A New Buzz on Campus

By Roy Greim '14; photos by Martin Froger-Silva '16
Assistant Professor of English Literature Lara Cohen works on the hive with students.

A new student-driven course created quite the buzz around campus this spring, as a group of students took their best shot at apiculture, or the science of beekeeping.

The class, instructed by Assistant Professor of Biology Vince Formica with the help of Assistant Professor of English Literature Lara Cohen, dealt with such topics as "The Life Cycle of Bees", "Bee Communication and Society", and "Representation in Other Cultures" among others.

"The creation of the course was really driven by the students," says Formica, who teaches courses in molecular ecology and evolution. In particular, he credits Taylor Tai '15 with the development of the class, whom he describes as "a remarkably organized, brilliant, and driven student."

Bee Sign
A sign from the Scott Arboretum marks the arrival of the new bee colony.

"I wanted to participate in something that bridged biology with environmental work," says Tai, a biology major from Cumming, Ga. "Student response to this class was really enthusiastic because it gave us an opportunity to work directly with the animals rather than study them from a strictly academic perspective."

The course, which ran somewhat like an independent study, featured both an academic and a practical component.  

"The practical component was getting the hive hardware ordered and ready for two working hives, and getting the bees installed and cared for," says Formica.  "The academic component was reading academic writings on bees (from many different perspectives) and each student was required to make an entry on their blog."

The students initially tasked themselves with researching different types of bees for purchase while weighing factors such as price, availability, and ease of hive maintenance. Once the bees were purchased, another task was finding a suitable campus (or off-campus) location for the hive; as their blog notes, "important criteria we considered for selecting a location were proximity to freshwater, vehicle access, abundance of pollen sources, slope, and presence of a northern windbreak." Working through these initial challenges proved difficult, given the time frame of the class.

"We had less control in choice than we would have liked to have because we ordered the hives kind of late in the season," said Connie Bowen '16, an enginnering major from Summit, N.J. who was in the class. "It turns out that hives are usually ordered well in advance, sometimes up to a year." The students ended up acquiring two Georgia-bred Italian honeybee hives from a local seller.

bee colony
Assistant Professor of English Literature Lara Cohen, who has kept hives for years, assists a student during the course.

In April, the class installed the colony and has since then accommodated it through the addition of water feeders, pollen, and wasp and hornet traps.  During their last check, the class opened the hives and the bees were healthy-laying new eggs and expanding the hives.  It appears that being in an arboretum is a great place to be a bee.  You can track the progress of the entire course by visiting the student-run blog.

Formica notes the course was so popular that students had to split themselves into two sections (17 students total). For him, the course brought out the very best aspects of teaching.

"It was fun to watch students with such different interests: joy at learning about truly fascinating biology, environmental concern for colony collapse disorder, environmental education, and the link between food and the environment all work together on one topic and all learn from one another," he says. "This is the kind of enterprise that makes me happy to teach at Swarthmore."