Mountain View Voice

News - September 24, 2010

Google's 'Hiveplex' is the place to bee

Beekeeping idea takes flight on Google's Crittenden campus

by Nick Veronin

When employees at Google encounter a problem in their work environment — a burnt out light bulb or keyboard on the fritz — they file an electronic ticket with the help desk.

Six months ago, Rob Peterson, engineering manager for Google Analytics, filed a ticket for a rather unique problem: bees. More precisely, a lack thereof.

"I was wondering if I could keep bees," Peterson said about the ticket he filed on March 16. About three weeks passed before the help desk wrote back that Marc Rasic, executive chef for Google, was also interested in bringing bee hives to the company's Mountain View campus.

The two men were introduced, and shortly thereafter four hives, which house roughly 50,000 bees each, were delivered to the Crittenden campus by the Marin Bee Company.

Over the next five months, Peterson and Rasic helped assemble and worked with four Google beekeeping teams — one for each hive in the "Hiveplex."

In the process, Peterson said he met Googlers he never would have been introduced to; he saw people confront and overcome fears; he learned about the intricate and somewhat engineer-like life of bees; and, best of all, he and everyone else involved in the Hiveplex took home a jar of honey when they harvested it on Thursday, Sept. 16.

'Fun' and 'interesting'

Excitement was apparent on harvest day, as Googlers watched and helped Bill Tomaszewski of the Marin Bee Company extract the Hiveplex's sweet, golden goo. He enthralled the crowd gathered in The Alley Cafe — one of Google's many on-campus eateries — with various methods for harvesting the honey.

Mason jars lined the buffet counter and Googlers jostled and stood on tiptoes to get a better look as Tomaszewski and several grinning volunteers scraped away the honey with a hot knife or a wire brush, or fed the rectangular honeycomb racks through a special honey-harvesting machine.

Kathleen Chen and Diane Ratto, who both work in consumer operations on the Crittenden campus, licked their sticky fingers after helping Tomaszewski.

"I'm having lots of fun," Chen says. "It's cool to see how everything is made."

"Bees were always interesting to me," Ratto says. "I want my own hive when I have a house."

Confronting fears

Neither woman said they had much trepidation of bees. Chen said that she was scared of the fuzzy insects for a time after she was stung on the finger as a child, but that her fear was never overwhelming. Cliff Redeker, who works on the Google Apps team, has a different story.

"I have been afraid of bees since I was really little," Redeker said, as he stood about 25 yards back from Tomaszewski and a handful of Googlers who examined the hives. Thousands of bees filled the mid-afternoon air, a few occasionally buzzing past Redeker's head. Getting this close to bees would have made him very nervous when he was younger, he said.

Yet, there he stood. As a foodie who loves putting honey in his tea and his yogurt — "it's one of the ultimate condiments" — Redeker said he felt an obligation to confront his fears and learn more about bees. "When I heard about it, I knew it was something I had to do," he said.

Learning about the bees and being involved in the Hiveplex has helped ease his aversion to the insects.

The Hiveplex

Convincing the powers that be to allow the Hiveplex on campus was surprisingly easy. The Hiveplex abuts the bay on the eastern most edge of the Google's Crittenden campus, where the bees have access to ample water and wildflowers.

"It was pretty seamless," Peterson said. He and Rasic met with Google medical and security staff to ensure that the Hiveplex would not pose a threat to employees, but beyond that, both men said management was very receptive to the idea.

Google, in Peterson's experience, has always been a company very open to discussion. "I've been at Google for quite a while, but I was still surprised for how receptive the higher-ups were."

Sustainability

Just as the blue, red, yellow and green hives mirror the colors of the company logo, Peterson and Rasic said the Hiveplex mirrors Google's commitment to sustainability.

Google tries to find local sources for the food it serves in its cafes. The roughly 450 pounds of honey Rasic estimated came from the Hiveplex won't even come close to the amount Googlers use in a week, but that isn't the point.

"The point was to find new ways to be creative around here and really show that we could have a source of honey very close to us," Rasic said.

In keeping bees right on the Google grounds, Rasic said, the Hiveplex demonstrated that the company could do even more than 150 Cafe — a Google cafeteria that sources all of its food from within a 150-mile radius of its Mountain View campus.

Colony Collapse Disorder

Peterson and Rasic had another goal in bringing the Hiveplex to Google. They hoped to raise awareness about Colony Collapse Disorder — a mysterious worldwide phenomenon, wherein a colony's adult honeybees disappear, leaving behind immature bees and honey. It's estimated that last year, U.S. beekeepers lost about one-third of their bee hives.

Colony Collapse Disorder could have grave consequences on agriculture, as many commercial crops rely on bees for pollination.

"I think we've brought attention to it," Peterson said. "Obviously we don't have a solution. But there are so many smart people at Google."

He said that he does not expect someone at the search engine giant to crack the mystery of Colony Collapse Disorder, but that getting more bright people to think about the problem couldn't hurt.

Work is where the hive is

Peterson noted that, as an engineer, he is very taken with the bee's flat management structure. He drew parallels between the peer review process of Google engineers and the inherent order visible in the bees buzzing in and out of the Hiveplex's hexagonal honeycombs.

"We trust engineers to do the right thing," Peterson said. "In some ways, that's the way the bees operate. They are self-directed. The best engineers have a passion for doing what they do, and they are the most happy when they get results without interference from management."

Rasic agreed. If someone comes up with a good idea and presents it well, that idea is likely to get a green light from management, just as his director approved of his beekeeping idea immediately.

Google's executive chef said he is especially pleased with the way the honey from the Hiveplex tastes, noting its "light citrus flavor." Still, perhaps the most transformative experience for Rasic came when he mustered up the courage to work with the bees barehanded.

"It feels amazing," he said, describing the sensation of hundreds of bees crawling all over his hands. "They are very gentle creatures. They are beautiful."

Comments

Posted by Steve, a resident of Old Mountain View
on Sep 23, 2010 at 2:37 pm

Bee-utiful!


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