But Leskovec, senior manager for environmental sustainability and waste at Walgreens, looks for every opportunity to make the company and its corporate campus in Deerfield, Ill., more sustainable – even if it means getting cozy with a few thousand Italian honeybees.
“My first reaction to the idea of bees on campus was, ‘Wait, why do we want to do this?’” Leskovec remembers. “When I was a kid, I remember getting stung. So now I’m thinking, ‘Why would we want to put something like that on campus?”
But the honeybees – kept at a safe distance from pedestrian walkways, and viewable from behind a pane of glass outside one of the main campus buildings – don’t have much interest in stinging Leskovec or any other team member. What they are interested in is creating and maintaining a beautiful environment on campus and beyond.
This unique opportunity was presented last year to Walgreens by Alveole, a Montreal-based organization specializing in urban beekeeping. Alveole, named after the French word for a single hexagonal cell in a honeycomb, currently installs and maintains honeybee hives for business and schools in 14 cities across North America. A certified B Corporation, the highest achievement for businesses that balance profit and purpose, Alveole estimates to have educated more than 50,000 urban-dwelling people on the practice and philosophy of beekeeping.
“More and more people are moving to cities, and that's also where everyone's headed when they start going back into the office. We tend to think of these areas as concrete jungles,” says Alex Ansari, an urban beekeeper for Alveole. “Our goal is to connect people in cities to nature, and we do that through beekeeping. We use honeybees to illuminate the world of urban agriculture to people and teach the importance of having pollinators in our cities.”
Pollinators are essential to sustainable and healthy green spaces because they allow plants to propagate and thrive, especially in urban areas. Honeybees, along with butterflies, are some of the most effective pollinators found in nature.
“Our honeybees support pollination efforts in about a two-mile radius around campus. They allow us to realistically support sustainability efforts in the community,” says Leskovec. “And the bees really tend to thrive in areas like this.”
Building some buzz
Urban beekeeping is a relatively new phenomenon, according to Leskovec. One big reason is that urban areas, as opposed to agricultural land, tend to be free of the pesticides that are impacting honeybee populations around the world. Maintaining a safe habitat for bees in urban areas not only helps create sustainable green spaces for humans to enjoy, but also helps support and restore the world’s dwindling honeybee population.
“The honeybee is estimated to pollinate 70 of the top 100 crops that bring 90 percent of nutrition to people around the world,” says John Kotlarczyk Jr., senior director of CSR and waste reduction for WBA, who worked with Leskovec to bring the hive to Walgreens. “So there’s a close link between environment, nutrition and human health. WBA is a healthcare company, and this is a really important way for us to help bring sustainability to life and help improve human health.”
“We had an opportunity last year, with the Retail Leaders Association, to talk with some other organizations about the benefits we’re seeing,” Leskovec says. “It sparked some interest with another local company, and now it has a hive on campus, too.”
A visit with the queen
Education and employee engagement are also a big part of the honeybee program. According to Leskovec, more than 150 team members attended an informational “Meet the Bees” session last summer, where Aveole representatives demonstrated beekeeping basics and let attendees get a close-up look at the hive’s queen. In the fall, around 50 team members were given the opportunity to extract honey from a honey comb and into a jar which they were able to take home for their families – perhaps the sweetest benefit of all.
This year, informational sessions were provided to team members virtually, given the precautions around holding large group gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic. But the honey harvest continued, producing more than 60 jars of honey with a taste unique to the Walgreens hive. The bees also continued in their hard work to spread pollen – and a message of sustainability – across campus and all around the city.
It’s a pretty busy life, for a bunch of bees.