The call of the bees: Phyllis Stiles on founding Bee City USA

Phyllis Stiles of Bee City USA. Photo by Aiyanna Sezak-Blatt

Phyllis Stiles‘ earliest memories are of bugs: Of a writing spider spinning its web in shrubbery, of a prickly locust exoskeleton on a tree. It’s no wonder then that she would found Bee City USA and become an advocate for insects of all kinds, especially pollinators.

The world as we know it depends on pollinators, says Stiles. “Imagine going to the grocery store and finding almost no vegetables, almost no fruit and almost no nuts. Then imagine if 80 percent of the world’s flowers were gone, because 80 percent depend on animal pollinators to reproduce. Imagine a world without honey!”

Stiles first heard “the call of the bees” in 2006, when colony collapse disorder made national news, and beekeepers across the country experienced massive losses in their hives. Stiles and her husband attended “bee school,” a weekend course held annually at the Folk Art Center, a program sponsored by the Center for Honeybee Research and the Buncombe County Beekeepers Chapter. “I was captivated,” Stiles says. “When you become aware of their complex society, of how smart, how organized and how efficient they are, it’s hard not to be impressed.”

As reports of colony collapse grew worse, however, backyard beekeeping just wasn’t enough for Stiles. “I thought of Margaret Mead’s saying, ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.’ And I thought, OK, I want to do something.”

In August 2011 at the monthly Buncombe County Beekeeping meeting, Stiles made an announcement: She wanted to get the city involved in sustaining pollinator communities. Local citizens rallied beside her, and by June 26, 2012, Asheville City Council voted unanimously to become the inaugural Bee City USA.

The initiative, with over 80 active volunteers, works to plant pollinator gardens across the city, encourages pollinator-friendly landscape design, identifies native plants that best support pollinators and advises pesticide-free practices. The Bee City model has taken flight in cities across the country, including other cities North Carolina, as well as Oregon and Maine.

For Stiles, this work is a confirmation that passionate local communities can create change. After watching a video of an Asheland, Ore., city council meeting on becoming a Bee City in December 2014, Stiles, moved to tears, thought, “Margret Mead was right. I so believe that to be true.”

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About Aiyanna Sezak-Blatt
Aiyanna grew up on the island of Kauai, Hawaii. She was educated at The Cambridge School of Weston, Sarah Lawrence College, and Oxford University. Aiyanna lives in Asheville, North Carolina where she proudly works for Mountain Xpress, the city’s independent local newspaper.

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