When Noah Wilson-Rich started graduate school at Tufts University in 2005, he wasn’t thinking about launching a small business, disrupting a scientific funding model, or becoming an advocate for bees. But by 2010, he had co-founded Best Bees, a full-service beekeeping operation headquartered in Boston, as a way to fund scientific research and advocate for honeybee health.
In 2006, colony collapse disorder (CCD) struck American bees. Healthy hives in the fall vanished completely by spring. Huge swaths of the honeybee population were simply gone. As a young researcher studying bees, Wilson-Rich was suddenly fielding questions about CCD and about the importance of honeybees’ roles as pollinators in American agriculture. “Non-scientists realized, ‘Wow, bees are important.’ It made what we were doing feel more relevant,” he says.
In his final years at Tufts, Wilson-Rich became increasingly aware that the grant-funded academic research model had significant limitations. “Grant funding is the main traditional source,” he says. “My Ph.D advisor still has never had a grant funded. It’s a broken system.” And so Wilson-Rich started Best Bees out of his apartment in Boston, providing beekeeping services to individuals and companies. He also collected data on those hives as he set up and maintained them. “I don’t take hives on the subway anymore,” says Wilson-Rich, who is now the chief scientific officer of Best Bees, “but our mission hasn’t changed since day one. This was the first service that provided a deliverable in return for a research donation.”
In 2015, the Urban Beekeeping Laboratory & Bee Sanctuary split from Best Bees to become a nonprofit. They still work together and share data, but the Bee Sanctuary can accept donations for its work focusing on fundamental scientific investigation into bees and bee behavior. “It’s a depressing story,” Wilson-Rich says. Although CCD has ended, bees are still dying in high numbers. It’s just that now beekeepers are finding the bodies, while vanished bees were the hallmark of the earlier epidemic.
Best Bees maintains about 1,000 hives all over the U.S. for clients ranging from backyard gardeners who want to provide a home for pollinators but won’t don a beekeeper’s suit, to large corporations seeking a greener image by keeping bees on their rooftops. About 40 full-time beekeepers tend to the hives, using an app their technology team built to collect data on hive activity, health, and honey output.
That data goes to the company’s two research arms. The Best Bees research team develops technologies that improve bee health; it’s working on vaccines and ways to build better bee habitats. The hope is that beekeepers all over the world will use the company’s products.
“With the declining numbers of bees, the cost of over 130 fruits and vegetables crops that we rely on for food is going up,” Wilson-Rich told TedxBoston. “Honeybees are important for their role in the economy and in agriculture.” —Annaliese Griffin