The Importance of ‘Bee-ing’ Educated
By Beth Pullias
Among her passions, bees make the top of the list for Mason staffer Kathleen Curtis, executive assistant to the dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. Now, thanks to her efforts and funding from the Patriot Green Fund and assistance from many facilities and departments at Mason, the Fairfax Campus has become home to a small but lively European honeybee apiary.
The purpose of the apiary, which is located in the grassy area between the Shenandoah Parking Deck and Patriot Circle, is to provide educational opportunities to the Mason family and community.
Curtis, a member of the Beekeepers Association of Northern Virginia (BANV) for the past two years, explains that studying bees and their activities can be integrated into many fields, including biology, ecology, sustainability, agriculture, and even art agriculture. This fall, several professors will incorporate hive observation into their course work.
“Studying the habits and life cycle of these vital insects provides education on many levels,” says Curtis. “It is important to know about the world we live in, especially when, surrounded by technology and academics, we are at a distance from basic yet important aspects of our culture. Beekeeping bridges both worlds.”
According to Curtis, bees help pollinate a large portion of the crops we depend upon. Almonds and other nuts, many fruits and vegetables, as well as flowers, trees, cotton, alfalfa, soybeans, and sugar beets, are pollinated almost exclusively by bees. Because of bee pollination there is a noticeable difference between areas that have strong bee populations and those that do not. In areas that have bees, the landscape is more luscious, beautiful, colorful, and self-sustaining.
In recent years, there has been a tremendous loss of bee colonies in the wild and in backyard and commercial apiaries due to many factors. These factors combined are referred to as Colony Collapse Disorder. Introducing managed hives such as the ones at Mason will help rebuild the population.
“Bees are not our enemies,” Curtis explains. “They are not interested in people because we are not pollen, their protein source, nor are we a carbohydrate source like the nectar they harvest and turn into honey.”
The apiary at Mason’s Fairfax Campus has four hives in a fenced yard. The yard is far enough back from the sidewalk on Patriot Circle that the bees flying in and out of the yard don’t collide with people walking by. Visitors to the inside of the yard are required to wear protective clothing, but because the yard is far enough from the sidewalk, there is sufficient space for observers to safely watch what is happening.
Curious passersby stop to ask the beekeepers questions about their activities and the general purpose of the apiary. Curtis hopes the hives will continue to attract attention and provide opportunities to discuss as well as demonstrate how small changes can provide a positive impact to the surrounding area.
“Bees are integral to the way we eat and enjoy our lives,” says Curtis. “But the relationship is interdependent, and I hope the hives will help people recognize and foster that connection. In order to keep bees healthy, we need to be wise about the conditions we create if we expect them to continue to provide for us.”
In establishing and maintaining the apiary, many people have helped Curtis and given her advice, including recent Mason graduate German Perilla, a beekeeping expert. This duo and other members of BANV frequently check the bees visually. They also conduct detailed inspections of the apiary at least every two weeks to assess the health and activity level of the hives and to provide any intervention or support necessary.
Mason students Anartia Gamboa and Jennifer Beidel have taken the BANV basic beekeeping course and will be assisting in the apiary. They are also offering an introduction to beekeeping workshop through the Mason Sustainability Institute on August 29.
Curtis expresses her gratitude for the help she received from the Land and Building Committee, facilities and grounds personnel, and Parking Services, along with all of the campus units that were integral to the project’s approval and placement.
She notes that the apiary would not exist without the $4,835 grant provided through the Office of Sustainability. With the grant, Curtis purchased four local bee colonies from BANV, the hive bodies, and the frames, the fencing, protective clothing, and hive working equipment. Signs explaining the bee yard will be posted in the future near the sidewalk.
Honey produced by the bees will not be pulled off the combs until at least the second year, allowing the hives to fully develop and retain sufficient stores to feed them during the upcoming winter. When there is sufficient honey to support the bees and provide a surplus, the honey will be distributed to those who have helped on the project. If there is sufficient production, honey may also be used in food services on campus.