Campus News

Bees are a buzzin’ at UB

Close-up of a bee.

One of the honey bees that has found a new home at UB. Photo: Robby Johnson

By ROBBY JOHNSON

Published June 3, 2019

“I would love to just have students, faculty and staff suit up and experience the magic of opening a hive and being surrounded by bees.”
Alex Dombowski, UB student and co-founder

By the end of June, 240,000 bees will be buzzing in six hives in green space between Crofts Hall and Bizer Creek on the North Campus, thanks to the persistence of a bee-loving UB student and faculty member.

The initiative will offer members of the UB community — and perhaps others outside UB — with the opportunity to learn about beekeeping, as well as provide opportunities to conduct research on honey bees.

The effort dates as far back as two years ago when David Hoekstra, clinical assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, joined the UB faculty.

“I picked up beekeeping as a hobby six years ago during graduate school, and was instantly fascinated by the complexity and sophistication of honeybee behavior,” Hoekstra says. “As I talked to friends and family about the bees, I was surprised to discover how many people were excited and interested about them.

“When I interviewed for my current position here in Biological Sciences, I was asked if I had any ideas for new programs or initiatives that I would like to run,” he recalls. “A lightbulb turned on, and I brought up the idea of bringing honeybee hives to campus to run workshops, classes and to promote UB’s mission of sustainability.

A person wearing a bee suit unpacks bees before introducing them to their new home.

Unpacking the bees before introducing them to their new bee boxes. Photo: Robby Johnson

“Since my background and training are in tumor immunology, I don’t think this was the answer the search committee was expecting,” he says. “Even so, they were supportive, but we lacked any idea for how to make this vision a reality. We had no place to put the hives, no funds to purchase them with, and I’d be the only one running the operation.

“As a result, [the initiative] stalled for a little bit while I adjusted to all the new responsibilities of my position in the department.”

Hoekstra continued to look for opportunities to get it off the ground, but little did he know there was a student on campus with the same aspiration.

Two people wearing bee suits putting the bees into the newly installed bee boxes on North Campus.

Beekeepers place bees in their new hive. Photo: Robby Johnson

To put it lightly, Alex Dombrowski likes bees — so much so that she went out of her way to learn beekeeping through an apprenticeship program.

“I have always been interested in bees and wanted to try beekeeping,” says Dombrowski, a rising senior majoring in biological sciences and an Honors College and Bio Honors student. “When I looked into it and saw how expensive supplies are and how much there is to learn, I realized I couldn’t start beekeeping on my own. I did some searching, and last August I did a beekeeper apprenticeship program through Masterson’s Garden Center in East Aurora.

“I talked to Erin Masterson (a co-owner and operator of the garden center) about how it’s difficult for students to start beekeeping because of cost, time and location. This sprouted the idea to start a beekeeping program at UB.”

The idea germinated later when, as part of her coursework in the Genetics course (BIO319) taught by Paul Gollnick, professor and chair of biological sciences, Dombrowski submitted a paper on bee sex-determination. That led Gollnick to mention to her that Hoekstra kept bees and had been looking into running a beekeeping program on campus. She immediately got in touch with Hoekstra and together they hatched a plan to make it a reality.

“As we chatted, Alex brought up the idea that we could submit an application to the Honors College Research and Creative Initiative Fund, which would provide us sufficient funding to get [the initiative] off the ground,” Hoekstra says. “This seemed like a great idea, and we began working through the logistics of where to place the hives and how to apply for funding.

“While we were met with great enthusiasm from Environment, Health, and Safety here at UB, and were given provisional approval for a location for the hives, unfortunately our application for fall 2018 was not selected for funding, and again [the initiative] stalled,” he says. “We spent the winter break and beginning of the spring semester reworking our application and discussing our plan with other units on campus, and were elated when we were awarded funds by the Honors College for spring 2019. Ryan McPherson, chief sustainability officer, heard about our plan and reached out to us, volunteering space for the hives, and offering funds to help with incidentals.”

Once funding was obtained, Hoekstra and Dombrowski bought the supplies needed to begin the endeavor, which ranged from bee boxes to beekeeping suits. On a recent Saturday morning, they drove to East Aurora to get the bees, and later that day installed UB’s first batch of bees.

A person wearing a bee suit bends down near a newly installed bee box.

The hives eventually will be home to 240,000 bees. Photo: Robby Johnson

“They’re here; it’s finally real,” Dombrowski said repeatedly as the insects buzzed around their new home.

She says she’s excited that the project is up and running, not only because of the importance of bees in the environment, but also because it’ll provide a new experience for many students, as well as a research opportunity — “bee-search” as Dombrowski likes to call it.

“Having bees on campus opens up opportunities for research on bees, and in fact I am doing a project on them as my honors research project for the biology department in the fall,” she says. “I hope that other students and professors will take an interest in bees and also perform research. They are good model organisms for research on neurological disorders and social interaction in eusocial groups.

Group of students, all wearing bee suits, stand next to the newly installed bee boxes.

UB beekeepers. Photo: Robby Johnson

“The apiary we have established will also serve as an opportunity for people in Amherst to learn about beekeeping without driving 45 minutes away (to East Aurora),” she says. “It’s hard for students or others in urban/apartment settings to have a bee hive. Having bees on campus will allow people who normally couldn’t keep bees experience the joy of tending hives.”

She says her experience helping apiary become a reality was a great one, and she also learned an important lesson in the process.

“Seeing the hives set up and filled with bees has absolutely been the best part,” she says. “I have learned a ton through the process. One big lesson I took away was not to get discouraged. After my proposal wasn’t chosen for funding, I felt very upset and discouraged. If I had given up, the apiary wouldn’t be on campus today.”

Once all the bees are in place, the next phase is to figure out what else to do with the bees, and Hoekstra and Dombrowski have exchanged plenty of ideas.

“We already have dozens of students interested, and hope to open this to others as well,” Dombrowski says. “Once the bees are installed and settled in their new homes, we plan to run workshops on things like inspecting the hive, counting and treating mites, the life cycle of the bee, honey harvesting and winterizing hives.”

Hoekstra notes that while they won’t be collecting honey this year, they plan to partner with Campus Dining and Shops to provide the honey to students, and to donate honey to local food pantries for those in need. “And in the future, the hives could be used for undergraduate research projects, and new classes on pollinators and sustainability could be developed,” he says.

“I would love to just have students, faculty and staff suit up and experience the magic of opening a hive and being surrounded by bees,” Dombrowski says.

READER COMMENTS

This is FANTASTIC!!

Maureen Milligan

UB should also look into planting native wildflowers throughout campus. There is so much open grass area, and as a community that aims for a smaller carbon footprint, UB sure does use a lot of gas to mow the grass.

Wildflowers could be perennials and they require little maintenance, if any at all. Students would probably appreciate some campus beautification as well.

Cam Hotto

I think this is amazing. I have a brother and nephew who have their own hives near Corning/Elmira, NY. I would like to suggest sowing a bit of wild clover nearby. This is an excellent source for the bees. I am thrilled at possibly obtaining some of the honey, as local honey can provide immunities against allergens that occur with those of us who are seasonal allergy sufferers. The only problem is that honey can be expensive.

Margaret Brooks

What a great idea. Great job Dave!

Tom Grant