Campus is buzzing: An interview with the University of Utah Beekeeper’s Association

Meet the University of Utah Beekeepers' Association, seen here at the Marriott Library beehives.

Meet the University of Utah Beekeepers’ Association, seen here at the Marriott Library beehives.

By J. FitzLandry, Edible Campus Gardens Apprentice

I met Kirstie Kandaris at the East entrance to the Marriott Library. We had spoken earlier in the week about meeting at the library hive location on campus, one of four at the University of Utah. I followed her up the side of the building and through a locked gate. She explained that eventually this area was originally designed to be a study area but was then closed off due to safety concerns and to protect the ARC which lies beneath it. It is unlikely that it will ever be open to students. The library’s beehive not only overlooks the west side of campus, but also clear out to the Salt Lake. It was just after Spring Break and the Oquirrhs were still half white with snow. At my feet were rows of yellow daffodils in bloom and various other plants situated along the lonely terrace’s rooftop garden.

Kandaris, the Vice President of the University of Utah Beekeepers’ Association, led me over to two three-foot-tall wooden crates with hundreds of bees going about their early afternoon business. Upon seeing them I felt myself pull back, a little frightened. I’m not consciously afraid of bees, in fact I’ve longed to start my own backyard hive for years. Yet my mind still scanned through its array of bee related memories, as if to remind me that this was one of those items on the “Danger Stay Back” list. I was relieved when Kandaris stopped our advance about 15 feet away from the hives.

Not for decoration - these are the Marriott Library beehives.

Not for decoration – these boxes are the Marriott Library beehives.

She and I discussed my personal desire to start a hive. She said the volunteer program that the U of U’s Beekeeper’s Association runs is a great place to start. Many people participate with the Association for the very same purpose: to get hands-on direct experience caring for and handling bee hives so that they can go on to start their own. Kandaris expressed that no experience is necessary to get involved. The Association’s volunteer numbers fluctuate, but that there are six or seven consistent members. Kandaris was easy to talk to and knowledgeable on beekeeping. She was patient with my numerous questions and more than willing to offer information and resources, to the point where I was certain I would be volunteering as soon as possible!

As we turned our attention to the hives, she explained that hives are composed of one to five hive bodies (most hives have three), which are two foot long wooden boxes that stand twelve inches tall and are stacked on top of each other. In each stacked set  lived one queen bee, and therefore one hive.  Within the bodies were wide, thin frames that could slide out and serve as space for the bees to build their combs full of beeswax and honey. The bottom frame, Kandaris explained, was reserved for baby bee rearing, which makes it convenient to collect the honey from the top.

Bees wait for installation into the hives at the Marriott Library.

Bees wait for installation into the hives at the Marriott Library.

“All our bees are Carniolans now,  Kandaris told me. Carniolans are a breed of honey bee that come from Europe. I asked if the fear of Africanized Bees was real and she said, “Absolutely. The African bees produce a lot of honey fast and some people bring them here to try and cross breed them with our bees. Carniolans are a common honey bee among beekeepers and in the wild, but I was shocked to learn that the honey bee is not native to the North American continent. They were a European settler import brought to fertilize crops.

The global bee populations are still integral to the viability of food crops and the numbers are in decline. I asked Kandaris if she thought beekeeping is beneficial to bee populations, and she explained that backyard beekeepers are beneficial. However, she pointed out that factory pollinators, companies that ship thousands of hives across the country throughout the year to pollinate large scale food crops, are dangerous to bee health. Varroa mites are a contagion for bees that can be passed from hive to hive by migrating males, and the factory pollinators’ vast routes make these parasites exceptionally hazardous. Kandaris also pointed out that these agricultural pollinators are often poorly cared for and may be starved or fed corn syrup.

The hives at the University of Utah need about fifty pounds of honey for the bees to feed on during the winter. “We had one beekeeper ask us why his hive didn’t survive the winter. It turned out he had taken out all the honey in the fall and left them nothing to eat!” I felt silly, but I had never considered what bees do in the winter. Bees in winter are not only awake, but are having a honey party all season long. They circle in on the Queen and take turns vibrating their wings to create enough heat in the hive to survive, the honey serving as fuel. I wondered if I were to put my hand on a wild hive in winter, if it would be warm.

Thermal imaging lets inspectors know that the honey bees are surviving during winter temperatures.

Thermal imaging lets inspectors know that the honey bees are surviving during winter temperatures.

The University of Utah’s Beekeeper’s Association in partnership with the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food assist in winter time hive inspections. Generally, inspectors don’t open their hives during the winter because the cold air could kill the bees. Thankfully, with funding from a SCIF grant, inspectors are now able to use a thermal imaging camera to see if the hives are still alive. Kandaris said the living hive is shown by the image of a glowing ball on the camera’s screen.  

She said inspecting the hives is her favorite part, though now she’s less hands on due to her allergy to bee stings. I was shocked. Only a small percent of the population had the potential to become allergic to bee stings, she assured me. It takes a certain number of stings for  these people’s bodies to react with anaphylactic symptoms. For Kandaris, she estimated it was nearly 20 stings, though she’s quick to point out that she used to wear shorts and flip-flops when she inspected the hives or collected honey. I was impressed that in spite of her allergy, she loved it enough to stick with it, and that the Beekeeper’s Association also welcomes people with allergies to participate as volunteers. She said they have full bee suits available to wear.

Kandaris said she also loves participating in the beekeeping outreach programs, which go into schools and help educate children about bees and beekeeping. In addition, the hives on campus are part of a study conducted by a former NASA scientist, who is analyzing declining bee populations.

You can find Kirstie Kandaris and the U of U’s Beekeeper’s Association on Facebook, or you can contact them by email. The Beekeeper’s Association will be at the Union on April 22, which is a great time to meet them and to discuss future volunteering for those interested.

FitzLandry is a freelance writer, nature enthusiast, community activist, and coffee aficionado. If you are seeking a writer for your publications (or if you just want to chat about bees, writing, gardening, being a bad rock climber, and more) you can email me at MsFitzLandry@gmail.com.

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