Beekeepers on the Charles

New student club buzzes into action


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Thousands of bees filled the air as members of the BU Beekeepers Club installed their first hive on the banks of the Charles River last week. They lighted on lapels, tiptoed across the backs of hands, and danced on foreheads. The installers never flinched, and more important, never got stung.

“It’s really good to have no negative energy when doing this,” says Nancy Mangion, owner of Beekeepers’ Warehouse, which supplied the club’s equipment and the bees (a $300 package). “If you have a gentle aura and attitude, they’re unlikely to sting you.”

Club president Chris Hall (ENG’13) had mentioned the possibility of starting a beekeeping club at an Organic Gardening Club meeting last fall, and 10 students eventually signed on.

Over the winter, the beekeeper wannabes made a field trip to Mangion’s Woburn store to find out what equipment would be needed and to learn how to handle bees and beehives.

Meanwhile, word of the club reached Tom Daley, associate vice president of Facilities Management and Planning, who suggested that the students talk to plumbing department manager Bill Murray, a backyard beekeeper in Wakefield. Murray was glad to share his expertise.

On a sunny Monday afternoon, Murray, Mangion, and two student beekeepers — Liz Peyton (CAS’11) and Patrick Jiang (LAW’11) — tromp through a patch of wild daisies along the Charles River, while Murray orchestrates the hive’s assembly. A white box is perched atop a short stack of cement blocks. Inside, 10 wooden frames are sandwiched back-to-back like vertical drawers.

Murray, Jiang, and Peyton remove each frame and spray it with sugar water, a treat to tide over the bees while they establish their honeycomb and to entice the already pregnant queen to start laying eggs. A healthy queen will lay at least 3,000 eggs a week.

Once the hive is prepped, Mangion unveils her special delivery from Georgia — a screened box marked with a green dot, containing the queen bee, along with 10,000 honeybees. Mangion deftly removes a wood shingle to reveal the queen enclosed in a separate rectangular cage, unplugs a cork from the cage, and shimmies the queen into a frame already packed with honeycomb.

Over the coming days, the queen’s helper bees will eat their way through a sugar candy cage door and set her free to lay eggs for the hive’s the next generation.

Taking turns, Mangion and the students shake the screened box, forcing the bees to the bottom and pouring them into the hive. Some cooperate; most cling to the screen or buzz around in a crazy circumference.

“They think they’re in Georgia,” Mangion says. “It’s like Dorothy — this ain’t Kansas.”

Mangion clearly enjoys the process. With nearly 20 hives herself, the retired Stoneham music teacher says bees are her “hobby, passion, religion, and social life.”

The workers carefully cover the hive, listening for any “crunching” sounds, and invert a jar of sugar water over the hive’s opening to provide a food source for the weeks ahead. From here on, students will monitor the hive to make sure the queen is laying and the food supply is adequate.

“Beekeeping is a hobby of scientific neglect,” Mangion says. “You want to know when they’re in trouble and how to intervene.”

Honeybees form a matriarchal society with a majority female population, each bee performing a specific task in service of the queen. Some tend to eggs, others guard the hive, and still others forage for pollen and nectar — traveling up to three miles in their search.

Male bees, or drones, impregnate the queen and “just eat, fly, and hang around,” Murray explains.

The mixture of harvested pollen and nectar, plus (yes) a little bee saliva, creates honey, which is produced to feed baby bees and provide nourishment over the harsh winter months.

Murray and Mangion advise against harvesting honey too soon, because the bees’ needs must come before the keepers’ desire to benefit from their (and the bees’) work.

“People don’t always know how important bees are,” says Hall, who was out of town when the hive was installed. He says bees pollinate a third of what people eat. “Without any bees, that’s a lot of food gone.”

Hall also sees small-scale beekeeping as a way to ensure survival of the species. A mysterious phenomenon called colony collapse disorder has decimated the bee population nationwide in recent years.

“Bees are under a lot of stress,” says Mangion, explaining that commercially raised bees are transported cross-country to pollinate any number of fruits, vegetables, and flowers, from peach and apple orchards to cranberry bogs and blueberry farms.

“My idea,” she says, “is that the backyard beekeeper may save the honeybee.”

Leslie Friday can be reached at lfriday@bu.edu; follow her on Twitter at @lesliefriday. Nicolae Ciorogan can be reached at ciorogan@bu.edu.

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