On a Personal Note: Phyllis Stiles
Story by Jim Murphy
On a narrow, quiet side street sits one of those big, comfortable old homes that make Montford special. Built back in 1913, the sprawling arts-and-crafts house rises behind a lush front-yard garden and a wrap-around porch that calls to mind rocking chairs and glasses of lemonade. It is every bit a family home, and for most of its 103 years it served that purpose well. But for the past five years it has also performed quietly as the national headquarters of an energetic organization called Bee City USA.
The energy is provided by Phyllis Stiles, who followed her husband, Richard, into beekeeping nearly ten years ago. “He had been doing it for about two years, and he said, ‘Phyl, I would love it if we could do this together.’ It meant so much to him that I went to bee school that year. And the bees were so fascinating. Oh my gosh. You know that line in the movie Jerry MacGuire where she says, ‘You had me at hello?’ The bees had me at hello.”
She unrolls a poster, showing several types of bees pollinating flowers. “Aren’t they cute?” she says, trying to stifle a small giggle.
Phyllis quickly became involved. “I went to our bee club and suggested maybe we could start something like Bee City to raise public consciousness of bees.” They brainstormed the outline of a national program that would enlist cities to promote awareness of local pollinator conditions. Asheville was the first municipality to become a Bee City, and now a total of 17 cities nationwide have earned the designation.
But why go to all the effort? Why expend all that energy on bees? Phyllis is quick to supply the short answer. “Three quarters of the plant species in the world would go extinct were it not for a pollinator.” Everything from pretty flowers to essential vegetables would become endangered species.
That cataclysmic scenario took on a real-world intensity about ten years ago with the spread of something called colony collapse disorder (CCD). Worker bees were disappearing at an alarming rate in a disorder attributed to loss of habitat due to development, the use of certain pesticides, and the spread of pests and diseases. The threat energized everyone from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to local bee clubs. “Clouds have silver linings,” Phyllis says, “and I think colony collapse disorder gave us a great gift. It woke us up.”
A lot of interested parties responded to the wake-up call. “Almost every county in the United States has a bee club,” Phyllis says, “and we believe North Carolina has more beekeepers than any other state.” The response appears to have been effective. A recent EPA report summarized, “Reported cases of CCD have declined substantially over the last five years.”
The threat has declined, but Phyllis still maintains her energetic pace. She works “easily 60 hours a week” on Bee City, and she credits her husband as a full partner in the effort. “He is a saint,” she says. “If it weren’t for him I couldn’t do this.”
Even considering her love for bees and her conviction that the Bee City message is important, Phyllis reveals some unease over her commitment. “Had I known that getting into this would require that I learn a lot more about bees, a lot more about butterflies, a lot more about plants and particularly native plants, a lot more about pesticides, a lot more about forming an organization—if I had known all that back in 2011 would I have started? Probably not. I mean, the bees have taken over our lives.”
Their lives were quite full and productive before they ever thought about bees. Phyllis hails from Lancaster, South Carolina, and attended Mars Hill University. Soon after she and Richard were married they joined the Peace Corps and went to an agricultural village in Tunisia, where Phyllis got a disappointing surprise. “I thought we were going there to work as a team, but they said, ‘You came as a spouse. If you don’t want to do anything, that’s fine.’ I wasn’t expecting that.” She soon discovered that two other Peace Corps wives were fighting the same frustration. “We heard from the women in our villages that they wanted to learn how to sew. They wanted to make clothes for their families. All of us could sew pretty well, so we started a sewing school for those women.”
The school was an immediate and lasting success. Sitting in her Montford backyard more than 30 years later, her eyes fill with tears as she tries to explain her most satisfying moments. “When they would invite us to their homes and show us the things they had made for their families.” She pauses, shakes her head at the memory. “That was wonderful. That was really cool.”
That was also more than three decades ago and half a world away. Now, sitting in her comfortable home on the quiet street, Phyllis turns her attention back to the present. It’s not hard for people to encourage pollinators, she says. All you have to do is plant a couple of native flowers or veggies. The bees will do the rest.
Jim Murphy, of Mars Hill, is a retired television news reporter and former copy editor for the Los Angeles Times. He can be reached at email@example.com.