KALAMAZOO, Mich.—After hours of meticulous work in unrelenting summer heat and well away from an apiary buzzing with thousands of honeybees, the students paused for a sweet, golden treat.
"If I could eat like a bee all the time, I'd be in heaven," said Caitlin Minzey who, with the others gathered, sampled honey from one of the apiary's six colonies.
"They've got the best diets ever—sugar."
Sugar is the carbohydrate of the honeybee diet. They also consume pollen, which is their protein. And during early development, larvae are fed portions of a substance called royal jelly.
This tasting followed a routine inspection of the hives during which students scrutinized bees for mites or signs of disease. They also looked at still-encased larvae, checked the level of honey production and most important, the students checked to see if each colony had a healthy, egg-laying queen.
And how was that "nuc" hive coming along?
"Looks good," head beekeeper Weston Hillier assessed after examining a frame of honeycomb from a nucleus colony, a mini hive that would, with luck, develop into another full-size colony.
"We want to do as little tinkering as possible. I know the queen is in there. I know she's laying eggs and everything looks good," he announced to the group before resealing the nuc hive.
Most of the students gathered that day were new to the art and science of beekeeping, and a few of them were more veteran, having helped establish this apiary last year with an $11,000 allocation from WMU's Student Sustainability Grant Fund.
The initial work of this group, WMU Students for a Sustainable Earth, has been to develop a self-perpetuating cadre of student beekeepers to care for the bees, with the most experienced keepers teaching newbies who join the apiculture project.
Big picture, these environmentally conscious students are concerned about the plight of the honeybee, an important but imperiled pollinator threatened by a variety of culprits, including habitat loss, pesticides and the puzzling phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder.
The students have been learning how to create and maintain hives to raise awareness and study the ecological significance of the honeybee. Eventually the goal is to use the apiary to conduct research.
Every third mouthful
In the United States, managed honeybee colonies have been declining over the past several decades, from more than five million such colonies in the 1940s to half that today.
One of the specific blows to honeybees in the past 10 years—colony collapse disorder—is a mysterious occurrence in which a majority of all the bees in a colony abruptly depart and never return. Scientists have not pinned down a cause, but many suggest there's probably not a single cause, rather a synergistic effect from multiple stresses.
The downturn in honeybees is significant because roughly one third of the food Americans consume—some $15 billion worth of annual agricultural production—directly or indirectly benefits from honeybee pollination, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Commercially produced apples, almonds and other crops are dependent on the honeybee.
"The attention grabber is when they show those supermarket pictures—one supermarket with shelves full of food and then shelves missing all the bee-pollinated stuff," Hillier says, referencing a popular visual illustration of the importance of honeybees to the U.S. food supply.
"That really sends the message home. I think that's something people need to see."
Just this summer, the USDA announced a measure providing $8 million in incentives for farmers and ranchers to establish new habitats to support honeybee populations in Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin.
"In recent years, factors such as diseases, parasites, pesticides or habitat loss have contributed to a significant decline in the honeybee population," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in June.
"This $8 million is part of the administration's ongoing strategy to reverse these trends and establish more plant habitat on Conservation Reserve Program lands to restore the bee population," he said.
When Hillier started this project in 2013, he knew nothing about beekeeping. But the biology and environmental studies major, who completed his studies at WMU this past summer, was concerned after hearing about what was happening to bees.
He and another now-former WMU student, Nicholas Wikar, began to study the issue, and wrote and won an $11,065 Student Sustainability Grant to create a research apiary.
The Student Sustainability Grant Fund is a pool of money generated from a Student Sustainability Fee that was instituted at WMU in 2010. A majority of the student body voted in favor of the $8 per semester fee to fund green projects, and students successfully won WMU Board of Trustees approval to support setting up the fund.
Nearly 60 percent of the proceeds from this fee go to stoke the grant fund, with the balance supporting a Green Jobs initiative as well as providing supplemental funding for the WMU Office for Sustainability.
Just as members of Students for a Sustainable Earth did, any WMU student may seek grants for projects that contribute to the University's culture of sustainability. Other projects that have won grant support include recycling studies, expansion of student-cultivated gardens, a café featuring locally sourced and/or organic foods and a campus bicycle cooperative.
"The apiary grant provides a wonderful illustration for how students were able to identify a significant problem—the plight of bees and their importance to society as a pollinator species—and develop an enriching research project that is now accessible to any student or staff member at WMU," says Derek Kanwischer, coordinator of sustainability projects in the Office for Sustainability.
With its grant, Students for a Sustainable Earth hired a renowned entomologist and beekeeper, Dr. Larry Connor, to teach them about honeybee biology, the complexity of hive life and how to develop and maintain bee colonies. Several members also attended a national conference.
"There are a lot of people who dive into beekeeping who don't know anything about bee biology," says Connor, entomologist, publisher and author of several bee books. "That's how you learn to ask the good questions."
When he first started teaching the students, Connor says he didn’t see enough "good old-fashioned fear … Some of them showed up (to his apiary buzzing with bees) wearing shorts and flip flops."
"My relationship with them has been so positive," Connor says. "They are a great group of young people. They are great future scientists and teachers and they needed to have that kind of fostering from someone like myself who has many, many years of experience with students."
The students who have become involved in the project hail from a variety of disciplines, including the biological sciences, but also business and technology fields.
It's often been the case that students join this effort with a basic knowledge of honeybees. But as the amateur beekeepers learn, they seem to develop a degree of awe for the insect.
"It's amazing that the bottom of the food chain has so much power and influence," Minzey observes.
"As humans, we feel like we're this powerful species who can manipulate the earth, but we will never be able to do what they do."
"Honeybee evangelists" may be too strong a description for them, but they have a fount of facts they readily share with friends and family:
- Did you know that to produce a single pound of honey it takes the lifetime effort of about 768 honeybees visiting 2 million flowers and flying some 55,000 miles?
- Did you know honeybees gather propolis, a resinous mixture collected from trees and other plants that the bees use as glue to seal up their hive? Propolis has anti-microbial properties and is being studied for its medicinal properties.
- Did you know that in extreme cold, a colony's bees cluster into a tight ball during winter, putting the queen in the middle?
"And (the worker bees) slowly take turns rotating from the outside to the inside. So everybody gets cold and warm," Hillier explains "They want to keep the queen alive."
A learning experience
Winter provided the student beekeepers their hardest lesson when this past spring they cracked open the bee colony boxes to find that none of their bees had survived Michigan's unusually harsh winter.
Though a nationwide survey of managed honeybee colonies found that colony losses for the 2013-14 winter season weren’t as great as the previous year—23 percent versus about 30 percent, according to the Bee Informed Partnership—colonies in Midwest did take a hit.
The Michigan beekeepers that responded to the survey reported colony losses north of 60 percent.
Hillier says it was a great disappointment when he found all their previous season's bees had died, but says, "It taught me. If they had all survived, I wouldn’t have been forced to think more about" better ways to protect them.
And though last year's colonies died, they also produced 180 pounds of honey. The team purchased this season's bees using more than $1,000 from the sale of that honey as well as beeswax products.
This winter, the keepers plan to use better thermal clustering techniques to keep the bees warm, along with other countermeasures.
As this group becomes more accomplished in their beekeeping skills, its goal is to use the apiary to conduct qualitative research. And Hillier says this project has changed his career path.
"I thought I'd do some conservation biology or something like that. But now I'm geared toward sustainable agriculture that also deals in conservation.
"Bees, native landscaping, sustainable agriculture—it's all starting to catch on more. You hear more about people being concerned about their food," he says.
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