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Dominican students bottle 50 pounds of honey from campus hives

Friday, December 22, 2017

Dominican University students, faculty and staff gathered on December 13 to bottle a bumper crop of 50 pounds of honey harvested from the university’s four beehives. Members of the River Forest Sustainability Commission and Village President Cathy Adduci also got in on the action in the nutrition lab in Parmer Hall.

The beekeeping initiative started as part of the university’s junior honors seminar, led by Ellen McManus (English), Scott Kreher (biology) and Tama Weisman (philosophy), but quickly branched into an even wider interdisciplinary effort, including students in biology, chemistry, nutrition, graphic design and marketing classes. Each discipline brought to the project different interests and strengths.

“We started the project to teach students about evolution because bees have a very complex evolutional history,” says Ellen McManus, an English professor. “We wanted students to understand how bees and flowering plants evolve together and that’s why it is important that ecosystems remain intact.”

McManus also explains that she wanted students to explore the concept of altruism and sacrificing oneself for the good of the whole. “Bees are a really interesting evolutionary example of this concept because only the queen of the hive reproduces. It’s kind of a mystery—how did the trait of giving up reproduction evolve? It’s one of the mysteries that Darwin wanted to solve.

Students also examine, through the bees, the idea of distributed intelligence. Within the bees’ complex community, no individual bee makes the important decisions for the hive but, rather, the hive as a whole makes decisions in a way not yet understood.

Biology Lecturer Derrick Hilton is most interested in the bees’ relationship with plants. “Our whole food supply is dependent on bees and their ability to go from flower to flower to pollinate. Obviously, the plants are broadcasting signals to the bees, saying, ‘we’ll trade—you pollinate us and we’ll give you some sugary substance,’” he explains.

Associate Professor of Biology Scott Kreher is interested in how the bees communicate with each other. “They have this dance language. They vibrate their bodies to communicate to other bees about where flowers and resources are,” he says.

Associate Professor of Philosophy Tama Weisman is the only one of the three original faculty beekeepers to actually keep bees off-campus, at her home in Wisconsin. She is also interested in the bees from the perspective of political economics. “I actually take a somewhat unpopular stand and believe the whole save-the-bee narrative is a problem because it diverts attention from the real problem, which is the industrial monocrop agriculture that is threatening bees,” she explains.

Students are involved in tending the bees and harvesting the honey from four hives behind Parmer Hall. The work helps them understand the importance of sustainability and the connection between agriculture and food.

Student beekeepers Danielle Jones ’18 and Natalie Bobrowska ’19 were excited to help with the honey bottling, as the fruit of their labor. Donning hairnets, they and several other students dumped the honey from large buckets to mason jars and then through funnels into smaller four-ounce jars for consumption.

“As a natural sciences major, this is right up my alley,” says Jones. “We really care for the bees; we check on them and make sure they have enough food and spaces for their babies.”

Bobrowska advises that she would like to own a small-scale sanctuary farm one day. “Getting some practice with the bees before I delve into that journey on my own is really great,” she says. “They’re such tiny, little organisms and yet they impact our lives so much. By being able to care for them, you get to have a feeling that you’re helping out the world.”

Each bottle of honey is adorned with a Caritas Honey tag, with the tagline, “Spread the Love.” The honey is being given as gifts for the time being but there are plans to sell this spring’s harvest on campus and at the Mound.