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Danielle Downey: “Leadership is in the eye of the beholder”

The National Honey Board is partnering with us, Project Apis m., the largest honey bee nonprofit in the U.S., for this program. We are committed to enhancing the health and vitality of honey bee colonies through research. We’ll dedicate the proceeds from this program to crucial research around mitigation of bee health threats, habitat and […]

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The National Honey Board is partnering with us, Project Apis m., the largest honey bee nonprofit in the U.S., for this program. We are committed to enhancing the health and vitality of honey bee colonies through research. We’ll dedicate the proceeds from this program to crucial research around mitigation of bee health threats, habitat and forage restoration, and best management practices.


As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Danielle Downey.

Danielle Downey, the Executive Director for Project Apis m., has worked with honey bees and the parasites plaguing them for over 25 years. She’s worked in bee labs in Minnesota, Canada and France, and worked with commercial beekeepers and queen breeders, inspections and regulatory work as a State Apiarist in Utah and Hawaii, and wrangling bees for TV and film. She works closely with the National Honey Board, Apiary Inspectors of America, Bee Informed Project and a bee breeding project selecting and refining Varroa resistant bees. She holds a BSc from University of Minnesota and an MSc from Simon Fraser University.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I was an entomologist by the time I was five years old, I just didn’t know it. We all know a kid who notices bugs, that’s how it starts, and for me it became a career. I studied forest pests, aquatic insects, stored grain pests, forensic entomology (collecting maggots from crime scenes!), and my first entomology course was taught by a woman who seemed ancient at the time, Dr. Ellen Ordway. Looking back, I see she was a trailblazer who traveled to Trinidad and Tobago on collection trips, when women didn’t do that work- she was only able to go because she was with her entomologist father. The glass cases of her tropical insect collection were captivating, filled with creatures beyond what I could ever have imagined. Dr. Ordway seemed to like bugs more than people, and she was a stickler for spelling Latin insect names. She helped restore native prairies for the insects who needed them, she drove students around to unique collection sites in a summertime-hot van (“using the A/C would prevent us acclimating to field work”). She stopped for all roadkill, so we could collect the special scavengers only found in carrion. Those lessons in the microcosms of insects were rich and revelatory, and I learned there’s no need to go farther, just look closer. Insects are everywhere, and it gives me great joy to share their world (except for mosquitos, my least favorite because I am their favorite ☺).

After those experiences, I took every entomology class I could at the University of Minnesota, and soon found myself learning about economic entomology- insects that damage our crops, or spread disease, or beneficials like honey bees who pollinate our food! I took a beekeeping class and stayed on to do undergraduate research with then brand new professor Dr. Marla Spivak, who has since become a MacArthur Award recipient for her honey bee research.

Honey bees have a fascinating social structure: a colony of bees is considered a ‘superorganism,’ with one queen who is the mother of all the sterile worker bees working together to function as the organ systems of the hive. But honey bees are also a cornerstone of our own healthy food supply- they pollinate one in three bites of our food! You would be hard-pressed to name a better MVP insect than that. Working with bees, I never run out of mysteries to contemplate, or problems about bee health to address. Honey bees are a deep and broad organism to study, for me it’s a passion and an inspiration. I am grateful I stumbled into learning from strong women role models in a profession that was mostly men, and hope I have done my part to open doors for others.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

This year, the founding leader of my organization, my predecessor, friend and mentor Christi Heintz, died suddenly. She built the largest nonprofit for honey bees, while few knew she had a life-threatening honey bee allergy. She was careful to avoid bees and did have some emergency room close calls, but she did not let this change her course. She led Project Apis m. for 10 years, was an avid hiker and backpacker, all the while carrying an EpiPen. After she retired, she was hiking with friends and got stung by a bee at a summit. They administered the pen to no effect, and she was gone quickly. She was young and vibrant, and this untimely event left us sad and speechless. The work she did to build our organization was an important part of her legacy, and it was important to me and our organization to honor her memory. I knew she was an inspiring and memorable person, who did great things, but being the one to field all the heartfelt sorrow from those I now work with and serve, was a humbling lesson that left me grateful for following in her footsteps. I worked hard to create a fitting memorial for her, which has given me a chance to connect to the many she touched, the legacy of her work, and also to consider my own legacy.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

This is not a very profound story, but it’s funny. The foray into bees is often conflated with fear about being stung. Most everyone learns right away that a honey bee dies when she stings you — her venom glands tear out with the barbed stinger and continue to pump toxins in and mark you with an alarm that her sisters respond to, so her death is not in vain. It follows that if you’re stung near a hive, you need to remove the stinger right away- to minimize the venom and remove that alarm signal. In my first apiary experience, a bee crawled up my pant leg and stung me in the rear! I moved away from the class and tried to discreetly get the stinger out, no easy task in a bee suit, and forever after was “the girl who dropped her pants in the bee yard.” This is not exactly how I hoped to pave the way for others, but that story may still be an anecdote in the Beginning Beekeeping class. No regrets, I would still do my best to get a stinger out today — honey bee venom is very effective!

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

National Honey Month (September) is an important time for us to bring awareness to the honey bees — after all, they are responsible for more than 35% of the foods we eat and the honey we enjoy, and they need our help! No bees = no almonds, no cherries, no apples, no blueberries, no cucumbers, no pumpkins, no onion seed, no alfalfa seed to grow hay for our meat and dairy industry. Our healthy diet relies heavily on honey bees!

For the month of September, the National Honey Board is partnering with Kashi, Justin’s and Frönen to raise money for honey bee research in a program titled “Honey Saves Hives.” You can join us in helping save the honey bees by purchasing select made-with-honey products from those companies in September, and each will be making a donation to organizations focused on honey bee health, including Project Apis m.

The National Honey Board is partnering with us, Project Apis m., the largest honey bee nonprofit in the U.S., for this program. We are committed to enhancing the health and vitality of honey bee colonies through research. We’ll dedicate the proceeds from this program to crucial research around mitigation of bee health threats, habitat and forage restoration, and best management practices.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

Beekeeping is akin to mother nature’s multi-level marketing scheme- and in this case that’s a good thing. ‘Newbees’ build and paint some boxes to put a colony in the backyard, imagining presenting nice holiday gifts of honey with their special label. Before long, the hobby beekeeper is replanting their yard, saving bees crawling on the sidewalk, researching ways to work around any pesticide use, and talking about bees at every social event thereafter. Seeing these fuzzy, industrious unsung heroes really takes us through a looking glass and opens a whole new world of nature. I have taught hundreds of people their first beekeeping class, and I get emotional every single time, knowing that they will be changed by keeping bees, whether it lasts a year or a lifetime. It reminds me of the old jingle “I’d like to buy the world a Coke,” except I’d like to show the world some bees.

People have kept bees for about 10,000 years for honey, wax and pollination. Imagine discovering delicious, golden honey in a nest of bees. It has always been a hit! Honey is a valuable cash crop around the world, and I love seeing more and more women around the world get into beekeeping and the art of caring for bees. However, beekeeping by women is not new, in the U.S. or other countries. Interesting aside: worker bees are all female.

Here are old photos of women beekeepers from the early 1900s:

Source: The Country Gentleman, October 27, 1917. Page 16

Source: The Woman’s Collection, Texas Woman’s University.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

  1. Take part in our Honey Saves Hives campaign during the month of September:

Our campaign, Honey Saves Hives, which is a month-long program in September, directly supports the honey bees. As mentioned, for the month of September, the National Honey Board is partnering with Kashi, Justin’s and Frönen to raise money for honey bee research. Each of these brands uses honey in their products, and each will be making a donation in September to organizations focused on honey bee health. Donating to organizations dedicated to helping protect and promote honey bees and other pollinators is an important step to ensure these powerful pollinators continue to thrive.

2. Purchase honey to support beekeepers and pollinators

Honey bees are crucial to our food system, because they naturally produce honey and pollinate more than 90 different crops, including apples, avocados, melons, broccoli, cranberries and more. So, when you buy honey, you’re supporting hard-working beekeepers and their efforts to keep honey bees healthy. You’re also protecting the crucial relationship between pollinators and our planet’s entire ecosystem. Several of Project Apis m.’s funding sources base their support on honey sales, so more honey for you means more support for bees!

3. Plant flowers

Plant bee-friendly flowers and flowering herbs in your garden and yard, or apartment balcony. Bees rely on flowers for their pollen and nectar to continue to sustain their hive and providing bee-friendly flowers in a garden, flower pot or window box will help them tremendously. In our world of increasing urbanization, row crops and lawns full of chemicals, a clean blooming plant refuge means the world to a small bee!

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership is in the eye of the beholder; its calling card is people motivated or inspired to make a change in what they do and how they think. I never intended for my appreciation of bees and beekeeping to land me in a leadership role, for a subject matter expert it was a surprise to lead an organization. Leadership often happens effortlessly. In fact, I am usually surprised by people recounting moments when I inspired them, because they are not moments when I’m trying. The most common examples I hear are when I share natural history with friends in natural settings. On a hike with my “nature vision” — I often see things others don’t (like bugs) and talk about what makes these things interesting. I do believe empowering people with knowledge enriches their life, and spent years formally teaching, but these organic moments of witnessing and appreciating natural phenomena happen often when the inspiration is as ubiquitous as insects (did you know that for every human on earth there are 200 million insects?).

My love of bees has moved me through the world to pursue various career changes, but leading a nonprofit to support honey bee health comes with a huge diversity of skills that were new to me. Fundraising and development, communications, managing remote staff, and being the face of an organization are demanding and important tasks that I was never trained to do. It’s humbling, challenging and energizing, and I am still growing into it each year. It’s also busy! I like to be over-prepared, and the pace of my work doesn’t allow that luxury. Success often feels like when you show up to do something important, without all the preparation you’d have liked, and you find that your toolbox serves you just fine- you have everything you need. I had an unexpected example of this yesterday, when a rattlesnake surprised me in my yard, which has never happened before. I was exhilarated to successfully catch and remove it and realized that my compassion and skill working with stinging insects, learning to work carefully, looking beyond the fear, were tools that served both me and the snake. The point is, you don’t often see the curveballs coming, and leadership grows when you trust yourself, all the while pushing to learn and add new skills to your toolbox. This will expand your comfort zone.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. There are support groups for Executive Directors of nonprofits! This is telling, unfortunately, I travel too much to make any meetings, but I did benefit from some sessions with a professional coach. I had no idea what I was getting into, but discovered it is all pretty normal pain and pressure in this leadership role, and you don’t have to magic it up all on your own. When you’re in over your head, and on the path to burning out, make time to get help. Whether it’s hiring staff, or working with a coach, the path forward is seldom doing it alone, Frodo.
  2. Never let perfection get in the way of progress. It’s cliché, but playing the long game, and trusting that the next iteration will be an even better opportunity, helps. As a person with impossible expectations, I can be hard on others and hard on myself but knowing that my “good enough” is still pretty good, helps me through challenges.
  3. Leadership can be lonely. As an ED [Executive Director], I am between a staff and my Board, the complexity of work in a small organization leaves an Executive Director wearing a lot of hats, without many thought partners to strategize and make hard decisions. When you find a good ally, make time to talk to them regularly, put an hour a month on the calendar to have a good professional conversation with them, with or without an agenda. It can be good to leave the inner circle focus to just have a good conversation.
  4. No matter what the business at hand is, it’s more important to be present with people than using tricks of networking. I have the ear of some powerful people. At one breakfast meeting, my company said after some very good, relaxed conversation “You haven’t asked me for anything, what can I do for you?” A transactional approach had not occurred to me until then, had I missed an opportunity? But I have found that being genuine and present can lead you through the same business paths that would be much more stressful to approach tactically.
  5. If you can’t get someone to reply, send them something with a mistake in it that they will not be able to resist. Us type-A’s can be pretty predictable!

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I once heard an idea about a reality show that would dive into the mission and work of a nonprofit each episode, to help people understand and support nonprofit work. I always hoped to see it manifest. In the grand scheme of our lives, the best case scenario is to never need a nonprofit, because what they do is often critical but neglected last resort missions. If you have ever used American Red Cross, Meals on Wheels, the Humane Society, hospice or a children’s hospital — you know how this important work makes our world a better place, something not all ‘for profit’ businesses do. And nonprofits do it subsidized on emotional equity; they are held to much higher (arguably unreasonable) standards, not spending on overhead or infrastructure, often stretched over their capacity, and scrambling for income. The dedication to these support systems is noble and I would love to see the work be supported by more people, more corporations, and more brands, for the greater good.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“The best bridge between hope and despair is a good night’s sleep.” I still have that fortune from a cookie somewhere. In the hardest of times, it’s a good reminder that this too shall pass, and we must take care of ourselves to be effective tackling hard business.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

www.instagram.com/projectapism/

https://www.instagram.com/nationalhoneyboard/

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!


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