Building a new kind of buzz

Ford Motor Company expands sustainability program with a global beekeeping initiative

It was a day like any other in June 2016. Cormac Wright was burning calories on the treadmill, trying to ignore his exhausted muscles by focusing instead on the day’s news streaming across the television monitor.

Cormac Wright
Cormac Wright

A story on the news ticker caught his attention. A global hotel chain was installing a bee hive on its rooftop and planned to serve the honey to guests dining at its restaurants.

“My mind started to wander, and I began thinking about Ford’s global footprint and how we could replicate the hotel’s beekeeping program,” says Wright, a 32-year member of Ford Motor Company’s IT department. “I did a little research. The more I learned about bees and colony collapse disorder, the more important it seemed to do something at Ford.”

Mary Mason/Pat Pittel, Ford beekeeper.
Mary Mason, Ford beekeeper, with Ford’s World Headquarters bees. Photo by Charlotte Bodak

Wright took a bold step. He developed a business proposal, introduced himself to Kim Pittel, Ford’s group vice president of sustainability, environment and safety engineering, and shared his ideas.

Pittel was impressed.

“Sustainability is more than improving fuel economy and reducing waste,” he says. “It’s about improving the environment we live in for all, and that includes honeybees, pollinators and the ecosystems that depend on them.”

A new home for bees

Ford launched its global beekeeping program when it installed six hives at its Dearborn World Headquarters last month. The hives, located along a walking path north of the building, will support honeybee populations, the surrounding ecosystem, gardens and farms.

The hives also will receive a designer touch.

Honeycomb Sail Hive shell created by Ford designer, Chris Westfall.
The Honeycomb Sail hive shell created by Ford designer Chris Westfall will cover and beautify bee colonies in the new walking path extension north of Ford World Headquarters.

More than a dozen Ford automotive designers submitted sketches last year for a design competition to create functional, yet decorative, hive shells. Concepts included use of wood, plant mater, acrylic, ceramic, mill foam, fiberglass and metal.

A team of Ford leaders chose the winning designs based on criteria such as the ability to promote colony health, ease of beekeeper management, fabrication, design, artistry and maintenance.

The winning design, by Chris Westfall called Honeycomb Sail, is an elegant, modern take on a honeycomb cast that gently twists like a sail in the breeze. Westfall took inspiration from the wings of a bee and a thick drop of honey. The design will be featured at Ford WHQ.

Executives also chose a design by Erwan Besancon. Called Vegetal Hive, the honeycomb-like shell has a spherical shape that aligns with the environment. Besancon’s design likely will be fabricated for future sites as the hive program expands.

Ford employees, who are also bee enthusiasts, will take on the beekeeping duties. The volunteers will ensure good bee health, which initially means leaving the honey for the 360,000 bees expected to inhabit the hives at Ford.

Buzzing for a while

Ford leaders introduced beekeeping at Ford in the early 2000s when the company launched its Heritage 2000 program.

The company hired an architect and sustainability designer to create the Living Roof, now growing on the Ford Rouge Center’s Dearborn Truck Plant. Among the largest living roofs in the world, the roof spans 454,000 square feet and is covered with drought-resistant sedum that helps collect and filter storm water runoff. Home to birds, butterflies and other insects, the roof also provides insulation that reduces energy costs.

Crabapples grow there as part of the Rouge the program, and in 2003, the company introduced honeybees to the site.

Mary Mason, Ford beekeeper.
The Ford Rouge Complex, home to thousands of factory workers, is also home to 80,000 honeybees, thanks to Ford employee Mary Mason and the company’s wildlife habitat strategy, which has brought nature back to the facility. File photo

“The broader vision is to see hives at each plant and take this program globally,” says Mary Mason, who began beekeeping voluntarily at the Ford Rouge in 2003. “This latest project is symbolic of Ford’s concern for the environment and its willingness to create programs to help solve those problems.”

In 2017, the Ford Motor Company Fund also sponsored Townbee, a beekeeping program in Munich, Germany, to bolster the honeybee population while also helping those who fled war-torn Syria integrate into their new homes.

Refugees join German citizens to care for the beehives, which are in gardens and on company rooftops within the city center. They collect honey for sale in local shops and markets and proceeds the support the program.

The Townbee project was among the winners of the ‘17 International Ford College Community Challenge and the brainchild of a team of students from The Technical University of Munich. The project is planned for other cities in Europe with significant refugee populations.

Bees matter

Honeybees have been on the decline in the United States for nearly four decades.

While researchers are unclear on the exact origin of their deterioration, they believe colony collapse disorder, parasites, pests, pathogens, poor nutrition and pesticides are among the causes.

Each hive will have a queen.
Notable Michigan beekeeper and advocate Megan Milbrath provided the bees for Ford. Each hive will hold up to 60,000 bees at the height of summer. Photo by Charlotte Bodak

According to nonprofit Pollinator Partnership, the plight of the honeybee is of concern because they are critical players in food production. Bees pollinate fruit and vegetable gardens and trees that bear nuts, such as almonds.

Planners expect the hives at Ford WHQ to house 40,000 to 60,000 bees at the height of summer to help the local environment thrive. Volunteer beekeepers at Ford plan to collect data on the bees to share with the Sentinel Apiary Program, a collective of nearly 70 beekeepers from 26 states who track the health of honeybees nationally.

“I was not a good environmentalist and had absolutely no interest in bees before this,” says Wright. “The plight of the honeybee seemed an abstract issue, one that was too big for one person to tackle.

“But I found something like an underground cult of beekeepers and enthusiasts at Ford. It’s great to see something tangible developing that will be global, educational and build greater awareness.”


Phillip R Chevela - 4:31pm • July 17, 2018

I’m a Ford retiree and avid beekeeper. Very nice to see honeybee research at our company. We all need to continually do our best efforts to overcome the viral and parasite issues facing out honeybees. We are on the doorstep of losing humanities best friends, “the honeybee”. Please continues to keep us informed of your progress. Thanks, Phil Chevela Traverse City, Michigan

Tom Ski - 12:23pm • July 18, 2018

Cormac, very nice job. I am an amateur beekeeper as well. First year, I know how much work it is! Good luck buddy!

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