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Beekeepers on the Charles

The buzz on going green


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 spring. 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, Mass., 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 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.


9 Comments on Beekeepers on the Charles

  • Anonymous on 06.17.2010 at 8:48 am


    What a great story! Really interesting and informative. I promise to try not to swat at a bee again — although it would have been nice to have seen an illustration of friendly bees verses those that have a tendency to sting without provocation!

  • Matthew 'Crane' Huynh on 06.17.2010 at 9:05 am

    yeah Chris. way to start a new club.

  • Anonymous on 06.17.2010 at 12:52 pm

    After finding out last week that I am thoroughly allergic to bees, this does not comfort me.

  • humza on 07.20.2010 at 8:58 am

    Nice, now I realize how much work have been to provide us sweet and healthful honey.

  • Harvey Pincis on 09.11.2010 at 12:26 pm

    Great initiative! Long may the beekeeping prosper. Not to mention healthy honey, royal jelly, soap, candles……

  • kcornuelle on 09.14.2010 at 9:51 am

    Comments below were posted when this story was previously published.

  • Casey Donohue on 09.16.2010 at 12:01 pm

    Props to Chris Hall, he was talking about the club from day one last year!

  • Anonymous on 09.18.2010 at 5:13 pm

    I think this is a great experience for students, but I looked into keeping bees in my backyard and I thought it was illegal to keep them in Suffolk County.

  • Almond Dhukka on 05.22.2012 at 2:21 pm

    Bill Murray’s the man [who saved Commencement 2012].

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