Brown bears may be fond of honey, but this year another Rhode Island campus is starting to reap the benefits of bees.
This summer, Rhode Island College installed two beehives on campus as part of its sustainability program, making it the first institution of higher education in the state to do so. The initiative, which is concluding its first semester, aims to raise awareness among the student body and educate the public about beekeeping’s role in promoting sustainability. Though in its beginning stages, the project is geared toward growing the tight-knit community of beekeepers in Providence and the state.
Beekeeping is a tradition that dates back to prehistoric times, when humans would gather honey from wild bee colonies for food, often destroying the hive in the process. Today’s system is much less destructive. Bees populate artificial hives, from which honey can be extracted without destroying the bees’ home, allowing them to continue producing honey in the same cells.
Modern beekeeping is a worldwide endeavor, with hives in rural and urban communities alike. Even academic communities have adopted beehives, including the University of California at Davis, Arizona State University and a handful of institutions in the Northeast.
But beekeeping is challenging, with the bee population down by 30 percent in the past 20 to 25 years, according to RIC Sustainability Coordinator James Murphy. Proponents of enterprises like urban beekeeping – and RIC’s new beekeeping initiative – hope to raise understanding of that trend and reverse its progress.
A sticky situation
The idea for the RIC beehives first came to life far from home, said Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban, professor emeritus of anthropology at RIC.
Fluehr-Lobban, a current beekeeper and secretary of the Rhode Island Beekeepers Association, said she was first inspired by beehives she saw on the UC Davis campus when she visited her daughter, who lives in Sacramento.
“It was just so cool to see the bees out there in that campus environment,” she said. “You’d see bees on all these flowering trees.”
After visiting other beekeeping universities, Fluehr-Lobban said she began to research institutions with beehives on campus, of which there were “only a handful.” It was then that she thought of bringing hives to RIC’s campus.
“We have 150 acres on campus,” she said. “There’s a lot of green space, so I thought this would really work out.”
Fluehr-Lobban brought the idea to RIC President Nancy Carriuolo, who Fluehr-Lobban said was enthusiastic about the idea and encouraged her to proceed.
With a donation of beehives from current and former RIBA presidents Jeff McGuire and Everett Zurlinden, plans were made to install the hives near a newly restored cottage on campus. But the location, near a student parking area, raised safety concerns despite bees’ relatively defensive nature, Fluehr-Lobban said.
“The danger is almost nothing” so long as the bees are not provoked, Fluehr-Lobban said. But “the risk was not understood,” and hives were relocated to the east side of campus.
Now located near RIC’s school of social work, the beehives seem topically relevant, though more distant.
Despite the relocation, the new home for the hives is still accessible, though “there’s not a lot of foot traffic around them,” Murphy said. “We go to the bees, not the other way around.”
Despite much of the anxiety that surrounds bees, beekeeping is a peaceful enterprise, Murphy said.
“I’ve never been stung,” said Murphy, who is learning to take care of the bees for the first time. “They’re very docile creatures when you go in and do what you have to do.”
Murphy is learning to care for the bees under the guidance of RIC alums and RIBA members Scott and Emily Langlais, who live nearby and are beekeepers themselves. Now in their fourth year of beekeeping, the Langlais couple run a Tumblr dedicated to the hobby to update friends and family “without bombarding them with mass emails,” Scott Langlais wrote in an email to The Herald.
The blog, which can be found at provbees.tumblr.com, features tips and information about beekeeping drawn from the couple’s own experience. Though bees often follow a predictable pattern, beekeeping is a rewarding experience, Langlais wrote.
“As predictable as the bees’ behavior may be, you can never fully control everything else that impacts the colony,” he wrote. “They really keep you on your toes, but that contributes to the fun of learning.”
The school currently houses two Langstroth hives – a type of hive that consists of boxes with removable frames – secluded behind a metal fence. The fence itself sports a cartoony sign of a beehive with the words “CAUTION: Beehives / Do Not Enter Hive Area” illustrated in cheerful Comic Sans font. The two hives each have about 10,000 to 15,000 bees, each with one queen bee, named Queens “Latifah” and “Bee-atrice” respectively.
Since the hives’ installation, the beekeepers have hosted workshops about beekeeping and occasional field trips for an elementary school located on the RIC campus. Few students have ventured behind the fence so far – especially as temperatures have dropped and the bees have retreated to the relative warmth of the hive.
Buzz to the future
The spring, Murphy said, heralds more involvement with the beehives on campus to promote sustainability. A community garden now sits near the hives to benefit from the bees’ pollination, and the college has plans to use the honey from the hives – about 25 to 50 pounds – in the dining center next year. Murphy said the college also is considering using the beeswax in its arts programs, though that remains open to consideration.
“I don’t think we’re going to get into selling the product as we are using it and learning from it,” Murphy said.
The overarching goal, though, is public education.
“The bees are still relatively new,” Murphy said. “We’re in the process of putting together educational programming for them.”
Murphy said the college is planning lectures in late February and March to teach more students about beekeeping, and the RIBA will hold “Bee Schools” – public workshops to educate community members about urban beekeeping – to promote awareness as well.
But the future, Murphy said, remains open for RIC’s new buzzing neighbors.
“Everything’s on the table,” he said.