Honey Bee Garden is Buzzing at the North Carolina Zoo
It began in 1994 as an idea during a late-night conversation in a hotel room at the annual beekeepers meeting. Fifteen years and nearly $250,000 later, it’s come to fruition—the North Carolina Zoo is now home to a monumental Honey Bee Garden.
Beekeepers Association members knocked on then-president Irvin Rackley’s hotel room door that night in 1994 to ask him if he would be responsible for creating an observation hive at the zoo. No one had any idea that Rackley, a long-time Farm Bureau member, would take that idea and turn it into something even larger.
“Fifteen years later we’re standing here dedicating this exhibit,” says Dr. John Ambrose, entomologist and director of the Master Beekeeper Program of the N.C. State Beekeepers Association. “And it wouldn’t be possible without his dedication.”
In addition to Rackley’s tenacious drive to create more than just an observation hive, several other groups pulled together to help make the dream possible. N.C. State Beekeepers Association, N.C. Farm Bureau, Syngenta and zoo society donors raised $243,507 to make the exhibit possible. N.C. Farm Bureau donated $25,000 for the exhibit.
“It was a combined effort of a lot of groups working together,” Ambrose says.
“Science knows 1 million species of insects, but we’re delighted to showcase this one insect,” says North Carolina Zoo Director David Jones. “We focused on the garden to show the connection to man and our interest in agriculture.”
The exhibit, officially dubbed Honey Bee Garden, is home to more than 20,000 honeybees donated by John Wright of Mt. Gilead. There is a large garden area with plants the bees help pollinate and use to create honey. Large sculptures offer an over-sized view into a bee’s world. The hive can be observed from behind a glass enclosure, and detailed graphics help to explain each part of the process.
The goal of the Honey Bee Garden is to educate visitors about the importance of bees. “Most people can equate honeybees with honey, but they’re also important for pollination,” says N.C. Commissioner of Agriculture Steve Troxler. “When someone sits down to eat a piece of fresh fruit, we want them to think about the bee that got it there.”
Ambrose says it’s natural to think about the honeybee’s role in diet and the economy. “But they’re also an important part of our history, folklore and tradition,” Ambrose says. “Honeybees permeate everyday life. If they disappeared, think of the consequences. The Legislature would have to meet to determine a new state insect,” Ambrose jokes.
The reality is honeybees account for an estimated $70 million of North Carolina’s agriculture industry between pollination and honey, and to see the honeybee disappear from society would be a devastating blow to agriculture. The importance of the zoo exhibit is immeasurable.
“It’s hard to put into words,” says commercial beekeeper and Washington County Farm Bureau member Wayne Rose. “Twenty percent of the kids in the state come through here. People learn about how honeybees die, but we want to show them how they live. They can look at the observation hives and see a hands-on answer.”
“We want young people to see the bees and know how important it is not to step on them. Not because they’re afraid of being stung, but because of the importance for what it does for food,” Rose says. “Even the way we portray what the bee does has an impact.”
The decline of the wild honeybee and the emergence of colony collapse disorder has caused a public stir.
N.C. State Extension Apiculturist David Tarpy says the publicity colony collapse disorder has generated has been beneficial for education. “The silver lining is that there has been a surge in new beekeepers in the state. It’s been a mass education campaign in many ways.”
Tarpy says he hopes the exhibit will drive home the importance of honeybees.
And so Rackley’s dream that sprouted 15 years ago has finally become a reality. “You can look across the U.S. and around the world and not see another place that compares with this,” Rackley says. “I want to let this garden be an untold inspiration to millions.”