Creating a buzz on campus

Alex Dombrowski, biology major.

Alex Dombrowski, biology major

Biology student Alex Dombrowski has turned her passion for bees into a physical, lasting legacy on campus.

Always bee-curious

Alex Dombrowski keeps a spare beekeeping suit in her car.

“I’m always showing people around the hives,” she explains, bending over to pull on a leg of her white canvas coverall. “It’s just easier this way.”

Those hives, set in a clearing on the western side of Bizer Creek on UB’s North Campus, are the culmination of months of collaboration between Dombrowski and David Hoekstra, clinical assistant professor in the biological sciences department, where Dombrowski is a senior honors student. Last year, they bonded over their mutual love of bees, and came up with the idea of building an apiary on campus to conduct research and to introduce apiculture to the bee-curious. Together they secured funding through the Honors Research and Creativity Fund and from UB Sustainability to build and supply six hives—each containing 40,000 bees—plus suits. In May, Dombrowski and Hoekstra picked up their bees from a local garden center and moved them into their new campus home.

Dombrowski’s interest in science—particularly in nature and insects—goes as far back as she can remember. As a child growing up in nearby Clarence, she was “a big fan of worms”; she recalls picking up earthworms from the yard and chasing around her freaked-out older brother. In middle school, she read Sue Monk Kidd’s novel “The Secret Life of Bees” and thought she would one day like to have a hive of her own; then, last summer, she enrolled in a beekeeping apprenticeship program through the garden center. Now, for her honors thesis, she’s exploring the novel idea of supplementing bee diets with mushroom extracts to treat viruses that are threatening populations around the world. She hopes to publish her findings once she’s done and continue working with bees—in grad school and beyond.

A person lifting part of a beehive up, and bees flying around.

It was not always clear to Dombrowski that she would even make it through college, let alone be pursuing her interests at this level. She has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that affects the body’s connective tissues. She wasn’t properly diagnosed until her junior year of high school, despite being born with both of her hips dislocated and, as a cross-country runner in her teen years, having to undergo multiple surgeries to support her ankles with titanium implants. (“Turns out running is the worst thing you can do when you have a joint problem,” she deadpans.) Eventually, she got so sick that she had to leave Mount St. Mary Academy and start home instruction.

So when Dombrowski enrolled at UB in 2016, after taking a year off between high school and college, she worried that she wouldn’t be physically able to handle the workload. In addition to attending weekly physical therapy sessions and having to carefully manage her nutrition, Dombrowski needs frequent naps and occasional marathon periods of sleep, some lasting 14 to 16 hours.

“If I work too hard and crash, I crash,” she says. When she started college, she received an accessibility plan, including make-ups for quizzes in case she ever slept through one.

Now a standout student who has managed to turn her passion into a physical, lasting legacy on campus, Dombrowski brims with confidence—and appreciation.

“I never thought I would have gotten this much done in college,” she says, “and I’m just really grateful for it. My family has always been there. My friends have always been there. And at UB, my professors and the bio department have been overwhelmingly supportive.”

A few bees gently resting on the open palm of a human hand.

Suited up, Dombrowski approaches one of the colorfully hand-painted hives, courtesy of volunteers from UB Sustainability.

“Hey, ladies,” she says as she pries open the top, exposing the wooden frames laid out like a filing cabinet. Inside, thousands of mostly female honeybees hum in and out of the cells glistening with honey, while hundreds more dart out and toward her.

“Every little thing wants to be loved,” she says, paraphrasing the novel that first hooked her on bees. “Just send the bees love.” The buzzing intensifies, but not in a menacing way. It sounds more like a greeting.

Story by Andrew Coddington
Photograph by Douglas Levere