive.

So this one, definitely smell it first. And a monofloral honey means the beekeeper hunted for the honey. You have to be a skilled beekeeper to get monofloral honeys. It’s 51% of the same floral source. Bees have floral fidelity, so they’re going to go to the biggest blooming option first. So give that one a smell, and tell me what you smell.

Chancellor Woodson: Wow.

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner: You can use your wheel if you want to use your wheel.

Chancellor Woodson: Well, this is more earthy. I mean, I’ve got a wheel. I need to come up with something. What should I be smelling?

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner: Earthy is right on track.

Chancellor Woodson: Yeah so my choices in earthy are mushroom, rain, farm, and dirt. It’s definitely soil-like.

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner: He’s trying to be polite here and say it doesn’t smell like a farm animal, like a dirty farm animal.

Chancellor Woodson: Well it smells a little bit, no, that’s not, that’s the smell of money.

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner: Yes. There you go. Agriculture right there.

Chancellor Woodson: But it definitely smells like you’ve just walked through a cow pasture.

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner: Yes. Yep. OK. Now I will say, this honey does not taste like it smells, so don’t worry, you’re not about to taste a cow pasture, but it does give you a lot of those earthy vibes still. So go ahead and taste that one.

Chancellor Woodson: This is a setup. Wow. That’s very different than the smell.

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner: Right.

Chancellor Woodson: I can’t. It’s lovely actually. I was ready for it to be a cow patty.

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner: Yeah, exactly. It’s dried fruits. You get some dried raisin. It’s got a nuttiness to it too. If you put this tulip poplar honey on a truffle Gruyere cheese, it is outstanding.

Chancellor Woodson: Now Leigh-Kathryn, that’s a little high falutin. A truffle cheese.

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner: It’s pretty good though. It’s pretty good. And this one goes on a brie. So you can put your orange blossom on a brie cheese. But that, yeah. The nuttiness, the earthy tones of it are, pair very well with like a nutty cheddar cheese.

Chancellor Woodson: Well, so how would a tulip poplar… a tulip poplar is a very distinctive, deciduous tree, but it’s not, it’s not frequently the most frequent species in a forest. So how does a beekeeper find a sufficient supply of tulip poplar to make a honey that’s that good?

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner: That’s a great question. So the beekeepers move their beehives. And so they’ll find pockets of tulip poplar trees. And sometimes even in North Carolina, you don’t realize it, but you have a pocket of tulip poplar. So we’ll have honeys that are, definitely have tulip poplar in ’em, but they may not be over 51%. Most spring honeys are very light, but this is the only dark spring honey. So if you get a colored honey like this in the spring, you know you’ve gotten some tulip poplar in there somehow. For tupelo honey, which is another very famous honey, they actually bring all the beehives down, and in south Georgia, north Florida, they float the beehives out onto rafts in the swamps, ’cause that’s where the tupelo is. So all the bees, the beehives float.

Chancellor Woodson: So that’s the black gum tree.

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner: They’ll all float out in the swamps, and they’ll bring the bees back, and that’s how they know. So it takes a very skilled beekeeper to be able to create monofloral honeys, and that’s why they’re more expensive, typically.

Chancellor Woodson: We have a number of tulip poplar trees in the forest around the residence, but it’s not, the bee that comes from the hives on our property, is a lighter honey. So it’s definitely not the dominant source of pollen.

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner: Yes. But you may get some earthy notes to the honey. Like I said, like fresh-cut grass, you get in this. So you may get some of those more earthy notes. But I appreciate that you know trees, and understand trees. As a beekeeper, you have to learn your trees.

Chancellor Woodson: So a tulip tree is a very tall species. And you said the Centennial, the Bandwidth honey is a wildflower. So the bees are foraging in a lower altitude than they would for a tulip tree. Does that make a difference in where they find the nectar?

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner: Yes. OK, so that’s a great question. So wildflower means we simply just don’t know. So it’s not necessarily like wildflowers.

Chancellor Woodson: Oh, OK. So it’s a wild guess.

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner: Yep. Exactly. It’s a swag guess. It’s a sophisticated wild guess. So we don’t know where it is. But they are going to floral sources.

Chancellor Woodson: I’ve stumped her.

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner: Exactly. But what people don’t realize is most nectar is actually coming from trees. So when people plant flowers for pollinators, a really important thing to do is plant trees. And we talk about our environment and the issues we have in our environment, what’s happening to honeybees. People are very quick to say certain things, but at the end of the day, it is habitat reduction. It’s that we clear cut land. Our farms are now massive farms that have monoculture farming, and nowhere in nature do you find a naturally occurring monoculture. So the fact that we think that that’s our best way to farm now, we’re fighting nature at all times. I read a statistic one time that children today, and I would argue it’s adults too, can name over a hundred corporate logos before they can name 10 trees outside their front door.

Chancellor Woodson: Wow. That’s a problem.

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner: It is. 

Chancellor Woodson: Not for the corporations, but for our future.

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner: And I had a friend say, “Well, our corporate logos are in your face all the time.” But so are the trees. We just, we don’t slow down enough as a society to understand the importance of our environment.

Chancellor Woodson: I suspect that you could recognize the NC State logo before you knew types of trees.

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner: I was drawing those before I could write my name.

Chancellor Woodson: Well this has been a great, a great experience, and wonderful honey. So thank you for sharing this with us.

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner: Yes. Absolutely.

Chancellor Woodson: And I’m the one that got to taste it. So phenomenal. Thank you.

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner: Next time we’ll put you in a beehive.

Chancellor Woodson: Oh yeah. That’ll be special.

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner: Yeah, we’ll get you a suit, and we’ll get you in the beehive.

Chancellor Woodson: I’ll bring my EpiPen just in case.

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner: Perfect. Just in case. Safety first.

Chancellor Woodson: Well, thank you so much for sharing the story of Bee Downtown with our audience today, and for everything you do to continue to promote agriculture, and beekeeping, and all the benefits that come from that for our world. Another great example of a Wolfpacker that has taken something that you knew well growing up and turned it into a passion going forward. So thank you.

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner: Thank you. It is an honor to be an alumni from NC State.

Both: Go Pack.

This post was originally published in NC State News.