Mason’s Honey Bees Give Students a Sweet Opportunity

By Tara Laskowski

At George Mason University, New Century College professor German Perilla and his students regularly mix with royalty.

Their goal is to create the ideal queen. Queen bee, that is.

This past spring, Perilla led a group of 12 students in the first-ever Beekeeping and Sustainability course—a class that had them suiting up and getting up close and personal with hundreds of honey bees in the new apiary on top of the Rappahannock River Parking Deck.

New Century College students suited up to work with European honey bees as part of a Sustainability class. Photo by Lisbeth Benitez-Cedillos.

New Century College student Lauren Hilliker (left) and Louise Edsall of the Prince William Beekeepers Association work with European honey bees as a part of the first-ever Beekeeping and Sustainability class. Photo by Emily Guagliardi.

In teams, students managed the hives throughout the semester, monitoring the strength and vitality of each colony. In addition to this hands-on experience, students also learned about bee communication, reproduction, threats and challenges to the honey bee, and the importance of bees to the general environment.

“Ever since I was a kid, I have been fascinated with bees,” says Emily Guagliardi, an integrative studies major with a focus in elementary education. “When I heard about how bees are disappearing and that they are in danger, my interest began to pique.”

“Bees are so important to the ecosystem,” says Lora Sharkey, an environmental and sustainability studies major who assisted Perilla with the beekeeping course. “I thought it would be useful to have practical experience working with bees to understand the challenges of beekeepers [who make a living from] the products and services bees provide.”

The new apiary sits atop the Rappanhanock parking deck on the Fairfax Campus. Photo by Heather Edmonson.

The new apiary sits atop the Rappanhannock River Parking Deck on the Fairfax Campus. Photo by Heather Edmonson.

The course, which had a waiting list of nearly 100 students, is just one component of New Century College‘s Honey Bee Initiative.

Beekeeper Louise Edsall of the Prince Williams Beekeepers Association volunteered to be the instructor for one day during the course. Louise has years of experience as a beekeeper and manages about 130 hives in various locations. She serves as the “Bee School Principal” for the association.

In 2012, Kathleen Curtis, executive assistant to the dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, used funds from the Patriot Green Fund to start an apiary in the grassy area between the Shenandoah Parking Deck and Patriot Circle. Since then, another primarily instructional apiary has been constructed on the Rappahannock River Parking Deck; the first apiary now is primarily a demonstration station for community members.

“I am thrilled that the initial bee project was well received and that many have caught the vision of what could be,” says Curtis, who belongs to the Beekeepers Association of Northern Virginia. “Clearly, the Patriot Green Fund project served as a catalyst not only to classes that benefit the student community, but to open the doorway to wonderful opportunities for future classes and research that will benefit students, as well as the local community and beyond.”

From the local Boy Scout  and Girl Scout troops in Fairfax to isolated communities in South America, many different people have been touched in some way by the Mason honey bees. Perilla, a world-renowned master beekeeper and sustainable development expert, regularly travels around the world—most lately to the Peruvian Amazon—to help communities learn about beekeeping and create their own sustainable businesses around this practice.

New Century College associate dean Lisa Gring Pemble and course instructor German Perilla extracted honey from the Photo by Craig Zaccaro.

New Century College associate dean Lisa Gring-Pemble and course instructor German Perilla extract honey from bee station’s honeycombs. Photo by Craig Zaccaro.

The apiaries also provide an educational tool closer to home. Mason has invited local schools, organizations, and groups to the apiary to learn more about the importance of the bees.

“There is such potential for educational opportunities here,” says Lisa Gring-Pemble, associate dean of New Century College. “Almost any discipline from economics to biology can learn from these apiaries. Honey bees are the perfect integrative vehicle to teach conservation, community sustainable development, social entrepreneurship, and environmental justice.”

Guagliardi, whose focus at Mason is elementary education, sees an enormous potential in using bees to educate young children. “As a future teacher, I’d like to teach my students the importance of honey bees and how they do so much more than make honey,” she says.

Indeed, even small apiaries such as the one at Mason can assist in the overall health and well-being of honey bees. Considering the tremendous loss of bee colonies in the wild, in backyard and commercial apiaries over the past number of years, the introduction of managed hives such as the ones at Mason helps rebuild the local population.

In addition to population building and strengthening, managed hives provide bees that improve the landscape surrounding the locale where they live, says Curtis. With a greater abundance of pollinators, plants become stronger and more firmly established, which contributes to soil stability and water conservation.

Another physical benefit to all this work, of course, is the sweet reward of honey. Recently, Perilla, Gring-Pemble, Curtis, and other Mason folks extracted more than 85 pounds of honey from the campus hives. Although there are no plans to sell the honey, Gring-Pemble says that the Mason community will have opportunities to taste the honey at future Mason special programs and events.

New Century College is working with Sweet Virginia, a local beekeeping cooperative that seeks to spark children’s curiosity for conservation through honeybee activities. The organization has provided support for honey bee research at Mason and currently has two interns from Mason helping with educational and marketing components.

All those involved with the apiaries just hope that the “buzz” continues to grow. “We hope to use the honey bee as a catalyst for something much larger,” says Gring-Pemble.

To read more stories about Mason, check out the university’s News site.

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