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A Beehive in Your House?! Not to worry — GreenTowers (Safely) Brings Nature Inside

Posted: September 22, 2015

Startup GreenTowers’ mission is to reconnect people with the nature of food systems. Its new BEEcosystem design is helping to raise awareness about the decline in pollinators.
Dustin Betz, president of GreenTowers shows off the BEEcosystem in action. This set up holds about 10,000 bees.

Dustin Betz, president of GreenTowers shows off the BEEcosystem in action. This set up holds about 10,000 bees.

By Martha Schupp

Something is quite different about the dining room in the State College house where Dustin Betz lives and works: A buzzing beehive hangs on the wall.

Honeybees buzz and work in their hive, about the size of a hubcap and installed right into the wall in place of a window. Safely viewed from behind Plexiglas, the bees crawl in and out of a small tube, flying freely outdoors to forage for pollen. Inside their hive they build layers of honeycomb full of honey.

The “BEEcosystem” — designed by Betz’s startup company, GreenTowers — is a wall-mounted indoor hive with a wood board at the top onto which the bees build their honeycomb.

Betz is the co-founder, co-owner, and president of GreenTowers. Alongside him are Mike Zaengle, vice president of design, and Jon Gumble, vice president of operations. Together they operate a for-profit urban agricultural design firm.

GreenTowers works to reconnect individuals with the nature of food systems and the BEEcosystem is intended to raise awareness to the decline in pollinators.

A crucial part of the BEEcosystem design is the spring-loaded trap doors that shut immediately if the BEEcosystem is bumped, to ensure no bees escape into a household. The BEEcosystem can be set up indoors or outdoors on any type of wall to provide pollinating services to any nearby garden — and to get people talking.

“I can say it works really well for that,” says Betz. “Having a beehive in your house is definitely a conversation starter. [The BEEcosystem] engages people in awareness about the pollinator crisis and why pollinators are so important to the environment and agriculture,” says Betz.

Diseases, stress, parasites, pesticides and colony collapse disorder — the causes of which are still a scientific mystery — have combined to take a toll and led to steep losses of honeybees. Since honeybees pollinate many major crops, their possible disappearance has alarmed farmers and consumers.

But the decline also involves many other species of bees, of which there are 4,000 native bee species in the United States. Wild bee populations have dropped an estimated 25 percent since 1990 — leading to concern since more than 80 percent of all flowering plants require pollination to survive.

This is the kind of problem GreenTowers wants to help solve.

GreenTowers started as a research collaboration among the trio when they were undergraduate students in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences. There they started addressing big topics like food security and access by creating a vertical hydroponics system for growing vegetables in limited spaces. That concept won the Ag Springboard student business pitch competition in 2012.

From there they created “Living Interiors,” stylish design pieces with a living component like the “Living Table” which is an aquaponics system encased within a sleek cherry-wood table.

Grow-it-Yourself is a microgreen tray subscription. Individuals who sign up receive two GardenBox trays pre-planted with two microgreens of their choice, ready-to-eat in two weeks, plus two recipes. Both the Living Table and Grow-it-Yourself are available on their website.

GreenTowers’ mission has always been to design new ways of thinking about food security and access. They make things for people to grow food, display and talk about.

As the local food movement continues to gain steam, particularly in urban areas, GreenTowers hopes the BEEcosystem will help reconnect consumers with the nature of food and bees.

Betz and his business partner Zaengle were invited by Maverick 1000 in October 2014 to compete in Bee Bolder, a contest to support and challenge up-and-coming entrepreneurs and promote social businesses to inspire positive change. Judges awarded Betz and Zaengle seed funding to work on the idea of a wall-mounted beehive to help aid the pollinator crisis.

“It all came out of that weekend. We flew home with the seed funding and started working on concepts and built prototypes,” says Betz.

Jon Gumble, the builder on the team, got to work.

“The prototyping aspect of this project was interesting because it started off with the idea of a hexagon. We started with six pieces of wood screwed together and then at that point we started coming up with these modules,” says Gumble.

Adds Betz: “This spring we got bees and started doing it.”

The BEEcosystem is the module that hangs in Betz’s dining room, in the Co Space, which is a living and workspace for about 20 local entrepreneurs. While the bees continue to fill the hive with more honeycomb and larvae, more modules can be added, keeping the bees happily buzzing.

To bring the BEEcosystem to market, GreenTowers first attempted a crowd-sourcing model on Kickstarter. But the campaign fell short of its goal, and GreenTowers is working on its next plan to market the beehive modules.

The GreenTowers team also hopes for this to be an educational experience for homes, possibly schools, or restaurants that want to bring their customers closer to nature.

“We want to engage a younger generation to be interested in bees. So hopefully it’s an educational tool for that as well. You can get pretty up close and personal in looking at the bees without having to don the whole suit and veil,” says Betz.