Beehives in Cooper Hall sweeten the pot for students

Category:  News
Thursday, January 30th, 2020 at 7:52 PM
Beehives in Cooper Hall sweeten the pot for students by Nathan Brennan
Cooper Hall houses a unique hands-on experience collecting and processing honey. | Photo: Nathan Brennan

There’s something abuzz in Cooper Hall.

In the biology and health sciences department, there is a unique chance to gain hands-on experience collecting and processing honey, as well as learning the ins and outs of the field of beekeeping.

The beehives are located in the courtyards of Cooper Hall and under the supervision of Dr. John Ashley. From the hives, the department processes and sells various honey products in their department office.

Ashley, who started the hives four years ago, is assisted in maintaining the bees by Beta Beta Beta (Tri-Beta) Biological Honors Society and their officers, including the society’s president, Kyle Breault, and vice president, Danielle Bowser.

Per their website, Tri-Beta is an “honor society for students, particularly undergraduates, dedicated to improving the understanding and appreciation of biological study and extending boundaries of human knowledge through scientific research.”

While the society is closely associated with the hives and science-specific majors, Dr. Ashley emphasized that anyone could get involved. “We’ve had students that are non-bio majors, as well as bio majors, that have volunteered.”

Describing the beekeeping process as “labor-intensive,” Ashley has even gone so far as to offer extra credit to students who would help out in some capacity with the bees. Ashley, Bowser and Breault all stressed they are trying to get more student and club involvement.

Breault brought up the cost associated with beekeeping, which includes both money and time invested. He cites this as a reason to help out. “It gives students the ability to actually see what beekeeping is like without them actually going through the whole investment. It also allows them to understand how to process honey.”

Bowser added, “It’s a learning experience.”

Creating the hives

When first starting the hives, Ashley noted location was a key factor in establishing successful hives.

“For many beekeepers, predation is always a problem. You have skunks, raccoons [and] bears that will come in and can literally destroy a hive because they want the honey,” he said.

In the original plan, the hives were going to be set up in the open area between Cooper and Rose Halls, complete with a kennel fence to keep them inside.

However, Ashley was concerned that if someone were to walk by the hives with a particularly strong scent, perhaps from a cologne or a sugary food or beverage, the bees might pursue and chase them. By extension, the university was concerned about liability if this were to occur.

Their next plan was to put them on top of Cooper Hall. This plan was not implemented when they considered that the bees would be subject to the extremes of weather, with the freezing cold of winter, the heat of summer and strong winds.

They found a viable alternative in the courtyards of Cooper, where the bees would be safe from predation and protected from the majority of the weather events that plague the region.

Maintaining the bees

Once situated, the beekeeper’s next concern is to foster an appropriate environment for the bees.

Ashley said bees need to have a warm enough environment so they can survive during the winter.

By extension, Ashley dispelled a common belief that bees go dormant: “They’re just eating their food and minimizing the amount of activity they have so that once better weather comes up, the bees come out.”

Therefore, when harvesting the honey, the trick is to leave just enough so that the hive will have enough sustenance to keep them alive until the warmth of spring and summer returns.

To help with this, Ashley tried out something new this summer: “candy boards.” Made of sugar, water and vinegar, these “patties” are put into the hives as another food source for the bees.

Other than that, bees are generally good at taking care of themselves, specifically the queen bee.

Bees, when not out pollinating, form a ball or bunch around the queen bee. When they do this, according to Ashley, they are “maintaining the queen’s temperature, feeding her and taking care of her.”

He continued: “A beekeeper’s intent is always to make certain the viability of the queen. You’ve got a good, healthy, reproductive queen, you’ve got a good hive.”

There comes a point, though, where beehives can be too productive. When this happens, hives get too crowded. If a hive is too crowded, oftentimes, there are multiple queens. If one or more queens leave, many bees will leave with them, creating what is commonly known as a swarm.

When this happens, quick response is required to save the hives. “When they swarm, unless you catch it at the right time, you could lose half your hive very quickly.”

Measures can be taken beforehand; if crowding is seen, beekeepers may be required to kill off all the new queens and split the hives up, allowing the growth to be managed.

In addition to these measures, the students and Dr. Ashley help manage the hive by collecting the honey. For some, this is a daunting task, especially in the beginning.

“I think I’ve been stung the most,” she joked, adding, “The first time you go out in the courtyard, even though you have the suit on, you have the bees buzzing around you and it kind of freaks you out at first, but you do get used to it.”

Breault, however, wasn’t feeling a similar anxiety during his first time. “I think I was so excited that I didn’t really have too much apprehension. I thought it would be really cool, and I wasn’t really thinking about if I got stung.” He pointed out after that, to this day, he has never been stung.
Research opportunities

With beehives located so close to the students and faculty, they become subjects of study both at Edinboro and the local area.
At Edinboro, there is an Animal Behavior class that regularly studies the bees and the various patterns that emerge in their behavior. All the students have to do is look out the window and watch.

In addition, Dr. Matthew Foradori, as well as various students, studied the properties of bee venom and possible applications to cancer research.
Bowser will soon be researching the properties of the honey they collect, specifically looking for agrochemicals such as pesticides or herbicides that may have been taken in by the bees.

Breault also has some research “in the works,” potentially in conjunction with Penn State. He would be studying the Africanized bees, also known as “killer bees.”

Introduced in Brazil in the 1950s, Breault explained the bee was a genetic hybrid of African bees and European bees. The European bees, known for being good honey producers and bad in hot temperatures, was combined the African bees, known for being good in hot temperatures not as good for commercial hives due to their aggression.

They intended for the hybrid bees to be good at both pollination and living in warmer temps, but it came with the side effect of notably increased aggression, hence the “killer bee” moniker.

The research would attempt to discern whether a hive has killer bees, how far north they have migrated since their creation as well as how to deal with them properly (i.e. kill them off or work with them) if you have them.

Importance of bees and fighting Colony Collapse Disorder

There is little doubt in the scientific community regarding the importance of bees to ecosystems worldwide.

“They’re the foundation of life,” Bowser said. “They pollinate all of our fruits and vegetables that we have, not only here, but all over the world.”
Ashley added, “Worldwide, there’s big concern about maintaining populations of domesticated bees.”

An important issue impacting bees is Colony Collapse Disorder. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, it is defined as “the phenomenon that occurs when the majority of worker bees in a colony disappear and leave behind a queen, plenty of food and a few nurse bees to care for the remaining immature bees and the queen.”

Edinboro’s hives experienced this last year, when all but one of their hives died.

Among the reported causes, according to Ashley, are human use of pesticides, a lack of diversity in or absence of wildflowers as well as bee pests (specifically, the Varroa mite, which can kill bees with viruses and weaken them).

Therefore, Ashley has worked with the university to have more wildflowers on campus as well as decrease the use of pesticides in lawn care.
He also brought up a notable example on Interstate 79, where the state cut down trees in the median to plant and foster an expansive field of wildflowers for bees to pollinate. This is just one instance where “homeowners can do the same,” said Ashley.

The future of beekeeping at EU

As for the future of Edinboro’s hives, Ashley and Tri-Beta hope to expand their products. In melting down the wax from the bees, they hope to make perhaps chapstick and candles to sell along with their honey. They also were open to the possibility of “honey infusions,” allowing new flavors in to complement the honey.

It should be noted that there is a limited amount of honey per year. “We sell it until we run out,” said Bowser. “At a Homecoming table in the fall, we’re selling honey… I don’t know of any event happening this spring that we can set up on, but if there is, we’ll be there.”

If anyone wants to get involved with any stage of the process of beekeeping, or purchase any of the honey products offered by Tri-Beta, you can stop by the department office, room 126 in Cooper Hall.

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