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A Durham moment: “Watch them waggle”

“He loved the bees,” John Replogle, former CEO of Burt’s Bees, recalls of Burt Shavitz, the company’s founder. “Just the idea that there was an order and a hive… and kind of this beautiful codependence.” 

Shavitz converted his farmhouse into a home and raised his bees nearby. After he died, his rustic cabin was moved from Guilford, Maine to the company’s Durham headquarters, where it now sits like a museum exhibit devoted to his simple life. Peek through its windows and you see little more than a rocking chair, an old-school wood-burning stove and an old-school thermometer.

His bees are nearby, demonstrating the order that Shavitz loved. Roughly 25 feet away from the home, a large, metal sliding door rests against the brick Burt’s Bees headquarters. On this day, a family of five – a UNC student, her father, mother, cousin and uncle –  are surprised when the student slides open the door, revealing a rectangular hive packed with thousands of tiny striped creatures, each squirming with an unspoken intention. 

The family members search for her royal highness, the queen, identifiable by her impressive size and a belly marking. They give up after a minute and head back to the car.

The large plaque beside the hive is adorned with pictures of a heavily bearded Burt and a blurb that reads, “watch them waggle.” Waggling, according to the plaque, is the dance the bees perform to pass information throughout the hive. The sign also includes descriptions of the queen, worker bees and the drones (the horny male bees that make sure the hive has a next generation.)

The location of the beehive – outside a corporate headquarters – seems odd at first. But the whole place is quirky. Burt’s Bees is housed in Durham’s American Tobacco Campus, a former tobacco processing plant that is now home to restaurants, an advertising agency and a public radio station. The office for Burt’s Bees, a company that makes cosmetics and skin care products, is decorated with an enormous mural of a honeycomb, sunflowers, and mammoth bees. The building is surrounded by trickling waterfalls and a basketball court filled with students at recess.

A professional beekeeper, Harrison Bolton from Bee Downtown, a company that helps corporations install and maintain hives, provides more details on the “waggle.”

I ask, “What are all of them trying to accomplish when they’re squirming around in there?” 

He chuckles at my non-scientific lingo. “They respond to stimuli in the environment to achieve a specific task.” These tasks are age-dependent, except for the queen, who has one duty: to lay an egg. The worker bees do the rest. “You ever see the mitosis thing where the two cells kinda do that?” He makes a mega-fist with his two hands wrapped around each other, and pulls them apart with a snapping noise,  turning them back into two individual fists. “They kinda do the same thing – a queen lays an egg that makes another queen.”

Is this humane? Is it unethical to trap bees behind a glass window?

Bolton says the species is adaptable enough to overcome challenging circumstances. In fact, life in the American Tobacco Campus may even be ideal. The size and location of the hive are good for the bees, with a clear tube that leads to the outside world, allowing foragers to come and go as they search for food. According to Bolton, the company’s observation hive gives people a comfortable “veil” through which to observe the bees without being afraid.

At the bottom of the plaque, visitors are reminded, “Plant bee-friendly gardens. Buy local honey. Buy local & organic. Spread the word.”

Photo at top: The Burt’s Bees bees. Photo by Jacqueline Cole – The 9th Street Journal