A Campus Abuzz

GW’s Mount Vernon Campus welcomes four beehives.
June 14, 2010

By Rachel Muir

Tucked away behind Hand Chapel are the Mount Vernon Campus’s newest residents.

All 120,000 of them.

The Italian honeybees—four hives’ worth—arrived on campus June 10, a donation from local beekeeping cooperative Sweet Virginia. The initiative is part of an effort to promote sustainable food and gardening spearheaded by student organization Food Justice Alliance.

The bees—and their ability to pollinate thousands of plants every day—will result in “bigger and brighter” plants and flowers on campus and in the surrounding neighborhood, says Amanda Jo Formica, B.A. ’10, founder and past president of Food Justice Alliance, who will serve as one of two beekeepers for the hives this summer.

Each hive measures about 2.5 feet wide and 3 feet high and houses approximately 30,000 bees. The hives are composed of a series of four wooden boxes stacked on top of each other. The bottom boxes are where the queens live and lay eggs and workers raise baby bees.

The top boxes are called the “honey supers” and are where honey is stored. Honey is typically harvested once a year, in mid to late summer, and a hive can yield up to 100 pounds, says Ms. Formica, although the GW beekeepers are expecting a far smaller yield this season. “For the first year or so with a new colony bees spend more energy making wax combs and there isn’t as much honey,” she says.

The bees’ journey to GW began this spring when junior Melissa Eddison, inspired in part by the installation of beehives at the White House, drafted a proposal to establish hives on campus.

The proposal caught the attention of Paula Lawley, assistant vice president for online strategy and experience, and an amateur beekeeper. Ms. Lawley sits on the board of Sweet Virginia, a nonprofit located in Manassas, Va., composed of volunteer beekeepers who donate honey to benefit a variety of local causes.

Ms. Lawley stumbled upon beekeeping a few years ago when a colleague invited her to try it. “I never expected to be a beekeeper,” she says.

Ms. Lawley is particularly drawn to “the mystery of it all,” she says. “Beekeeping is an ancient practice, and bees have an amazing sense of community and way of communicating and working together.”

While her job at GW involves a fair amount of desk work and scrutinizing computer screens, beekeeping allows her to do something physical. “It’s incredibly satisfying,” she says.

It’s a sentiment echoed by Sweet Virginia founder Dan Price. “I like watching how the hive works, how it’s organized and the connection between the animal and plant worlds,” he says. “I also like the physicality; it’s hard work.”

He says a desire to bring beehives into urban areas and to expose students to the practice of keeping bees promoted him to donate the hives to the university.

“We are extremely fortunate to be able to work with Sweet Virginia and have their volunteers serve as mentors for our new beekeepers,” says Ms. Formica.

Unlike Ms. Lawley, Ms. Formica says she decided early on that becoming a beekeeper would be one of her “life goals”—a decision she credits to her “love of food and all things sweet” and a fascination with the bees and the “uniqueness” of their social structure.

According to her, the GW community shouldn’t be overly concerned about bee stings. “Honeybees are very friendly,” Ms. Formica says. “Unlike wasps, which can sting multiple times, a honeybee can only sting once and then it dies, so they are not quick to do so.”

She explains that there are three kinds of bees: queen bees, which number only one per hive and lay all the eggs; drones, male bees whose purpose is to mate with the queen and cannot sting; and worker bees, which collect pollen, build honeycombs, make honey and do a variety of other tasks. While drones die after mating, worker and queen bees can live for more than a season. In fact, a queen’s lifespan can be as long as seven years.

Ms. Eddison says taking care of the bees on campus will typically require 10 to 15 minutes each day. Day-to-day work involves monitoring the bees, catching and hiving swarms, and looking for diseases or other problems.

“It’s a great educational opportunity for GW,” says Ms. Eddison, who plans a career in international sustainable agriculture. She says the campus plans to offer beekeeping workshops for the university community.

Ms. Lawley notes that George Washington kept bees at his Mount Vernon Estate, and his favorite breakfast, which she says he had every day even when traveling, was cornmeal cakes with honey. “The hives are a wonderful way to honor the university’s namesake,” she says.

“I am buzzing with excitement over this project,” says Ms. Formica, who starts a two-year stint as a case manager at local nonprofit Miriam’s Kitchen this fall. “And there’s ample opportunity for puns, which is part of the fun!”

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Bee Hives