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How a German gardener is using old gumball machines to revitalize bee habitats

Sebastian Everding, a self-proclaimed “lobbyist for wild bees,” has wildflower seeds flowing across Germany, Austria and Belgium

The 130th bee vending machine, this one in Dresden, Germany. (M. Uhl)

BERLIN — It started with a joke.

In spring 2019, eco-gardener and entrepreneur Sebastian Everding marveled over how a German comedian, Oliver Tissot, repurposed an old gumball machine into an “automatic joke machine.” Put in 20 cents, turn a dial and get a classic German joke. Everding thought it was “ingenious” and contacted Tissot. He wanted in.

Everding, then 36, quickly retooled a former gumball machine into a joke dispenser and put it outside his home in Dortmund in the Ruhr River valley. He loved hearing the laughter, but wanted to do more. An avid gardener, he thought of his beloved bees — the pollen-spreading environmental linchpins whose numbers are dwindling under pressure from climate change, pesticides and other threats.

Everding’s next reimagined gumball machine delivered a capsule of wildflower seeds, which passersby could use to create bee habitats in their neighborhoods. His experiment has now grown to more than 160 dispensers across Germany, Austria and Belgium in places such as libraries and train station kiosks, energy service centers and veterinarian offices.

“The vending machine alone cannot stop the problems with the wild bees,” Everding said. “But we hope the project changes awareness of the population.”

Animal die-offs around the globe blamed on climate change

The decline in bees and other pollinators — butterflies, beetles and more — is another sign of a planet under stress, including ecosystems lost or changed by a warming climate. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, at least 1 in 10 bee species in Europe — some existing nowhere else in the world — are threatened with extinction.

A researcher, posting on the U.S. Department of Agriculture site, described the populations of keystone pollinators, such as the western honey bee, as “at a critical crossroads” that could threaten more than 100 U.S.-grown crops that rely on bees and other natural pollen spreaders. Up to 70 percent of the main crops grown for human consumption depend on insect pollination, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

In Germany, Everding built partnerships with Bienenretter Manufaktur, which promotes sustainable beekeeping and other eco-friendly initiatives, and the FINE Frankfurt Institute of Sustainable Development, which created an educational component around the seed dispensers, dubbed “Bienenautomats.”

“Let’s make something really crazy to make the world a better place,” Everding told Tissot at the time.

In 2007, Everding started volunteering at an animal shelter while on an information technology apprenticeship to learn to repair televisions, radios and other devices. The shelter piqued his interest in sustainability and inspired his love for wildlife.

Then, in 2014, he bought a house near a forest in Dortmund. He planted wildflowers to try to attract bees that had fascinated him in wildlife documentaries. Soon he saw some of the rarest bee species in Germany — including the European orchard bee — pollinating his flowers. In total, he planted 100 wildflower species. He never considered using pesticides.

“I see myself first and foremost as a lobbyist for wild bees,” said Everding, who later founded a sustainable property management company.

He was settling into life with his girlfriend when he read about Tissot’s project. After Everding put up the first Bienenautomat, regional papers wrote stories about the initiative. Soon, he received emails from strangers trying to order one.

“Everybody says it’s so easy to help,” said Tissot, 58. “For people my age, chewing gum machines are perfect to get us to take action because they remind us of our childhood,” as did the childhood connection to a famous German cartoon character, Maya the Bee.

Everding declined the first orders. He never intended to create a nationwide project. Old gumball machines online can cost up to 200 euros ($233) each. Everding had his own company to run and could repair the decades-old relics only in his spare time in his boiler room. Then, two orders came in from a school and church.

Sensing the sustainability benefits and interest from children, he couldn’t refuse.

More than 200 orders later — with 80 machines still on the waiting list — Everding’s Better World Machines has helped plant about 2.5 acres of wildflowers. Everding calls it a first step in habitat restoration.

Each machine takes up to five hours of restoration and refitting. He begins by paying painters to sand and repaint the machines yellow. He then hammers out dents, makes repairs and puts on water-resistant bee stickers. For many of the older machines, which came into use before euro was in circulation in 2002, he also reconfigures the coin slot to fit euro coins.

“The great thing about it is really the variety of people and locations wanting to do their part in addressing climate change,” Everding said.

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This year, a public library in Berlin put up the 100th Bienenautomat in Germany.

Tim Schumann, the head of that Berlin library, said families with young children often come to the building to get seeds — and learn about bees along the way. The project, he said, raised awareness about what locals can do to address climate change.

“Small seeds can be an act of empowerment,” Schumann said. “You can make your small neighborhood aware and part of restoration.”

Schumann, like many other of Everding’s customers, heard about the project through social media and was excited to join, fundraising 650 euros ($759) to buy a machine.

The librarian sees this as one step in a larger movement. He echoed Everding, who hopes the German government and the European Union will ban all pesticides and move away from “industrial agriculture to more ecological agriculture.”

“It’s clear that the climate crisis and the biodiversity crisis is here, and it’s clear we need to take action to address them in tandem,” said Laura Hildt, a policy officer for biodiversity and E.U. affairs at the European Environmental Bureau. “Ecosystem restoration is an easy way to do this.”

Next summer, Everding plans to visit each of the Bienenautomats to meet some of the people he has inspired to take action. He hopes his project to save wild bees is just the beginning.

“It’s a building block,” Everding said. “But when there’s a block and there’s a block, the whole can eventually change.”

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