Business Curious

Creating an Empire for Bees & the LGBTQ Community

Episode Summary

Hear Noah Wilson-Rich, founder of urban beekeeping company Best Bees, share the buzz around his mission to enhance the LGBTQ and bee populations. Brought to you by GoDaddy.

Episode Notes

Despite having a fear of insects growing up, Noah Wilson-Rich discovered his calling after finding out bees were totally vanishing in 2006 — so he changed his entire education and career trajectory to become a beekeeper. After unexpectedly winning a business competition at the nearby university, he received enough funds to take the first step in launching his beekeeping business: The Best Bees Company. Several years later, Best Bees became a multi-million dollar company that has grown beyond Noah’s wildest dreams. As he continues building his brand and his expertise on all things bees, Noah has seen firsthand how beekeeping has united the LGBTQ+ community and those living on the outskirts of society. It’s also helped transform his own identity. Noah explains how bees are like the LBGTQ+ community — they have the power to build highly successful empires despite being made up of many non-reproductive individuals. They focus on bettering society as a whole. As Noah keeps encouraging others in the pursuit of helping bees, he remains resiliently dedicated to lifting up both pollinators and LGBTQ+ folks through the power of urban beekeeping. 


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Episode Transcription

Scott: When Noah Wilson-Rich finished up his PhD in 2010, he found himself in the middle of a recession. He had spent the last six years of grad school studying honeybees and he was trying to raise funds so he could continue his research. But he couldn’t find a university job in his field, and funding wasn’t coming in. So, he got a job as a bartender near a business school. 

Noah: And I was really worried about money, and I was worried about how I'm going to make an impact, because I knew the work that I can do makes this world a better place. I just didn't know what to do next. 

Scott: So, he got by on his bartending wages and bad tips from students. One dude would even snap his fingers at Noah to get his attention. And then, one day on the job, his antenna picked up on a conversation.

Noah: I remember hearing from the business students, that there was a competition coming up down the street at MIT for a pitch, you had 60 seconds to pitch a business idea. I overheard this and I said, I'm going to apply, because I know that my work can save the bees and I know that I've got a business idea to do it, and we have nothing to lose, it's down the street. And so, I pitched, and I won. The next day, the business students came into my bar, and they looked at me with their pointed fingers. And they said, "you! The bartender won!" 

Noah: And I just smiled, and it really reminded me, I’ll never underestimate anybody in this world. And so, with that money, I had a little bit of seed money to start.

Scott: This seed money would launch what would become one of the top managed beekeeping services in the nation. 

Theme Music

Scott: Welcome to Business Curious, a podcast by GoDaddy about LGBTQ entrepreneurs and their journeys from passion to purpose. I’m Scott Shigeoka.  Today we are talking with Noah Wilson-Rich, he’s a behavioral ecologist and CEO of The Best Bees Company. Noah and his team at Best Bees install and maintain honey beehives on urban rooftops and residential backyards. And they collect data from these hives that help them understand how to keep bees healthy. Noah’s current research project is breeding a new stock of healthy bees who can resist disease. 

Noah: So out here in Provincetown at the tip of Cape Cod, maybe the gayest place on earth. That's what I do all day. I'm breeding Queens, honey.

Scott: Today we’re going to look inside the hive of Best Bees and uncover an unlikely connection between Bees and the LGBT community.

Scott: Let's start with you as a kid. And I was curious, what was your connection to nature like as a child?

Noah: My connection to nature as a child was filled with fear. To be honest, I remember feeling afraid of spiders in the house and running from everything and calling it a bee. It's hard to identify the species of an insect when you're running for your life. (laughs)

Scott: Growing up, Noah says he was a scrawny gay kid hanging out with the girls. He was an outsider who was just trying to avoid getting picked on. I can totally relate, so much so he didn't pursue the things he was interested in so he wouldn’t call attention to himself.

Noah: I remember in summer camp that there was a course we could sign up for called nature, and nobody wanted to do it. This was for like the losers. And so even though nature seemed really cool, I never signed up for it because it just wasn't really okay to do and so I think for young Noah looking forward to what I do today, I do think he would think it's pretty cool.

Noah: In college, Noah finally chased nature the way he’d secretly wanted to as a kid. And by the time he was in grad school, Noah was studying bees and trying to understand how they had stayed healthy on their own. He didn’t know then just how urgent his research would become. 

Noah: In 2006, bees started vanishing, not even just dying, but disappearing and people would come to me as a first-year graduate student and say, “Noah, what's going on with the bees? You're studying them, right?” And that changed my entire career trajectory forever.

Scott: Noah graduated with a doctorate in honeybee immunology and wanted to keep doing everything he could to keep bees healthy.  The money from the MIT pitch? That was the push he needed. One day in his living room, he created the Facebook page for his business, Best Bees. Noah would install the beehives himself on residential or business properties - and help with maintenance and upkeep. Customers could even keep their honey!  He knew this work could serve an even greater purpose. By recording data on the bees and their hives he could gather valuable research.

Noah: When people started to reach out, I didn't have a car. And so, I would take the subway with 10,000 bees in my bag. I would take the bus with the queen bee in my pocket. I would rent a car to drive a couple hours to Provincetown with hundreds of thousands of bees in it. Listen, Scientists are bringing the craziest stuff on subways all the time. 

Scott: The first year they sold seven beehives, the second year? Twelve. The third year was the tipping point. Best Bees sold and installed 65 beehives. And it grew from there.

Noah: 11 years later we’re this multi-million-dollar national company in 14 cities with over 70 beekeeper employees. I mean, it's just grown beyond my wildest dreams.

Scott: It was just this domino effect, one after the other, Noah did a Ted Talk that went viral in 2012, he got a book deal in 2013. With the help of his business partner and other investors, Best Bees went national in 2014 and a year later, he got a fancy research affiliate title at MIT. The same institution that gave him his first seed money. 

Scott: So, what’s queer about a beekeeping business? Noah helped me understand our community’s connection to bees in a way that completely blew my mind. 

Noah: There's something there that exists for people living on the outskirts. And there are a lot of people, especially younger people now who are gay and LGBT becoming beekeepers, even on our team at, at the Best Bees company. I mean, we've got a wonderful group of trans beekeepers. 

But you go to a beekeeping conference and there's kind of two groups. You see these white guys coming in from the field. And then you see this amazingly colorful, diverse kind of rainbow flag wearing group of young beekeepers doing some really amazing work. But it almost started because we were on the outskirts, almost pushed out of the buildings and then left to ourselves playing with the bugs and thinking, hey, what's this animal telling me? And let me explore that.

Scott: There’s just something about beekeeping. It draws queers in like bees to a coke can. 

Noah: We have more people of color becoming beekeepers, more urban beekeepers, AAPI and of all different ages and abilities, I mean, this is remarkable. And all of these people are helping the broader society around the world. And so, when we think about inclusion we have to understand and acknowledge the roles that everybody plays to make our society better. We can't do this alone and we've got to respect our helpers. We've got to lift up our helpers and we've got to listen to them. And so that’s the work we’re doing here with our pollinators. 

Scott: Yes. Take me to the bees and the honey flowing (laughs)

Noah: Where’s your beehive? Let's do this.

Scott: The work that Noah and Best Bees are doing is really important to the future of our planet. If we don’t have bees buzzing from flower to flower, spreading pollen, then we don’t have any crops. Do you wanna live and eat food on Mars? You gotta bring bees, baby. You wanna eat fresh fruits when they’re in season? You gotta save the bees, honey. Because if bees are dying, every year, one of every two beehives dies, so our pollinating population is cut in half. And so of course, less fresh food will disproportionately impact people already living in food deserts, many of whom are queer and of color. But the LGBTQ urban beekeeping community could really help. For some reasons that are still being studied, urban hives seem to produce more honey and survive longer.

Noah: And so urban beekeeping is something that we're seeing for people who've lived in food deserts, where they don't have access to healthy fruits and vegetables because their supermarkets are far away and out of their neighborhood. We're seeing people who live in areas that have been affected by blight. We're seeing areas that have been gentrified. Cities don't have to be baron cement wastelands, but that they can actually be nature preserves and hubs of food production. And by starting with bees, it's a little box of pollinators, just a two by three-foot space is all it takes. It's a very small step that can have a huge impact.

Scott: I'm really curious to bring it back to the personnel here. I want to understand, you know, how has studying bees helped you on your journey to accept your own queerness?

Noah: Whenever I give talks to kids and student groups, I always tell them to take a moment and think about what they know too much about. So maybe it's Pokémon, maybe it's cars, maybe it's a Miley Cyrus or any kind of nerdy thing.

Scott: And nerding out about something you really understand, Noah told them, you can charge for that!

Noah: And now they're in business, they're a consultant. Whatever you were picked on, it’s because you were different. And what makes you different as an adult makes you bankable. That is your power. Even though it felt like your weakness.

theme music

Noah: And you know where I'm based in Boston and Provincetown, Massachusetts. People know me, “Oh, you're the bee guy, the beekeeper.” It helped build my identity. And it helped give me strength. Perhaps, if I had been handed everything in life, if I had not been a gay person. Then I don't think I would have had this perspective on how important it is to know your power.

Scott: Thank you so much, Noah for sharing your story. Noah Wilson-Rich is the author of The Bee: A Natural History from Princeton University Press. Go check that out!

Special thanks to Paige Mulhern and Susan Rozmanith. Thank you to your entire team at Best Bees for all your work.

And if you liked this episode, be a bee spread the pollen of this podcast out to all your friends and to everyone else in your network. Follow us and write a review, help us reach the ears of other queers and be on the lookout for future episodes this season. We have some amazing stories coming up that I’m so excited to share. 

This episode was produced by Evan Roberts and mixed by Sami Hiromi. Thanks to Marlo Lopez, Adam Palmer, Jessica Hunter.

Business Curious is a GoDaddy podcast and I’m Scott Shigeoka.

Thanks for listening, y’all!