Busy bees at Fairfield University

Submitted by Meg McCaffrey on August 30, 2012

FAIRFIELD, Conn., August 28, 2012 – Talk about getting a lot of buzz. That’s what a new project on the southwest corner of the Fairfield University campus is receiving.

The commotion is thanks to roughly 50,000 Italian Honey Bees. Only 10,000 arrived in May at the campus community garden, but the Queen Bee has been busy reproducing ever since.

“We need pollinators for all the vegetables in the garden, and that is where the bees come in,” said garden intern Jesus Nunez, a rising junior in the School of Nursing. “I would say that we can expect greater yields of squash, tomatoes, and peppers this year thanks to them.”

With the troubling decline of the honeybee population nationwide due to pests, pesticides and diminishing habitats, faculty members and campus bee fans thought it was fine time to install a man-made honeybee hive in the garden. It’s about providing teachable moments about the necessity of bees for the environment, as well as their value as a community of needed pollinators for the garden’s produce. The garden serves as an outdoor classroom to teach lessons in sustainability, soil nutrients, plant growth and for courses like “Biology of Food” taught by Tod Osier, Ph.D., associate professor of biology.

“I see the arrival of the bees as another way to engage the University community on the issues of food production,” said Newtown, Conn. resident Jennifer L. Klug, Ph.D., associate professor of biology who directs the garden with Dr. Osier. “Bees play such an important role in pollination as well as provide a locally produced sweetener.  In addition, honey bees have a fascinating life history and social structure and I hope that the hive can be used in some of our biology courses.”

The hive can teach lessons about agriculture, which depends greatly on the honeybee for pollination, for instance. Honeybees account for 80 percent of all insect pollination, according to garden volunteers. Without such pollination, there would be a significant decrease in the growth of fruits and vegetables.  Other lessons? With its antibacterial qualities, honey is great for one’s health and can even fend off allergies. And talk about sisterhood. “Almost all the bees in the hive are female worker bees that play a series of roles during their lifetime – housekeeper, nursemaid, construction worker, grocer, undertaker, guard, and forager of pollen and nectar,” said volunteer Tess Brown, ’07, MFA’11, who works for the University’s Advancement Division.

The 3,000 square foot garden’s healthy array of flowering plants like zucchini, chamomile, and tomatoes are used by the bees to make honey, their main food source. Most of the upcoming harvest – and perhaps some excess honey – will go to the University dining halls, where it will be used in meals for students, faculty and staff.

While some bees were detected in the garden before the hive, there definitely has been an increased bee presence since it was installed.  In the spring, Brown donated three pounds of Italian honeybees purchased from an apiary in eastern Connecticut, and then the bee team constructed the wooden Langstroth moveable frame hive at the edge of the garden. Thousands of bees were “hived” into the all-pine, purple-painted structure. An opening allows the bees to come and go as they please. “Actually, bees often fly about five miles from their food source, so they may very well be pollinating neighbors’ gardens, too,” said Nunez.

On one of their weekly beehive inspections, Nunez and Brown donned protective beekeeper suits, and gently opened the top lid of the hive to find a sticky resin-based, substance called Propolis that is a positive indicator the hive is functioning. They also checked on the Queen Bee to make sure she is laying eggs; she’s the only one with fully developed ovaries and is the biological mother to all hive inhabitants. In October, the hive will be “wrapped” for winter when bees don’t hibernate, but cluster to regulate the temperature and manage to keep it as warm as 90 degrees.

One can even find Fairfield’s Jesuit mission around the hive.

“The practice of beekeeping lends itself well to the philosophies of Jesuit education,” said Brown, of Rowayton, Conn. “It truly engages the mind by sharpening the beekeepers’ observation skills with each inspection, nourishes the soul with calm and reverence, and inspires an interest in and ethical concern for the environment.”

Funds from the biology department and Nunez’s Zedillo Scholarship, as well as donations from faculty, staff, students and friends gathered at a Sodexo organized luncheon helped defray the costs of the bee project. All are welcome to visit the hive – just let the garden directors know first and they will walk you through an inspection. Late summer and fall beekeeping and garden events are forthcoming. For more information, visit faculty.fairfield.edu/fairfieldgarden.

And be sure to “like” the Fairfield University Community Garden on Facebook!

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