All the Buzz: Why Students Swarm to BU Beekeeping
Here at Bee U., building a healthy hive has risks—and rewards
The bees came to BU from Georgia last May, all 10,000 of them, sent by overnight mail in a screened box slightly bigger than a briefcase.
Officials in BU Beekeeping picked up the thrumming box at a Fed Ex counter in Boston, much to the relief of the terrified mail clerk, and brought the bees to their new home on the Charles River.
The day had finally arrived, one the beekeepers had been anticipating all spring, but the fun was just getting started. How do you get 10,000 bees into a new hive?
Allie Cole (CAS’21) vigorously shook the three-pound box containing the bees, trying to pour its buzzing, agitated occupants into the hive. A dozen club members watched from only a few feet away, but unlike hive master Cole, they were not dressed head-to-toe in beekeeping gear.
“I’m not scared for myself—I feel like I know what I’m doing,” says biology major Cole. “But it is nerve-wracking when you’re showing this to members who are wearing shorts.”
She cautioned them to remain calm and stand a safe distance away.
Bees sting. But that hasn’t stopped people from seeking out BU Beekeeping in greater numbers than ever. More than 200 students signed up for the club this year, all interested in understanding an insect that’s disappearing at an alarming rate. According to the US Department of Agriculture, the number of honeybee hives in the United States has decreased in the last 70 years from 6 million to 2.5 million, from a combination of pests, pathogens, and loss of green space. Environmentalists and Trump administration officials have urged country and city dwellers alike to set up hives to help save the bees, a rare point of agreement in contentious times.
But bees are not easy creatures to raise, and they are certainly not cuddly or loyal pets. BU’s beekeepers have ordered bees by mail for several years in a row, but the bees have mysteriously departed the hive each time, leaving the Beekeeping club, well, bee-less. Cole says it’s hard to know exactly why.
“It’s depressing,” she says, but it aligns with other data showing that Massachusetts lost 37 percent of honeybee colonies last winter. “I want to welcome them into my beekeeping world.”
The students install the queen and the worker bees, and the bees do all the rest.
The queen is put in the lower portion of the hive, where she lays about 1,000 eggs a day while the worker bees begin collecting nectar from nearby flowers to feed to the larvae and store for winter. They can fly as far as five miles on their quest for flowers, still finding their way back to the hive with their impeccable navigation skills and pheromones that draw them to the queen.
Once the flower nectar is flown into the hive, it’s transformed into honey by bees who chew and regurgitate it, passing it from mouth to mouth as many as eight times before storing it in waxy cells. The honey will feed them during the winter, when the hive is dormant and the bees stay warm by keeping in constant motion.
A single hive of 10,000 bees or more will produce between 20 and 50 pounds of honey, what the Greeks called “the nectar of the gods.”
If a hive population grows large, the queen will mate with male drones within the hive in the spring and produce 10 to 20 daughter queens before she departs to start a new colony in a tree stump or chimney. Certain experienced bees will form a committee and search out a new home, returning to the swarm to report on the locations each had found. That information is conveyed through a bee “waggle dance” to the rest of the swarm. This bee language has evolved over millions of years, allowing bees to communicate, debate, and vote on the best location.
They will follow the will of the collective majority, a process that’s known as the “democracy of the hive,” which has been studied and written about extensively by Cornell biologist Thomas D. Seeley, author of the 2010 book, Honeybee Democracy.
Bees may scare some people, but their plight has drawn fans determined to save them, and this has also caught the attention of marketers. There are thousands of cute “save the bees” gifts on Etsy, from onesies to bee socks, beekeeping classes across Boston are sold out, and adult beekeeper costumes for Halloween are for sale at TJ Maxx.
At BU, the bee-less beekeepers club joined together last year to make lip balm, watch honeybee documentaries, and listen to bee lecturers, like BU Beekeeping advisor and bumblebee expert Kathryn Spilios, a College of Arts & Sciences lecturer in biology.
Spilios, who worked with Seeley as an undergraduate at Cornell, says the insects are fascinating, so she’s not surprised by the student interest, ascribing it to being part of a larger trend she’s seen toward naturalism and exploration of the physical world before us.
“With all the technological advancement, we’ve been able to go deeper and deeper into the molecular and cellular level” in biology, she says. “Now we’re seeing this resurgence in naturalism again, and I think it’s for the sake of the world around us.”
Hannah Ferguson (CAS’23) says she’s never been too concerned about getting stung. But her cell phone offers a steady stream of the latest headlines about the destruction of the Amazon’s rain forest or the melting polar ice caps. The club offers a way to channel her broad concerns about environmental destruction and habitat loss.
“It’s really scary to see people not taking care of big problems,” Ferguson says. “It puts responsibility on the individual, whether it’s beekeeping or not using plastic water bottles. Those seem like small things, but it’s important for everyone to play their part.”
It’s an early September afternoon when the student beekeepers return to the hives, joined by more than 30 club members.
Cole, dressed in beekeeper garb, gives her standard warning, instructing everyone to remain calm, then using a putty knife to open up the hive. She extracts a frame heavy with honey.
“They’re doing so well!” she exclaims with a hint of relief, offering spoons.
Students cluster around the frame, despite the thousands of bees swarming around them, to dip into the honeycomb and taste the viscous amber sweetness. Some volunteer to hold the tray without the benefit of gloves or other protection. None gets stung.
Cole appreciates their calmness. And she says the club is off to a triumphant start this year. While one of the hives showed signs that it was infested with mites, the other hive produced more than 30 pounds of honey. Most of it will be left in the hive for the bees to eat this winter.
But hospitality major Mark Urbaniak (CGS’19, SHA’21) says he’s hooked. He’s already volunteered to return to the hive to help winterize it. And he wants to learn more about how the creatures communicate for the collective good of the hive.
“Getting the honey,” he says, “is just the icing on the cake.”
For more information on BU Beekeeping, check out the club’s Facebook page.