Beekeeping at the U

(first published in the Office of Sustainability’s newsletter, reposted with permission)

by Annie Gilliland

Several thousand honey bees live on the fourth floor patio of the Ray Olpin Student Union.

The bees were installed last year by Thomas Bench, an undergraduate student in Environmental and Sustainability Studies, as part of a Sustainable Campus Initiative Fund (SCIF) project. The bees are kept in boxes – hives – on a balcony separated from the hall by glass doors near the Crimson Room. The hive and the project continue to grow.

Bench began the project partially for personal reasons. He has long had an interest in beekeeping, having helped with a hive at his grandmother-in-law’s house. He wanted to share his interest with other students and provide them with opportunities to learn the skills involved in beekeeping and teach them the importance of bees in an ecosystem.

These bees help pollinate the Edible Campus Gardens, produce local honey that will be sold in next season’s Farmers Market, and provide research and educational experiences. Bench’s vision now has the support of other students who want to take advantage of the bee hives on campus. Anyone may volunteer to help with the maintenance of the hives. There is also a new group on campus, the University of Utah Beekeeper’s Association, dedicated to sustaining this project.

Kirstie Kandaris was one of the first volunteers and has stayed passionately involved. She likes that anyone can be involved, learn new skills, and “feel like they’re contributing something, however small, to the environment and awareness of bees and what they do for us.”

Faculty and instructors are also beginning to incorporate the hives into their classes. An entomology class and an environmental education class both are planning to use the beehives for educational purposes. Bench hopes that in the future the U might have a class or a researcher specializing strictly in honey bees in order to conduct more in-depth classes and research.

Stephen Stanko, an undergraduate in Anthropology, has helped to bring more research potential to the bee boxes. Stanko is setting up a hive study, which will begin next season when the hive is more established. He will use a scale with a weather station and an attached brooder thermometer to measure the weight of the hive, study current weather conditions, and take note of changes associated with any alterations made by volunteers. The goal is to watch how honey bees and local nectar flows respond to weather changes. This research will be part of a nationwide, longitudinal study lead by NASA. Eventually, the results will help researchers understand how climate change affects nectar flows and bees.

Bench says that although some people initially felt nervous about having a large number of bees on campus, “They saw other people’s responses and saw the value in it. They were excited and everyone’s been so supportive.”

Bench, Kandaris, and Stanko are counting on that support as they move forward. The reasons for their interest vary, but they all want to share something they care about with the rest of the student body. “Bees are inspiring,” says Kandaris. “They work so hard together. If we can give them a little push, that can go a long way.”

Stanko hopes to spread awareness of the challenges bees currently face. “Bees are heavily threatened,” he says. “Industrial agriculture and economics work against the health of the whole system. Without bees the whole environment would suffer.”

Bench hopes the bees help people to become more self-aware. “Hopefully people will think about pesticides, what they buy, and what farms they support. We need backyard beekeepers for genetic diversity.”

More volunteers are always welcome. If you are interested in learning more about beekeeping or  helping out with the hive, contact Bench, Stanko, or Kandaris.

Additionally, the University of Utah Beekeeper’s Association hosted a screening of The Vanishing of the Bees, about colony collapse disorder, on Wednesday, April 10. Afterward, Chris Rodesch, the Salt Lake City bee health inspector, and a representative from a local honey company spoke to the audience about laws, challenges, and interest surrounding beekeeping.

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