Anyone who has been paying attention knows the honey bee population is in decline, and the loss of the bees’ pollination role could spell disaster for the food supply. While scientists search for the cause of the colony collapse disorder that first became apparent in 2006, small business owner Dave Hunter is working to alert people to a partial solution: mason bees.

Mason bees are not the generalists that honey bees are – certain types prefer certain plants - but they are efficient. Scientists estimate that one foraging female mason bee can equal the pollinating power of 100 honey bees. And, unlike honey bees, more than 130 species of mason bees are native to North America.

Through his business, Crown Bees, Hunter uses the Internet to recruit an expanding army of backyard gardeners to help fortify the nation’s mason bee population. The situation isn’t dire, Hunter said, but it could be in five to 10 years - and then it might be too late.

"I’m doing something about it now,” Hunter said. "This is the food on our table.”

Business advisor helps see the big picture

Hunter was director of real estate for DHL/Airborne Express until the recession upended his corporate career. Already passionate about bees, he began considering if he could make a career out of promoting them.

While he was pretty sure he could, he also sought the expertise of Peter Quist, a certified business advisor with the Washington Small Business Development Center (SBDC) in Everett. The statewide SBDC network is a partnership of Washington State University and others.

"As a company of one, I have to succeed,” Hunter said. And, he said, working with Quist improved his odds because suddenly he had an objective business advisor to help him see the big picture and point out potential problems or gaps in his business plan.

"If you know your strengths, you should be able to run a company,” Hunter said, "but if you know your weaknesses, you can be successful.”

Creating success that flows downstream

Near the start of their working relationship, Quist suggested Hunter read "The E-Myth,” by Michael Gerber.

"It’s a beautiful book and it gave me great insights,” Hunter said, including the fact that simply having a good idea isn’t enough.

One problem for Crown Bees is that raising mason bees is a seasonal business. Together Hunter and Quist discussed ways to manage cash flow and the myriad other issues involved in owning a small business that’s looking to expand, including tax implications and marketing.

Yes, Hunter wants his business to be successful. But what he’s really trying to do is create a tipping point where not only is he successful, but his customers are successful. That will lead to farmers being successful and North America continuing to enjoy an abundance of diverse fruits and vegetables.

Networking with backyard gardeners

Hunter’s business has four components. First, he coordinates an extensive network of backyard gardeners (including more than 600 WSU Extension Master Gardeners) who raise mason bees.

When backyard gardeners are successful and produce more bees than they need, he buys back the bee cocoons, checks them for pests and then stores them in a temperature controlled environment. Being careful to ensure that species are kept in their native geographical environment, he then sells those additional bees to gardeners and orchardists who need them.

By coordinating the efforts of thousands of backyard gardeners, Hunter hopes their efforts will add up to an effective plan B if the honey bee solution is elusive.

Second, Hunter has created and maintains http://www.crownbees.com, a comprehensive website with supplies and information to help gardeners and orchardists raise their own mason bees. It includes frequently asked questions, the latest and most rigorous research into bees, a blog, a newsletter and a step-by-step guide to raising mason bees.

Hunter’s third component is a wholesale division for working directly with retailers who are also interested in promoting alternative bees. The fourth component is Crown Bees Pollination, where Hunter provides bees - and advice - to orchardists or farmers who need assistance getting their crops pollinated.

Placing bees in appropriate habitat

Businesses such as Hunter’s have come under criticism in recent months because bees native to one region have been improperly shipped to other regions, where they may disrupt the local ecology – or simply die. That’s not a practice Hunter supports.

Crown Bees deals primarily with two types of mason bees, one native to regions west of the Rockies and the other native to the eastern United States. On his website, Hunter states that he will follow recommendations from bee scientists rather than profits.

"Selling mason bees outside their natural habitat is counterproductive to the buyer and just plain wrong,” he states.

Responding to a growing need

So far, he said, his business is small but growing.

"The industry of raising non-honey bees is an unknown market,” Hunter said. Most orchards are ignoring the problem in the hopes that scientists will find an answer or it will just go away.

But, he said, California’s almond industry is the first bell sounding. When that industry’s 650,000 acres bloom simultaneously, it’s critical that they have enough bees to pollinate them.

In recent years, they have been just able to get pollinated, which has prompted growers to look for acceptable alternate solutions. The blue orchard bee, a mason bee, is an accepted counterpart to the honey bee.

Recently, Hunter said, farmers there experimented with half honey bees and half mason bees, and their yields improved significantly.

Startup help and ongoing counsel

Compared to honey bees, mason bees are relatively unknown and unheralded. But not for long.

"A new company isn’t ready for everything all at once,” Hunter said, which is why he continued to meet with Quist about once each quarter. "Each time I was a bit stronger and came with more relevant questions in hand.”

Growing a small business is similar to tending a garden in some ways, Hunter said. There’s a lot of front-end work before you ever get a blossom, and then you still need a little help from pollination before the magic can happen.

A bit like the mason bee, Quist at the SBDC helped provide the right answers to the right questions at the right time - and that has made a significant difference, Hunter said.