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We were amazed at what bees do and the reasons for them
Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales reference to “busy as bees” well describes the fervor of activity on a small hill at Elizabethtown College.
Along the pathway to Bowers Writers House, on the south side of campus, are several white structures. Some tall, some closer to the earth. The air around them is thick with small, winged insects sampling from containers of sugar water. They dart in and out of the hives with legs, wings and antennae heavy with pollen.
It’s this pollen that brought the bees to Elizabethtown in the first place, said Chris Bowers, a jack of all trades in Dining Services.
“One of our ideas was that, since we already have the garden, extra pollination would be nice,” he said. Before considering the project, however, Bowers, along with Charlie Downs, residential dining chef, and Eric Turzai, director of Dining Services, participated in six hours of hands-on instruction about the habits and lives of the fuzzy honey producers.
“We were amazed at what bees do and the reasons for them,” Turzai said.
The workshop explained how to introduce bees in early spring and gave tips on beekeeping tools, said Bowers. One speaker, he said, was president of the Lancaster County Beekeeper’s Society.
After discussion and budget checks, Turzai purchased beekeeping suits, tools and hives—
towers of boxes for egg laying and honey production. Bowers weatherproofed the hives this past winter and placed them on wooden stilts manufactured by students in the College’s Future Energies and Sustainable Technologies Club.
At the end of April, Turzai ordered the bees—at a cost of $100—from California. They were shipped to a beekeeping store in Wilkes-Barre where Turzai and Bowers picked them up.
“There I was, driving my Suburban with five containers of 3,000 bees,” Turzai reminisced, laughing. Luckily, cooler spring temperatures kept the flying insects mellow for the commute, and they arrived on campus with no mishaps.
The wooden transport boxes held buzzing bees and sugar water to keep the insects nourished enroute. Inside the transport boxes were smaller containers with queens. Queens are slightly larger, with different wing structure; their heads are marked, before shipment, with blue identification dots.
Four of the boxes carried apis mellifera ligustica. These Italian bees are gentle and high in honey production, but sometimes steal from neighboring colonies and move to alternate locations. The fifth container transported Carniolan bees or apis mellifera carnica. They thrive in more northern climes but are less productive.
A bee colony, said Bowers, is composed of one queen, her female workers and male drones. Transferring them to a hive is a several-step process. First, the cork that secures a queen container is replaced with a mini marshmallow. That container, said Bowers, is placed in the lowest box in the hive. The bees are dumped overtop, and the drones and workers immediately concentrate on chewing through the sugary ball to release their queen. This procedure helps establish the colony.
Once the 15,000 E-town bees were transferred—less than one percent perished in transport—the humans backed away. Their work was mostly finished.
“I thought they would be really, really complicated to deal with,” Bowers said of the bee population. “But it’s actually a lot easier than I thought. … the less you disturb them the better.”
They just want to do what bees do.
Once the queen is released, Turzai explained, the workers go out to look for nectar. When they return to the hive, they perform an intricate pattern of movements to communicate to other workers the location of the nectar in relation to the hive and the position of the sun. They also share the distance—usually within a two-mile radius.
While the colonies established themselves, sugar water was supplied via feeders on the front of each hive. “They go through a 16-ounce jar (one part sugar, one part water) in about two days,” Bowers said of the colonies. But, when more flowering plants became available, the consumption of sugar water decreased.
Quite purposefully, a variety of flowering plants is in close proximity to the hives. The College garden, just winding down its fifth year, is right next door. Flowers began to appear in the garden in late May and June as sugar peas, spring mix, Brussel’s sprouts, broccoli and cabbage took root. Later, bees visited a new batch of flowers as tomatoes, corn, green beans, carrots, watermelon, cantaloupes, cucumbers, eggplant, zucchini and green peppers began to grow.
As the bees gather nectar, they also transfer pollen, helping the garden to be fruitful and, thus, generating fresh produce in late spring and summer for Dining Services to use and for public sale in the Jay’s Nest. Even though, the College garden produces more each year—summer 2014 surpassed 2013 by 1,000 pounds of produce—the bees increase the yield even further, said Bowers.
Not only are the little buzzers good for the crops, they also offer an academic edge. “With the decline in the honeybee population, we thought it would be not only fun but educational,” said Turzai, who hopes professors utilize the bees and hives to teach about sustainability.
And let’s not forget the honey, said Bowers, noting that it will be a full year before the College will be able to gather the sweet substance.
This year the bees were busy filling the hives with eggs, larvae and sugar water to sustain the colonies through the winter. But around July 2016, Blue Jay honey should be plentiful.
“Depending on how much we get,” said Turzai, “we might sell it retail.”