The Cambridge Innovation Center is always a hive of activity. The towering structure at 1 Broadway boasts more startups than any other workspace worldwide. More than 900 companies use its facilities; more than 7,000 meetings are held at the space each month. And 1 Broadway also houses the Cambridge Coworking Center (C3), the largest coworking center in Greater Boston.
But on the roof of the CIC building, there’s a literal hive of activity—two hives, actually—where thousands of bees are busily making honey that will eventually find its way onto a spread at a future CIC luncheon.
According to CIC community leader Joe Pierandozzi, the bees were initially proposed by a C3 member who thought they might be a great fit for an innovative workspace. “I was like, ‘Yes. Hell yes,'” Pierandozzi recalls. “We immediately got carried away talking about what we were going to do with the honey when we had it and custom boxes and things like that.”
The hives are maintained by a Boston-based company called Best Bees, a full-service beekeeping biz that installs and operates hives for more than 600 homes and businesses throughout the area, according to events and outreach coordinator Melanie Wilson. Most of the company’s clients are residential—local honey lovers who keep bees in their backyard, on their porch or even on their roof. The hives don’t require much in the way of room. “People will come up to me and say, ‘Oh, I only have this small yard.’ And I’m like, ‘You have a yard? That’s perfect!'” Wilson laughs. Best Bees clients choose how many hives they want and can elect to have custom boxes—like the colorful ones that adorn the roof at the CIC—designed by Best Bees’ in-house artist.
Wilson says that more and more local businesses are expressing interest—the Harvard Business School is a client, as are restaurants including American Provisions in South Boston. The bees have been a surprising hit in the hospitality industry; the Charles Hotel has a few hives and use the honey from their bees in the hotel’s cafe. Across the river, Boston’s Taj Hotel has a robust bee program with 12 hives.
The bee business is booming even beyond Greater Boston. In addition to their more than 600-plus hives in the area, the company has expanded into Maine, Rhode Island and Connecticut, with outposts in other urban centers nationwide including Chicago, New York City and San Fransisco.
But Best Bees is about more than just hyperlocal honey—it’s about sustainability. The company’s sister organization is a nonprofit, the Urban Beekeeping Laboratory and Bee Sanctuary, which is using hive data collected by Best Bees beekeepers to determine how to promote bee health. “We’re not just doing it so that people have bees,” says Wilson. “They’re actually helping; they’re a source of research.”
Company cofounder Noah Wilson-Rich is a biologist, and he founded Best Bees as a means to collect data on hives—to determine why, for example, 80 percent of bees in New England die off in the winter. Surprisingly, they’ve found that bees in urban environs are doing better than those in rural settings; bee sanctuary scientists are trying to figure out why that is. (Current theory: The diverse flora in the city is more conducive to bee health than a monocrop environment.) And Wilson says that the bees actually thrive on tall buildings like the Cambridge Innovation Center.
The startups and staffers working out of the CIC are happy to assist in that data collection. Pierandozzi says he didn’t know much about bees before their rooftop presence was proposed, but he’s since started doing research, learning about things like Colony Collapse Disorder, where worker bees disappear and leave behind their queen.
But for the most part, the bees are just fun tenants to have in the building. “They’re super interesting thing to watch,” says Pierandozzi. At the center’s weekly Venture Cafe meetup, many of the 300-400 people who come through the CIC stare, transfixed, as the bees do their dance. “It’s a great meditative thing to stare at, and it’s also a great conversation starter.”
“I think everyone wants a CIC bee suit,” Pierandozzi adds with a laugh.