I've had a 'bee in my bonnet' about this for a while, but it was only as I began to put my thoughts to 'paper' that I started to realise just how many facets there are to the issue of bees and business; from the relatively benign companies who want to be seen to be doing something in order to boost their public profile, to those who unashamedly downright profit from well-meaning consumers. This focuses more on the former - I want to help steer bee-curious businesses to the right path to support all pollinators.
It isn’t hard to imagine – at a management/marketing meeting of any given company across the world “What can we do to raise our profile?” “Well, the environment seems pretty popular, can we do something there?” “BEES!” “I’m sorry, what?” “Well people keep saying we need to save bees…” “Yes, I like it. Let’s get some bees then and show just how environmentally friendly we are; consumers will approve of that.”
Given the level of time and resource investment required to maintain a colony of healthy honeybees, it seems baffling that this is the default course of action for many companies. However, when you have management wanting to clearly see tangible results, a hive buzzing with inhabitants, producing golden ‘nectar’, is an understandably obvious, social-media-friendly box-ticker.
I myself have had to explain that no, our company, a member of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, should not get an apiary. Aside from the kit, training, and ongoing attention it would require to be a responsible beekeeper, and aside from the fact that we had no-where near the year-round planting needed to support a honeybee colony, installing apis mellifera to a location increases foraging competition. This pushes out the local bumblebees and solitary bees, (see the links in my previous blog for more info on that), so it just wouldn't be good for bumblebees.
You can just imagine stumbling across an apiary or two in such beautiful pollen-rich grounds, where there's plenty for everyone.
As I've mentioned before, there is of course a place for honeybees; I like all bees. If for example, you are a large country hotel and restaurant with sprawling gardens and meadows, then naturally, you may want to produce your own honey to feature in your dishes. Many small businesses earn a living from honey or wax products. These are really not the problem.
The problem is ‘jumping on the bee-bandwagon’ or ‘bee-washing’; a more succinct term brought into prominent use by Charlotte de Keyzer, an ecologist in Canada who writes about the issue too. I see three areas of this:
... who aren't particularly environmentally friendly, making a token action to 'wash' themselves (think, pesticide company giving away free packets of seeds for example)
... who have realised that being seen to be championing 'green' causes goes down well with consumers - it does, do it!
... whose business model is to profit from using bee imagery, which often misleads well-meaning consumers into believing that their purchases are making a difference to bumblebees.
Those companies simply wanting to make a PR-friendly environmental statement by installing a honeybee hive on their roof in an urban environment, are perhaps not looking at the bigger picture. With a little nudge in the right direction they could actually make a difference and really have something environmentally positive to shout about.
As you can imagine, the subject of ‘jumping on the bee-bandwagon’ can evoke a range of feelings from bee-supporters like myself. I admit that my initial feelings on the matter were those of righteous indignation 'How dare companies profit from the public's love of bees when they don't really care about them?', but I’ve shifted somewhat in my opinion. Now, I’m coming at it from a place of ‘opportunity’. Regardless of a company’s motivation, if they are taking steps which ultimately help our pollinators, then I’m happy to let them have that. It is win-win. Those steps need to be the right ones though.
The good news for businesses is that it is much easier to support bees than they might think. There’s no need to pay out for an apiary and training and upkeep. Planting is key. Just plant bee-friendly flowers which bloom at various points throughout the year, and avoid using pesticides. Any marketing team worth their salt should be able to spin the beauty that is giving nature a helping hand. Heck, pool resources with local companies and form a bee-consortium; support each other, create a buzz in the community (well, I had to go there at least once…) Following a company’s development as they support our pollinators is a lovely, positive journey to take with your customers/followers.
So, to any business wanting to increase their environmental credentials and help us to ‘save the bees’, I suggest you do the following things:
Understand that there is a difference between a bumblebee and a honeybee and ensure that correct imagery and terminology is used (for example, don't use honeycombs or mention stings if you are talking about bumblebees)
Plant a range of things that will flower at different points throughout the year. It really doesn’t matter if this is a grass verge, a window-box, a planter or a green sedum roof. Do. Something.
Don’t use pesticides in your planting.
Consider supporting a charity like the Bumblebee Conservation Trust – put your money where your mouth is and help fund the great work they do. There are various types of membership including family, individual, lifetime, youth, and business to name a few. For as little as £2.50 a month you could start to make a difference.
Raise awareness – throw out the odd bee-friendly Facebook or Instagram post, re-tweet something which is interesting or helpful, tell us all about the bees you’ve had visit you since you began planting for them.
Consumers are beginning to wise-up to the fact that their wish to help the environment and support bees is a potential cash-cow to businesses. I'll be talking in another blog post about some of the companies who aren't just embarking upon green projects to look good, but who are actively profiting from selling bumblebee merchandise without actually donating any of the profits to help bumblebees. It is an issue which I believe warrants its own spotlight.
I think it is only fair to point out that there are some smashing businesses and organisations out there who are genuinely environmentally conscientious. For example, there’s a small gin company in Scotland that plants trees for every case sold, and very actively supports the Bumblebee Conservation Trust. A family run ice-cream company in Nantwich has raised thousands for the Trust - why is it that tiny businesses like these put so many larger organisations to shame? I may not speak for the wider consumer population, but if I can support fantastic businesses like that, then I will. Heck, if I'm going to write about the bad ones I've encountered, then I'll also write a feature on some companies you can buy from, knowing that they really do make a difference. Let me know your recommendations, and watch this space.
For anyone working for a bee-curious company who may be reading this, I encourage you to get in touch with a charity like the BBCT and hop aboard the bee-bandwagon; as long as it is being steered properly, you could really make a difference.