If you walk down to the Grantham Community Garden’s lower plot across from the rec fields, you probably won’t notice anything out of the ordinary. It looks like your standard garden with rows of vegetables, some chickens and an overwhelming sense of quiet. But the two wooden boxes set back by a line of trees are deceiving. They’re the loudest part of the garden, and when you move closer, you start to hear it – the sound of over 100,000 honeybees.
On April 15, three pounds of bees arrived on campus. That’s about 12,000 live adult workers plus one queen. But the real planning began months, even a year, before the bees made their way on campus.
Director of Sustainability, Brandon Hoover says the idea came up before he was even hired.
“In the interview, I was having dinner with the students, and they asked, ‘What do you know about bees and is that something that we should do here?” And at that point I knew that the students were interested,” he says.
One of those students was recent graduate and sustainability studies major Anna McKay. McKay researched beekeeping as part of her senior project. She looked at different types of hives, the necessary tools and the cost involved with bringing bees to campus.
Hoover, McKay and other students built the bee boxes and frames for the hive ahead of time. Once the bees came, they brought them to the garden, installed them and surprisingly, let them go.
“You’re just supposed to leave them to establish a home,” Hoover explains. “Then we came back and checked to make sure they were building, to make sure the queen was laying, and sure enough, she was doing both. Everything was going according to plan.”
Today the plan is in full motion as the bees are thriving – producing both honey and more bees.
“We have well over 100,000 bees in that hive now,” Hoover says. “There’s 10’s of thousands of bees.”
How do you take care of them? (And not get stung)
The bees are loud and territorial. Hoover and his students don protective equipment and use a smoker to keep the bees from stinging. They use a hive tool to go through and check the hive.
“What we were checking on today was ensuring that the queen was laying properly, that they were starting to collect and store honey, which they were, and that they were building on new frames,” Hoover says.
Good building, good laying and good honey collection are three important aspects of beekeeping. Hoover checks this by pulling out and examining 3-5 frames in a box per day. He looks for brood – basically, baby bee eggs – and honeycomb.
“There’s ten frames in each box,” Hoover says. “If you pull out 3-5 you can look at those and you can kind of peek in and see what the other hives are doing. The top box, the new box had more honey in it, and the brood box was on the bottom, and that’s pretty standard what you’ll see in a hive.”
Since the bees are new to campus, Hoover says they’re more concentrated on establishing a brood than producing honey.
“They’ve focused so much of their attention on establishing that hive, building it up and a hive that would have survived the winter that had comb already built, you would get a lot more honey from a hive that had been established over winter,” he says.
Although he’s not as optimistic about honey production, he is very hopeful about the bees surviving through the winter. During the winter, the hive contracts as female worker bees kick out the surviving male drones for fewer mouths to feed. While a bee’s life cycle in the summer is only a few weeks long, they can survive the whole winter.
“In the spring, most of them will die off after the queen starts laying again so in the spring, you don’t order new bees to repopulate if the hive survives, they typically will repopulate themselves, and you get back up to you know a few boxes,” Hoover says. “So it’s an ebb and flow.”
What’s all this news about bees dying?
In a perfect world, this ebb and flow would allow bees to lay dormant in the winter and stay plentiful in the summer. However, that’s not always the case.
Varroa mites and Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) are two separate, but key causes of the honeybee’s startling decline. Hoover describes varroa mites as “little bloodsucking creatures.” They’re parasites – a specific parasite only found on bees.
Although varroa mites have been around for centuries, factors weakening the honeybee’s immune system have served to strengthen varroa mites. Hoover lists two large factors: habitat loss and the spraying of pesticides.
“Habitat loss is due to large-scale monoculture of soybeans or corn, but it also is a result of increased housing development and large-scale suburbanization,” Hoover says. “So habitat loss is two-fold and is being experienced across the country. And the spraying of pesticides on top of that, I think, has weakened the bee population to the point where it’s a concern.”
The USDA says CCD is a syndrome describing a “dead” honeybee colony with no adult bees or adult bee bodies. Although there’s still a live queen and immature bees, it’s impossible for the hive to thrive without workers. Researchers are still struggling to understand the cause of it.
Despite all the challenges honeybees are facing, Hoover’s quick to point out recent research shows the bee population has stabilized, though not yet seeing return growth.
“They’ve stabilized, we don’t know why yet but they have, so that’s a good sign,” Hoover says.
Why does all this matter?
Most of us think of bees as those annoying pests we’re constantly running from in the summer. So why should we be worried about the honeybee population declining?
It’s simple – when you bite into an apple or eat a handful of almonds, honeybees made that food possible. The American Beekeeping Federation says about a third of our diet is directly or indirectly a result of honeybee pollination.
Cucumbers, melons, apricots, cherries, pears, avocados, blueberries and much more are all thanks to honeybees.
“We’re doing a disservice if we’re not talking about pollinators and the need for pollinators,” says Hoover. “My hope is that when we start getting flowers on our tomatoes and our zucchini and our squash and our green beans, the bees are hitting those hard. And without that, we wouldn’t have tomatoes, squash, zucchini, so they’re an important part of the agricultural system.”
Honeybees also play a role in biodiversity, specifically through pollination. The Wheen Bee Foundation says plant biodiversity helps with soil and water retention, local area cooling, and carbon sinks.
Hoover hopes students can come to a greater understanding of biodiversity through working with the bees. “To pay attention to the flowers that the bees are pollinating, to notice that flowers aren’t around all year long and by encouraging more native flowering and by encouraging more native habitat we’re helping bees,” he says.
Honeybees are also important for the economy. A 2014 White House fact sheet said honeybees contribute 15 billion dollars to the U.S. economy through the cultivation of fruits, nuts and vegetables.
Not to mention, honeybees provide beekeepers with a steady income. When colonies began to die off at an alarming rate, beekeepers struggled. In 2014, it was estimated that United States beekeepers lost two billion dollars as bee populations declined, and put the industry in jeopardy.
“We talk a lot about at Messiah and Christianity in general, the redemption of people, but we don’t talk a lot about the redemption of places and that our natural system is in the process of redemption, and we need to participate in that,” Hoover explains. “We need to not degrade; we need to restore. I think beekeeping is one of those ways we can participate in the redemption of places, the restoration of places.”
Hoover and his students have high hopes for the bees in the coming years – both as an environmental asset and an educational tool.
Right now, the bees are currently building up their hive, and Hoover believes they may have five boxes, three boxes of brood and two boxes of honey, by the end of this summer. However, the hive will contract this winter, leaving Hoover with fewer bees at the start of next summer.
If the hive survives the winter and continues to do well over the summer, Hoover says there will be a big honey harvest next July. He anticipates the honey will be for sale at the Community Garden’s Farm Stand in Eisenhower throughout the year.
However, Hoover’s biggest wish is that his students learn from the bees. “I really hope we can train some of our students to understand beekeeping as part of a diverse agricultural system,” he says. “Honey is a really important sweetener, it’s sold all over the world, and there’s a need for it, and then, of course, pollen. So I think if we can teach students about beekeeping and teaching some of the ins and outs then maybe they could go find jobs as beekeepers.”
Keeping bees on-campus also creates a talking point for the not only the Sustainability Office, but the entire College.
“The last one is just to participate in trying to ensure the health of a bee population, and keeping bees, I think, is participating in that biodiversity and that responsibility we have as Christians and I think as humans in general,” Hoover says.
The next time you’re swatting a honeybee buzzing around your head, or watching it jump from plant to plant, think about your favorite fruit or the honey you like to put in your tea. Without honeybees, your world – and your campus – just wouldn’t be the same.
Maddie Crocenzi, Editor-in-Chief
Pug lover, Christ-follower, runner and peanut butter enthusiast.