Beekeeping on Campus Gets Students Buzzing

9 mins read

On Nov. 10, the Scott Arboretum, Office of Sustainability, and Environmental Studies Department hosted a honey extraction event with Sue MacQueen, the Scott Arboretum Campus Engagement Coordinator, and Mo McDermott, a beekeeper working with Alvéole, an urban beekeeping organization. Students worked with McDermott to extract honey from the combs before the bees isolated in the hives for the winter season. After the event, participants took home some honey of their own. 

Since September 2020, the Scott Arboretum, Office of Sustainability, and Environmental Studies Department, in collaboration with Alvéole, have maintained beehives on campus. The project began when the college opened its first beehive on the green roof of David Kemp Hall in September 2020. A second beehive was then added last spring in the Whittier Hall space after there was  high interest from students in the David Kemp beehive. 

In an interview with The Phoenix, MacQueen discussed the interest around starting up the  beehives from the Swarthmore community and some of the challenges of maintaining hives year-round. 

“There was a great deal of student interest. Every year, usually in April, I’d start to get emails from students saying, ‘Hey Sue, why don’t we have beehives,’ and I said, “Well, how much longer are you going to stay?” MacQueen said. “Everyone leaves the second weekend of May, so there would be no one around to maintain them.”

To solve this issue, the Scott Arboretum connected with Alvéole, an urban beekeeping organization, to ensure that the hives were being taken care of during both the school year and the summer and create a quality educational experience for the Swarthmore community. 

“Alvéole is wonderful. The representatives come in full of energy, and they know everything there is to know,” MacQueen said. “Because of Alvéole, we’re giving the bees the best chance of survival, and we’re giving the students a quality experience by being able to talk to someone who really knows what they’re doing. Alvéole, I mean, their beekeepers are second to none.”

In addition to giving students the experience of working with bees, the hives are also a boon to the local bee populations. Dale Nemec, who serves both as a gardener and on the Grounds and Horticulture staff, further explained the College’s decision to host beehives on campus and their impact on local wildlife. 

“Swarthmore College and the Scott Arboretum have realized how important bees are to our environment and wanted to create a healthy habitat for these little pollinators, who are having an increasingly difficult time foraging for food and finding places to build their hives in a changing world,” Nemec said.

With both the interest from students and the benefits to the local environment, the beehives and Swarthmore campus have a mutually beneficial relationship. 

“It’s very exciting to have bees on campus. It’s also great that the bees are locally pollinating and really helping our environment,” MacQueen said. “Everyone’s winning.”

Maintaining the beehives is a months-long process during the “beehive season,” which is from around March to the first week of November. The “beehive season” is when bees actively gather pollen and nectar to create enough honey for the winter. Once the season is over, bees spend the winter in their hives, creating enough body heat to keep them warm. MacQueen explained that she likes to invite students to observe the process of caring for the bees. 

“Every three weeks during the season, Mo or one of the beekeepers will be here to take care of the hives. I also send out the emails inviting students to observe,” MacQueen said. “Our role is to just keep it going and let people know about our hives. I have interns in the summertime and make a point of getting them up there.” 

Her desire to inform people about the hives has led MacQueen to host a series of events that introduce students to the beekeeping that the Scott Arboretum is involved in, some of which she mentioned in an interview.

“We also have four workshops a year. We have one more workshop to do before the end of the year, which will most likely be candle-making using beeswax from the hives,” she said. 

Ray Craig ’24 attended the honey-extraction workshop on Nov. 10. He described his initial interest in the event and highlighted his fascination with the honey-extraction process. 

“I usually try to sign up for Sue MacQueen’s events when I see her emails because they’re always really interactive and fun,” Craig said. “I really enjoyed getting to participate in every step of the honey-extraction process, even though most of the process can be done by machines now. Uncapping the honeycombs was really satisfying.” 

Craig also explained how his involvement with the Scott Arboretum created a community for him at Swarthmore. 

“I met one of my best friends here at one of Sue’s Crum [Woods] walks in my freshman year and another one at the [community garden] bench-building event at the WRC (Women’s Resource Center) last February.”

MacQueen also discussed her own background before coming to Swarthmore and how that sparked her interest in providing a way for students to become involved in beekeeping. 

“I’ve only been here for five plus years. Before I was here, I was also in West Philadelphia and was involved with a lot of beekeeping there as well, so I’ve been interested in them for a long time,” MacQueen said. “What I think is neat is that we’re taking care of a need that the students have. You want to know how to produce your own food. And if you’ve never been shown before, you have to be taught, you have to be shown how it’s done.”

Even with all her experience, MacQueen explained how she still learns new facts about bees and the honey-making process frequently. 

“I’m learning as I go. I recently found out that bees who bring back the nectar fan it until this exact water percentage, 17.8 percent. And then it becomes honey,” MacQueen said. “How cool is that? When they do that correctly, which they always do because they’re bees, the honey never goes bad. They’re crazy little scientists, aren’t they?”  

With the increase of small beehives in urban areas, students can become more knowledgeable about bees and beehives and the health benefits that they bring.

“Knowing more about bees will ease the fears people have about them,” Nemec said. “Many will be pleasantly surprised to learn how easy it is to start their own hives at home, thereby attracting more pollinators for healthier gardens and reaping the health benefits of producing honey … And as a hobby, beekeeping has proven to be calming and good for mental health.” 

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