Shortly after the Asheville Holiday Parade pranced through downtown on Nov. 17, the judges named "Beelieve in Community" -- a combined effort by Asheville on Bikes and the Buncombe County chapter of the North Carolina State Beekeepers Association -- the best in show. Winning for both "best spirit of the parade" and "best marching entry," the team netted $1,000 in prize money.
Along the way, the two groups carved out a new niche in holiday-parade entries. Some 40 bikers in bee outfits, buzzing on kazoos, rolled along next to the walking beekeepers, who chased the "bees" with their smokers. Along the way, they all chanted: "Beelieve in community; bee a part of your community."
It was a uniquely Asheville hybrid. Beekeepers are maintaining a craft that now appears to be under siege by climate change, as bee populations worldwide are dropping like flies. Asheville on Bikes -- a group of activists seeking safe and functional lanes and storage areas for local cyclists -- shares the concern about climate change, and it was the second straight year that group members had turned their worries into a win.
Rare as the whole thing might seem, co-organizer Rachel Reeser is getting used to life in the winner's circle: This was the third time she's been part of a victorious entry in the annual parade.
When we caught up with Reeser, a 28-year-old education student at UNCA, she was both exultant and sad. "That was really fun," exclaimed Reeser, a Warren Wilson College graduate with an environmental-science degree and four years' teaching experience at Evergreen Community Charter School. "I don't want to stop being a bee."
Mountain Xpress: Why were you a bee?
Rachel Reeser: Since the parade's theme was "building community through celebration," ... Asheville on Bikes decided to invite another organization to be part of our entry with us. Because of our theme, it made sense to go with the beekeepers.
You've won before.
The very first year I was in the parade [in 2004], I had the joy of being with the Firecracker Jazz Band's initial entry, back when they weren't popular around town like they are now. The theme of the parade that year was holidays around the world, and they did Chinese New Year, and it was beautiful. It was a blast, and we won easily. And then the next year, they gave Firecracker a budget to enter the parade, so we weren't eligible to win, but I went with them again.
And the next year, 2006?
That's when Asheville on Bikes started [and won first place in the parade, for best use of theme]. One of the other Asheville on Bikes organizers, Michael Sule, who's a sixth-grade teacher at Evergreen, had been talking about trying to get some different things involved in the parade. He's really into community and cycling, and he was like, "I'm going to come up with something different," and that's how it all began. He'd already been thinking about it, so it was kind of the perfect time.
What does Asheville on Bikes want?
We seek to cultivate a culture of urban and commuter cycling in Asheville, and we do that through rides and celebration.
Are you different from Critical Mass [which stages periodic mass bike rides on public roads], or is there some overlap?
Very different. We like to give people an experience on their bike so they can feel more comfortable ... and historically, we've done it through holidays. For example, we did the "Pumpkin Pedaler" -- a Halloween bike ride. We met at Pritchard Park and took almost 50 people up to Helen's Bridge and down around Montford and the cemetery. We take them on a good ride, because a lot of people are scared of the hills, but if you just know how to ride them, you don't have to be scared. So, where I guess Critical Mass means different things to different people in different cities, it seems as if here in Asheville it's kind of stigmatized towards "Let's piss off the drivers," and we don't want that -- we want to work with them. We want them to be respectful of us, we want to be respectful of them. We don't want to take up the full lane.
How many members do you have?
It's hard to say. We've got about 150 on our e-mail list, but every time it's different. I don't think we really have a number: It's just whoever's there at the time.
What do you hope to accomplish in the coming year?
A year from now, we'd like to see the bike-locker project get pushed through [an effort, supported by some on City Council, to install bike lockers downtown]. We've gotten a lot of feedback from people who want us to host more community rides, so we'd like to do that once a month or so. And we're supporting the city's Bicycle Master Plan. Basically, we'd like to get a bunch of people together for fun, while at the same time being an undercurrent for these bigger, better projects.
It may seem like an obvious question at this point, but why is biking so important you?
I try to reduce my carbon impact as much as possible. And it's good for your body, and it's the closest thing we can do to flying. ... Some people say, "Well, we can skydive." But that's kind of expensive.
So, back to the parade. How were you received by the public?
You know, of all the parades I've been in, I was thinking about that the most this time around. There were stakes: Can we win again? We were chanting this kind of mantra, "Beelieve in community, bee a part of your community." And I was looking around at people, and they were kind of like, "Eh, that doesn't seem so interesting." Of course, the Jack of the Woods crowd was into it, and some of the kids were like, "Hey, Bee!" So I think we were received pretty well -- but a couple people, I saw their faces, and they thought we were dorks.
What will you do with the prize money?
Well, we put some money into creating the costumes and getting the word out, but a couple things are going to happen with it. One: We're going to sponsor a bee startup kit for the school that the Buncombe County Beekeepers run. Two: We're going to use some of this to fund our Bike Love Party -- our second annual party to raise money for the bike-locker project -- in February.
What was your first bicycle?
It was pink, with a banana seat and pink-and-white flowers all over it, with training wheels.
What do you ride now?
Now I ride a Soma Smoothie. It's made by a company in San Francisco, and it's a good fit for me: It's got some storage, so I can transport things, and it'll go fast around the corners.