Bees at a hive in the Randolph College Organic Garden.
By herself, the average honey bee is nearly imperceptible. No longer than three-fourths of an inch, her body weighs less than a tenth of a gram. While her wings beat nearly 12,000 times per minute, the resulting buzz is inaudible more than a few feet away.
And while she may visit thousands of flowers, the average worker bee only creates about one twelfth of one teaspoon of honey in her short lifespan.
Put the Apis mellifera together, and their collective force can be felt around the world. Honey bees are responsible for pollinating about one-sixth of the flowering plant species worldwide, as well as about 400 different agricultural plants.
“One out of every three bites of food is made possible by pollinators,” explained Sophia Dill ’18.
Sofia Dill ’18 helps harvest honey from the hive in the Randolph College Organic Garden.
It’s the bees’ unappreciated importance to the world that brings Dill to the Randolph College Organic Garden on a regular basis. The beehive there needs occasional attention, as well as harvesting when it is full of honey. Because she grew up in a family that owned hives, Dill is comfortable around the bees and finds working with them to be a relaxing escape from the stress of everyday life.
“It’s a really meaningful thing that I like to be a part of,” she said.
Faculty and staff members involved in the Organic Garden believe the experiences students receive there provide lasting life lessons. The bee hives, for instance, offer a chance to see the importance of these small, flying insects to the human population.
“The relationship between food and bees is a very tight one,” said Alex Chabot, a Randolph modern languages professor and a beekeeper with about 12 hives of his own. Chabot became interested in bees when he worked as a chef and was intrigued by how much food depended on bee pollination. Unfortunately, commercial pollination operations began to see a mysterious decline in bee populations nearly a decade ago. In 2006, large-scale beekeepers reported losing 30 to 90 percent of their hive populations, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The problem became known as Colony Collapse Disorder. Media attention of the disorder, which generally affects only large operations, has raised awareness of the importance of bees as well as the need for small-scale, sustainable beekeeping practices, Chabot said.
The problem drew the attention of the students involved with the Randolph College Organic Garden, and they decided to try cultivating hives. The students wanted to see the effects bees could have in the garden, said Ludovic Lemaitre ’11, Randolph’s sustainability coordinator. “We wanted more success with the pollination of our crops.”
Lemaitre said it is increasingly common for colleges to have gardens with a few animals, especially chickens, but a college beehive is still unusual. Randolph’s hive provides a unique learning opportunity, he added. In addition to hands-on work with the bees, students attend beekeeping workshops with local experts.
“The core student group at the garden always gets excited whenever they have the opportunity to learn about beekeeping,” Lemaitre said. “They learn that it’s a hobby that can be carried on when they graduate, no matter where they live.”
‘…Involve Me and I Learn’
Participating in the Organic Garden’s beekeeping enterprise offers more than the chance to learn a new skill, said Carl Girelli, vice president for academic affairs and dean of the College.
“Beekeeping is an age-old sustainable human endeavor that predates even the liberal arts tradition,” he said. “As such, it is a metaphor for living gently on the land. We are fortunate to be able to provide this opportunity for our students and they, in turn, can share what they are learning with the community.”
The students harvest the honey on cool, cloudy days when the bees are less active. They can collect as much as 30 pounds of honey during one harvesting, and they share that honey with the College’s executive chef, who has used it in several recipes. They also provide it to the Skeller and sell it to the Randolph community to help raise money for the Organic Garden. “That sense of community is really cool,” Dill said.
Students, Girelli said, are able to take experiences like working with the Organic Garden or the beehives and put into practice some of the concepts they are being taught in the classroom. “The proverb, ‘Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn,’ expresses well the benefits we all derive from engaging students as agents of the concepts they discuss in class,” he added.