'We’re going to do a lot of good and make a big difference.'
That’s the goal of Mary Ellen 'Mel' Hughes, who’s dreamed up a way to help save the honey bees.
Hughes is not a scientist. Neither is she a beekeeper.
Mel Hughes is a doer – or, shall we say, a 'do-bee.'
'I’m the kind of person that, when I hear about a problem, I think to myself, ‘What can I do to help? How can I be part of the solution?’ explains Hughes, of Asheville, North Carolina. 'That’s how A Bee Lover’s Garden was born.'
The problem Hughes heard about was, of course, Colony Collapse Disorder. She immediately began researching ways she could help the honey bees. Becoming a backyard beekeeper was not a practical solution for her, but learning that she could grow bee-friendly flowers and plants was a perfect answer.
'‘I can do that,’ I said to myself,' remembers Hughes. '‘Anybody can do that!’'
But when her search for bee-friendly plants led her to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s website, she found the list wasn’t exactly user-friendly for a non-expert such as herself. The names were all in Latin, with no indication of which plants were annuals, perennials, trees or shrubs.
'And, of course, there were no illustrations,' says Hughes. 'Even if I didn’t know the scientific names, maybe I could have at least recognized some of the more common plants.'
That’s when Hughes says she had her 'eureka' moment: 'I realized I could create a product with beautiful drawings and descriptions of these bee-beneficial plants. It could serve to educate about CCD and empower people to do something to help,' says Hughes.
'So, not only could I help the bees in my own backyard, I could educate and inspire other people to do the same.'
Hughes sought out renowned nature artist and illustrator Jay Pfeil from nearby Black Mountain, a member of the prestigious Southern Highlands Craft Guild. Unbeknownst to Pfeil, Hughes was one of a legion of fans from across the country who had long admired her work.
Pfeil immediately embraced the project.
'I was absolutely delighted,' says Pfeil. 'My work comes from a place of joy, and everything about this project felt good. Helping contribute to a healthy environment for bees means a healthier environment for people. I knew we could really make a difference.'
The two decided a book would be expensive to produce and take too long. ('CCD is an urgent problem and needs addressing now,' explains Hughes.) But a calendar was doable – it would be ambitious, but they could go from concept to a finished product within months. Featuring Pfeil’s stunning, suitable-for-framing drawings, plus tips on bee-friendly approaches to gardening, the calendars would be 'art for a cause,' with a percentage of sales from A Bee Lover’s Garden going to fund research on Colony Collapse Disorder.
The buzz builds about ‘A Bee Lover’s Garden’
As Hughes and Pfeil realized the tremendous impact this project could make, both in increasing public awareness of CCD and in actually contributing to research that could save the bees, they shifted into high gear.
A spirited entrepreneur whose background includes a number of successful gourmet food businesses, Hughes energetically sought support for the enterprise, both from financial investors and from experts in the beekeeping community.
One of the first people she called on was Steve Forrest, president of Brushy Mountain Bee Farm, one of the largest manufacturers and suppliers of beekeeping equipment in the country.
'Within minutes of presenting a prototype of our calendar to Steve, he stopped me and said, ‘You’ve gotta talk to Kim,’' remembers Hughes. 'He picked up the phone and told me to tell my story. I had no idea I was talking to one of the foremost bee experts in the country, Kim Flottum! When I left Steve’s office, he said, ‘We’re behind you 1,000 percent!’ That was the confirmation we needed.'
The endorsements continued.
'To be honest, we get a lot of people calling with ideas like this, but 90 percent don’t materialize,' says Dennis vanEngelsdorp, one of the country’s best known researchers into the problem of CCD, recalling the first time he spoke with Mel Hughes about the project.
'You’re always hopeful and encouraged that people have these ideas, but ideas are cheap and plentiful. Sitting down and doing the work, analyzing, fine-tuning – it’s a rare person who takes it from concept to product. It’s exciting to see that this one is going to come to fruition.'
Colorful illustrations blossom into
‘A Bee Lover’s Garden’
As Hughes continued to work on funding and operations, Pfeil began to think about the plants to feature in the first edition of the calendar. An outdoor enthusiast, Pfeil is inspired by daily hikes in the forested mountains where she lives. These excursions inform her award-winning style, which typically includes individual plant species and nature scenes.
When she sees something that strikes her fancy, 'I just sit down and draw it,' says Pfeil. 'Later, if I want to know what it is, I’ll look it up.'
But for A Bee Lover’s Garden, she approached it from the other way around, carefully choosing common plants that are easy to grow, such as sunflowers, holly, Queen Anne’s lace, and even dandelions, and then seeking photos or live plants to use as models. She spent extensive time researching the variety of honey bees to ensure accuracy in her drawings.
With Pfeil’s award-winning work in high demand – among the shops and galleries she supplies are the Nature Art Gallery at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh and the River Gallery in Chattanooga, Tennessee – it was early spring before she finished the first drawing, a vibrant depiction of the purple coneflower.
Hughes remembers how she felt when she saw it. 'It was an exhilaration that I don’t know if I’ve ever felt before. As any entrepreneur will attest, there is a high that comes from creating something out of nothing, an idea that hits you in the middle of the night.
'The very first time I heard about the mysterious disappearance of our honey bees, I realized this was a very urgent and potentially devastating agricultural and environmental problem, given that over a third of our food supply depends on pollination by bees,' continues Hughes. 'But with A Bee Lover’s Garden, we’re going to make a difference on so many levels. This sounds corny, but I feel so aligned with my life’s purpose with this project.'
A honey of a deal for local beekeeping associations
With the inaugural calendar hot off the press (printed on recycled paper, of course), Hughes and Pfeil are now taking their flagship product to yet another level: making A Bee Lover’s Garden available to local beekeeping organizations as a tool for fundraising. Associations are eligible to purchase the high-quality calendars wholesale, at $10 each. Organizations can then sell the calendars at the regular price of $20, doubling their investment.
'Say, for example, a 30-member organization sells 10 calendars apiece – 300 calendars at the regular price of $20,' explains Hughes. 'The club would earn $3,000 to use as desired – to purchase equipment, fund scholarships for new beekeepers, whatever. Everyone needs a calendar, and with Jay’s beautiful work, benefiting a good cause, we believe the calendars will be easy to sell.'
The impact that could be made is staggering, says Hughes, if beekeeping associations all across the country participate. 'If 200 organizations sold 300 calendars each, that would meet our first-year goal of 60,000 calendars. That would enable us to donate upwards of $150,000 toward research – not to mention the tens of thousands of people who would be inspired by our calendar to grow bee-friendly plants.'
As Pfeil develops ideas for illustrating the 2011 edition of the calendar, she sums up her thoughts about the project thus far. 'I think of A Bee Lover’s Garden as being totally a ‘yes’ project, meaning everything about it feels good. It feels good that we’re raising money for research. It feels good that we’re helping local beekeepers, and hiring people in this economy. It feels good that people are getting art in their lives for a very good price. And our customers can feel good, too, even about something as simple as leaving dandelions in their yards. They can feel good about truly making a difference. This project has already changed my life for the better in so many ways.'
'We believe, without a doubt, that this is one of the most ambitious projects to date, nationwide, for raising money and awareness,' says Hughes. 'And when the mystery of CCD is solved, that will be a wonderful thing. There’s no shortage of good causes; we’ll just move on to the next one.'