Sting Operation: Dutch Bros’ Bee Problem

Robrt L. PelaJanuary 6, 2023
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Valley bees are proving a buzzkill for Dutch Bros Coffee – says an Arizona beekeeper who would know.

Photography by Izabella Hernandez

Illustration by Shelby Rinke
Illustration by Shelby Rinke

There’s a bee in my car.

“Hi, welcome to Dutch Bros, what can I get for you today?”

“I’ll have a black coffee,” I tell the young woman who’s standing near my open passenger window. “And how come there’s a bee in my car?”

“Oh, we have a lot of bees,” she says, then laughs. “Would an Americano be okay?”

I already know that Dutch Bros, Phoenix’s most popular drive- thru coffee stand, has a lot of bees. It’s why I’m here, poking around. I’ve heard that all the Dutch Bros in Arizona are swarming with honeybees. Unlike the young hipsters who come here because it’s cool to, the bees, I’ve been told, are here for the syrup.

“An Americano is fine,” I say as I swat at the insect circling my steering wheel. “Listen, I’ve been to three Dutch Bros today, and all of them have bees. What’s the deal?”

“They love our syrup,” she shrugs, taking my credit card. “I think we have, like, buckets with holes in them around here somewhere that the bees are supposed to go into. Have a nice day!”

Ten minutes later, behind more than a dozen automobiles lined up at this Central Phoenix Dutch Bros, I finally pull up to the service window. A dark-haired teenage boy hands me my drink.

“Why is there a bee in my car?” I shout at him over the disco music blaring from behind his lanky frame.

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” he says. “They’re attracted to our syrup. It’s really good, I guess, even to bees. If you roll down your windows and drive real fast, maybe the bee will get sucked out of your car.”

I don’t want to drive real fast with the windows down. I don’t want to drink this $6 watered-down espresso. I don’t want a bee in my car.

What I want is for someone at Dutch Bros to act like they care that so many of their 42 Phoenix-area coffee stands appear to be infested with bees. Most of the managers, corporate flacks and franchise owners I’ve contacted haven’t returned my calls. None of the workers I’ve met today seem fazed, not even the young woman at the last one I visited, who confided that she’s allergic to bee stings.

“Have a good one!” she’d hollered as I drove through a buzzing cloud on my way to another Dutch Bros.

Lots of other people are talking about the Dutch Bros bees. My neighbor, Sarah, found a dead one floating in her chocolate-macadamia Annihilator. My friend Dan, who lives in Tucson, told me that the Dutch Bros in his neighborhood “looked like a scene from that movie The Swarm.” And a former employee of the coffee giant told me she’d signed a nondisclosure form and couldn’t talk to me about bees, then texted me photographs of what she claimed was her left arm, covered in pink, swollen bee stings.

But no one has spoken to me more about the Dutch Bros bees than Tulip Elmore. She’s the Joan of Arc in this story, except that instead of bringing hope to a demoralized French army, she, a 43-year-old professional beekeeper, was providing respite to a fast-growing coffee franchise and better health to hundreds of thousands of sick honeybees.

It was Elmore, later hired by Dutch Bros to alleviate the problem, who figured out the bees were addicted to the coffee syrup. 

“The teenagers were spilling coffee drinks, not taking the trash out often enough,” Elmore says of the young Dutch Bros employees. “The bees were eating the syrup and getting sick. I was saying, ‘Can you put the lid back on the syrup after you use it?’ Like I was their mom or something. I went to employee meetings and said to the managers, ‘Look, you have to be better housekeepers.’” 

She says the bees were taking the syrup back to the hive and feeding it to the queen, who’d get hooked and sit around all day, not laying eggs or issuing royal orders. Moreover, her drones, hopped up on the syrup and obsessed with finding their next fix, stopped looking for things to pollinate. Essentially, they abandoned their basic housekeeping chores, infected with a spore-forming parasite called Nosema and sick with the bee equivalent of dysentery.

Elmore says she and her husband, Cody, doing business as Honey Bee Research Project, collected bees from 38 Dutch Bros coffee stands over a seven-year period. She figures they rescued and relocated nearly 1,600 colonies and just shy of 32 million bees during that time.

“We were making between $1,000 and $1,200 per stand, per month,” she recalls. “Our overhead was high, but we turned a profit, and we rescued and rehabbed entire colonies of bees.”

It was a humane if labor-intensive salve for the Dutch Bros’ bees problem. But once the Oregon-based company went public this past September, launching an IPO that raised a reported $482 million, everything changed – for Elmore and for the bees.

“There were new accountants who were like, ‘Why are we paying a beekeeper a quarter million dollars a year?’” she tells me. 

Not long after, Dutch Bros stopped calling her about their bee problem.

“They’re trying to save money by letting me go,” Elmore claims. “But they’ll pay out more in worker compensation claims from employees who get stung. They’ll deal with increased employee turnover because teenagers don’t want to work in a tiny box full of bees. And they’ll lose customers who don’t like finding dead bees in their coffee.”

I’m desperate to ask someone from Dutch Bros about this – as well as the possibility that the company dumped Honey Bee for some reason Elmore isn’t telling me about – but through several weeks of repeated texts and calls, no one from the company is providing any details. 

Elmore isn’t surprised. She’s no dummy; she knows how big business works. What she doesn’t get is why, all at once, no one at Dutch Bros seemed to care about the bees.

“I was never a big fan of their coffee,” she admits. “But I used to brag that this company was humane and responsible because it cared about the environment. What happened?”

Beekeepers Cody and Tulip Elmore claim to have relocated some 32 million bees for Dutch Bros franchises in the Valley.
Beekeepers Cody and Tulip Elmore claim to have relocated some 32 million bees for Dutch Bros franchises in the Valley.

Founded in 1992 in Grants Pass, Oregon, by brothers Dane and Travis Boersma, Dutch Bros started small. It’s since expanded to 471 independent and franchised locations across 11 states, its 1,000-square-foot stands always nestled onto huge lots to accommodate multiple lanes of drive-up traffic.

Known more for its overly friendly waitstaff than its Colombian roast, Dutch Bros pushes a party atmosphere (“Creating connections is part of who we are,” its website promises) and cheerful chatter by lively young “broistas.” Unless you want to talk to them about the company’s honeybee problem.

I do. I want to ask Dutch Bros Arizona facilities manager Dane Prevatt about the stack of Maricopa County Environmental Services reports I’d read, like the one asking Dutch Bros to do something about the bee infestation at their Rural Road store, or the use of fly paper, presumably as a bee deterrent, at two of their other locations. But Prevatt only oversees company-owned stores, none of which are in Phoenix, so he professes not to know about any pesky bees.

I was hoping to ask Scot Schmidt, Dutch Bros’ regional facilities manager who hired Elmore to get rid of the bees at the Apache Junction location, about how the bee problem had gotten so bad, there was a separate email for inter-company messaging about it. But Schmidt tells me to contact the main office in Oregon, as does nearly every other higher-up I contact.

With very few exceptions, no one returns my calls or responds to my emails. That’s too bad, because I was looking forward to asking them about the text conversation Elmore shared with me. In the exchange between Elmore and a Dutch Bros manager in the East Valley, the manager asks Elmore to fake up an invoice that can be submitted to a health inspector who’s asking for proof of pest control that apparently wasn’t done. (Unfortunately, Elmore agreed to the scam. What’s more, she tells me that Dutch Bros paid the phony invoice.)

At least when I speak to Loren Franklin, CEO of the Dutch Bros West Valley franchise group, he admits to knowing about the bees. He calls it “an unfortunate multi-faceted problem,” but then refuses to say anything more. A woman named Aleah, who’d worked for the company in Tucson, tells me she signed something after leaving the company and can’t talk to me, though she admits she worked at Dutch Bros in Portland “and we had the bee problem there, too.”

The half-dozen other site managers and corporate bigwigs I telephone all decline to speak about the bees, although because they work for Dutch Bros, they decline cheerfully; even over the phone, I can hear the smiles in their voices.

After spending hours reading through Elmore’s work journal, in which she exhaustively details years of battling the Bros bees, I’m surprised to find there aren’t more Maricopa County health complaints about the problem. In the last few years, county inspectors have noted bee trouble at the company’s South Rural Road and Gilbert Road locations, and logged complaints about the use of fly paper at Dutch Bros in Queen Creek and Surprise. And that’s about it. None of the inspectors appear to be receiving complaints from Starbucks or other drive-thru places.

“That’s because we don’t really have a category for bees,” Johnny Dilone, the public information officer for Maricopa County Environmental Services, tells me. “We’d have to be there, see a swarm or a pile of dead bees, and then respond to that.”

Dutch Bros honeybee citations date back to 2019, Dilone says, and include reference to dead bees observed inside at least one of the coffee stands.

“It looks like our inspector asked them to please sweep up the dead bees more often,” he says, glancing through old reports.

What about displacing the bees, rather than killing them?

“Our health code doesn’t address the well-being of the pests,” Dilone says. “All we want is for them to be gotten rid of.”

Bees were already having a lousy time of it before they became addicted to Dutch Bros blue raspberry syrup. Over the last few decades, the number of bee colonies in the U.S. has dropped dramatically. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, beekeepers lost 105,240 colonies during the first few months of 2020 – a 76 percent rise over figures collected the year before, and the highest total loss since 2016. Why is this happening? A report last year from the USDA points to pesticides and fungicides, which make bees vulnerable to parasites and diseases, as a big part of the problem. The report also raises concerns about the future of the global food system if bees don’t start getting their health back.

And then there’s something called Colony Collapse Disorder, where a hive is suddenly evacuated, leaving behind the queen and a couple of nurse bees to care for her. In 2007-2008, U.S. bee colony operations lost more than 35 percent of their colonies to this as-yet unexplained problem, according to a federal survey.
Busy bees at a Tempe location
Busy bees at a Tempe location

And now, on top of everything else, Arizona honeybees are forsaking their avocation in favor of a combination of corn syrup, processed beet sugar, artificial colors and flavors, and a fistful of preservatives – a combination devoid of nutrients and indigestible to bees.

During her years working for Dutch Bros, Elmore got to where she could smell a syrup-addicted hive from several paces.

“They smelled like vomit,” she says. “I’d cut open the hives and there’d be no honey or pollen in there, just pockets of rainbow-colored coffee syrup. It took me about two years to rehab a hive in that condition. Some of the colonies were so sick, I’d have to give them antibiotics.”

Before she became the solution to Dutch Bros’ bee troubles, Elmore was inadvertently part of the problem.

“In 2011, I was renting a house at Third Avenue and Camelback [Road],” she remembers. “There was a beehive on the property, and I YouTubed how to trap the bees. But then I had a box of bees.”

She called a beekeeper she knew who gave her a crash course in responsibly relocating bees. Elmore was hooked. “All at once, I was a novice beekeeper,” she says.

Not long after, she noticed that the coffee drink she sometimes bought from the Dutch Bros at Central and Camelback tasted like pesticide. “The guy at the drive-up window told me they were spraying for a bee problem they had. I told him they needed a beekeeper and gave him my number.”

Wondering where they were coming from, Elmore began tracking the Dutch Bros bees. “It turned out they were coming directly from my hives,” she laughs. “I moved the direction of those hives and my bees stopped going out for coffee syrup.”

Soon, Dutch Bros came calling. Elmore got busy tracking the bees still buzzing around her neighborhood Dutch Bros and found them in a nearby block wall. She relocated that hive, and a month later, another. By 2014, she was on call for dozens of the chain’s kiosks, in a handshake deal with managers who wanted both the bees and the customer complaints gone.

It wasn’t so much the quality of the Dutch Bros syrup that was attracting the swarms, Elmore discovered, as the quantity of it – which is why Dutch Bros became a bee favorite relative to Starbucks or other syrupy beverage drive-thrus.

“Leaving the drive-thru windows open for extended periods of time and the sheer number of sugary drinks on their menu compared to other coffee shops with drive-thru windows was at the heart of the problem,” she tells me.

Elmore isn’t keen on sharing her trade secrets, but it appears she mostly found sick hives simply by walking around looking for bees. Once she spotted one, she’d follow it in her car. “I know how that sounds,” she says. “And if you can think of a better way to find sick, syrup-addicted bees, please tell me.”

Syrup-sick bees are easy to spot, she says. Healthy bees fly in a straight line, while those who’ve been glugging unprocessed beet sugar are drunk, sloppy and lazy in their path home.

Once she found the bees that were bugging a nearby Dutch Bros, she’d relocate the hive to her 144-hive bee farm in Wittmann, about 50 miles outside Phoenix and far from addictive coffee syrup. She’d rehabilitate the colony by feeding it healthy supplements and nutritious bee food, the recipe for which she’d rather not share.

Dutch Bros supported Elmore’s strategy. “Before the company got huge, they were interested in saving the bees. They allowed me to fix their bee problem humanely. Starbucks wouldn’t have done that. They would have just called in an exterminator.”

But then, last July, all of that changed.

“They were saying it was too expensive to feed the bees. And suddenly there were all these restrictions, like I had five days to handle a colony of bees, which doesn’t work because there are often several hives visiting one Dutch Bros location.”

The final straw, Elmore says, came when Dutch Bros’ attorney phoned her with a new protocol: From now on, they would pay her to find the offending hives and tell the property owner that if they didn’t exterminate the hive, she’d turn them over to the county health department.

“I told them that there was no way I was going to threaten people or assist in killing an entire hive of bees,” she tells me through tears. “After that, I stopped getting calls from Dutch Bros about their bees.”

Unfortunately, Honey Bee Research Project never had a contract with Dutch Bros.

“It’s not like we’d had time to create a long list of other clients,” she explains. “All our time was spent with Dutch Bros because their problem was so huge. We went from having a thriving business to
being broke.”

Elmore says that the stress of losing their main client was too much for Cody, who vanished not long after Dutch Bros ditched Honey Bee, leaving no word of where he’d gone. Elmore finally found Cody, staying with family in Alabama. “Things aren’t perfect, but he’s coming home!” she texted me as this story went to press.

While Elmore celebrates reuniting with her husband, she can’t stop thinking about her other love: local honeybees. “That one’s not so easy to fix,” she says. “Dutch Bros doesn’t care about them and isn’t doing anything to protect them. And that means a whole lot of honeybees are once again in danger.”

I’m at the Dutch Bros on East Indian School Road, trying to photograph the bees swarming its parking-lot dumpster, when I finally hear from the company’s public relations team.

“Dutch Bros uses a professional service to identify and address hives within a several-mile radius of our shops,” the email reads. “We do our best to be responsive to issues surrounding bees and ensure we’re meeting the needs of our customers and crews. Thanks.”

I text Elmore to ask if maybe she’s been replaced by some other bee-finding service.

“There is no one else who does what we do,” she texts back. “Every pest control person I’ve spoken to says that what my husband and I do to find bees is nearly impossible. We perfected the art and science of bee-tracking in the city.”

How, I ask her, can she be sure? Maybe, I say, Dutch Bros has found another solution.

“You’ve been going to Dutch Bros,” she replies, “and you’re seeing bees.

If I was working with them, there wouldn’t be any.”