Honeybees will receive new protections under the Bee Campus certification.
By Michelle Neal
It’s March in Unity, Maine, and the honeybees know it. After five months of paralyzing cold temperatures, pollinators like honeybees are gearing up for their busy season. Recent heat waves that made robins sing and driveways thaw to mud pits also signaled to invertebrates that winter’s wicked grasp is relaxing.
Since late October, honeybees – and most bees in the Northeastern United States – have been huddled into a winter cluster. Their job? Keep the queen bee alive. To do so, honeybees have evolved a surefire strategy. With the queen stationed in the center, worker bees assemble into a buzzing ball (the winter cluster) around their leader. By fluttering their wings, the colony generates heat. Worker bees rotate from the outside of the cluster, which can be as cold as 46 degrees Fahrenheit, to the inside, which can reach up to 80 degrees.
None of this would be possible, of course, without an energy source: honey. Some honeybee hives will consume as many as 30 pounds of honey in one winter.
Now, eager to cure their cabin fever, honeybees are emerging from their hives.
Bee-coming a Campus
What Unity College’s honeybees don’t know is, while they’ve been busy staying warm all winter, Kaya Pulz has been fighting for their conservation. After months of research, presentations, events, and meetings, Unity College will likely become a certified Bee Campus.
Bee Campus USA is a branch of Bee City USA, an organization that “fosters ongoing dialogue to raise awareness of the role native pollinators play in our communities and what each of us can do to provide them with healthy habitat.” To become a Bee Campus, a school must achieve several qualifications. Colleges and universities must establish a Bee Campus Committee, create pollinating habitat on campus, complete service-learning projects, display pollinator conservation signage, offer courses that educate about pollinators, and develop an online presence for Bee Campus activities.
For some schools, these commitments are a tall order. So far 91 campuses have achieved Bee Campus certification in the United States. In Maine St. Joseph’s College was the first campus to be certified in the state.
Passion for Pollinators
According to Pulz, Unity has already accomplished most of the requirements to become a Bee Campus. But had she been asked four years ago if she knew what a Bee Campus was, she’d have likely said no.
Kaya Pulz has served as the Beekeeping Club’s President since the end of her freshman year at Unity College. A senior studying Sustainable Agriculture, Pulz organizes presentations, workshops, documentary screenings, and other activities that educate Beekeeping club members and students campus wide.
“The idea of beekeeping was so amazing to me,” Pulz said. “But I never had the resources to do it.” Now the Unity College Beekeepers are fully equipped to manage and harvest from multiple hives on campus. “We had all the infrastructure, we just needed people to run the club,” Pulz explained.
Perhaps in most situations, a Beekeeping Club President would have prior experience in beekeeping, but such was not the case for Pulz. “I had never done beekeeping at all before,” she said, “But I guess [the club members] just saw that I was really interested.”
The Unity Beekeeping Club has a familiar history to several of Unity’s clubs and student projects. A few years ago, student beekeepers managed hives near the campus apple orchard. But on a small campus like Unity’s, student projects often fail to gain continuity. As club members graduated, the Beekeeping Club faded away.
It was sheer luck that during the same year Pulz enrolled at Unity College, a couple other students were assembling to revive the Beekeeping Club. Alex Koch, now a Unity alum, asked Pulz to be an officer of the blossoming group.
“Someone needed to jump in,” Pulz said.
Trouble in the Hive
As president of Unity’s beekeepers, Pulz became responsible not only for her team members, but for thousands of tiny, busy, buzzing honeybees. This role, Pulz came to learn, could not be taken lightly.
“Bees are very sensitive creatures,” Pulz said. “They’re very susceptible to diseases.”
Pollinators – any animal that causes plants to bear fruits or seeds – have captured public attention frequently in the past decade. Perhaps it was the role these animals play in producing the plants on which humans rely for food, clothes, and other industries that motivated scientists, educators, and policymakers to seriously consider conserving their populations.
According to Bee City USA, “1 in 3 bites of food we eat is courtesy of insect pollination.” Without pollinators, our species would likely not survive.
This grim future looks less and less distant to many scientists and conservationists studying pollinator populations. For bees there are a couple leading threats to their survival.
Varroa mites, parasitic insects that feed and reproduce on bee larvae, are among the most virulent hazard facing honeybee populations. The United States Department of Agriculture reported that in 2018, varroa mites were the top stressor for honey operations with at least 5 colonies. Between April and June of that year, more than 56 percent of colonies were affected by the parasites.
Varroa mites are dangerous to honeybees for several reasons. Attaching to larvae and pupae in developing broods, the mites feed on their hemolymph (invertebrate blood). This leads to a slew of consequences, including malformed organs, reduced flight duration, weakened immune systems, and decreased life expectancies.
“That is a big reason why a lot of hives get wiped out,” said Pulz.
Even Unity’s hives are at risk of varroa mite invasion. “We were using a synthetic [treatment] for our first year,” Pulz explained. “Then we switched over to a natural, organic mite treatment.” The natural alternative used ingredients such as hops to help combat the parasites.
Another leading villain in honeybee survival is pesticides. According to Pulz, “The majority of pesticides we use in this country have glyphosate in them, and glyphosate actually paralyzes bees.”
In Unity, farms decorate the land like patchwork. Although organic practices are common in the community, traditional agriculture is also prolific. In all of Maine, only about six percent of the 7,600 farms are certified organic by MOFGA. Over 7,000 farms likely use pesticides on their crops.
To bees, pesticides are like germs on a doorknob. When farmers spray their crops with the chemicals, and bees pollinate those crops, the chemicals transfer into their systems. Pesticides are “a huge killer of bees,” Pulz explained. “It’s really hard to mitigate [this issue] if people aren’t going to limit the use of pesticides, even if it’s a large range from the hive, because bees go so far, and the crosspollination is so heavy.”
Perhaps the most disturbing threat to honeybee populations is Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), a phenomenon in which bees swarm – or leave – their hive for no evident reason. When a colony abandons their hive, they become susceptible to a slew of environmental pressures. “They’re dislocated,” said Pulz. “It doesn’t set them up for a very good environment.”
As green spaces decline globally, locating areas with abundant native, flowering plants – typical conditions of good quality pollinator habitat – becomes challenging for displaced honeybees.
Scientists have struggled to pinpoint the causes of CCD for years. Theories include pressures from varroa mites, diseases, pesticides, and immune-suppressing stress. Excess stress in any organism can lead to adverse health effects. When honeybees experience stressors such as drought, migration, and poor nutrition after pollinating plants with little nutritional value, their immune systems are compromised.
Between January and March of last year, the USDA reported 59.9 thousand colonies lost to CCD. This value actually represents nearly a quarter decrease of CCD instances since 2018 – a bitter silver lining to a daunting reality.
Still, the exact reason why CCD occurs is unknown. “A lot of people think it’s because [the bees] feel like they are dying, and they need to just go,” said Pulz.
On campus the Beekeeping Club witnessed firsthand what its like for a colony to swarm their hive in 2017. “We think that might have had something to do with the mowing practices in the location that we had them,” Pulz explained. Since relocating the hives across the street from the apple orchard, the hives have flourished with few setbacks.
Since learning to bee keep, Pulz has grown to admire the busy insects. “I love holding the bees,” she said. “It’s really funny, because the majority of people that I bee keep with say, ‘When I hear the buzzing of the bees right by my ears, it gives me a lot of anxiety.’ But I love it. I think it’s so meditative.”
Still, the job isn’t without challenges. Pulz worries about the hives often. “It’s really hard here [in Maine] with the long winters and making sure the hives are as prime as possible,” she explained.
Small Town, Big Title
It was these concerns combined with her exposure to pollinator conservation in general that motivated Pulz to pursue a Bee Campus certification for Unity College. Pulz was pleased to find that Unity already met most of the requirements for the status.
The Beekeeping Club single-handedly tackled three of the seven commitments: host awareness events, post informational signage around campus, and establish an online presence. Last semester, Associate Professor of Captive Wildlife Care and Education at Unity College and bee veterinarian, Dr. Robert Adamski presented to the Beekeeping Club about honeybee anatomy and life cycles. Club members also designed and posted signs to help students “Bee Informed,” which included four important pollinator facts. On their Instagram page, Pulz advertises her team’s hard work and success as small-scale beekeepers.
The final steps to becoming Bee Campus certified have been met with few obstacles. Pulz received broad support from Unity College faculty and staff, who are assembling a Bee Campus Committee that will ensure the commitments were maintained beyond Pulz’ years as a Unity student. Two years ago, Dr. Emma Perry offered an entomology course (the study of insects) to Unity students for the first time. This course in conjunction with several other agriculture and environmental courses on campus meet the requirement for pollinator “education opportunities” on campus. Finally, through Unity’s new TERRAIN program, students are planting pollinator gardens around campus, satisfying the “service-learning project” requirement.
According to Pulz, perhaps the most challenging credential is to establish a pollinator-friendly habitat management plan for Unity’s campus. The plan would include “how [Unity] already manages the grounds, how they do low-mow, and how they keep certain areas – like the goldenrod field – maintained.” Pulz also mentioned an alternative landscape plan that the Bee Campus Committee is developing. Alternative landscape plans typically involve using native, flowering plants in place of traditional green spaces, such as lawns.
These activities and a $100 application fee to Bee City USA will likely be enough to qualify Unity College as the second Bee Campus in Maine.
The Royal Value of Pollinators
This achievement will be a small stride in the marathon that is pollinator conservation. At Unity, Pulz fears the Beekeeping Club will face the same challenge it did before she arrived: continuity. But this time, Pulz is confident that Unity will maintain the certification and the beehives after she graduates. “We have people on campus that want this to happen,” she said with a smile, noting how a Bee Campus certification is of mutual benefit to both Unity College and to the local ecosystem.
The impacts of pollinator conservation are not to be overshadowed. A study published in Ecological Economics values pollination worldwide at 153 billion Euros (nearly $173 billion). If converted to distance, 177 billion miles is far enough to make 370,448 roundtrips to the moon.
Bees are perhaps the most valuable animals on Earth. In fact in 2008, 5 scientists declared this to be true during an Earthwatch debate.
The global economy is just one entity that benefits from pollinators. Wildlife depend on flowering plants for food and habitat. Protecting pollinators directly improves thousands of other species’ populations, too. Additionally, humans rely on plants for medicine.
Dr. George McGavin, a TV presenter and entomologist, summarized the situation: “Bee populations are in freefall. A world without bees would be totally catastrophic.”
Communities all over the world are tuning into pollinator conservation. In Slovenia last year, citizens and scientists celebrated the first official World Bee Day on May 20th. This international holiday was established as part of a continued effort to promote awareness and best practices for pollinators. “We must now turn our words into actions and perform specific activities to conserve bees and other pollinators, thus taking care of their survival and, consequently, our own survival,” Slovenia’s Minister of Agriculture, Forestry, and Food, Dejan Židan said.
Pulz is proud of her achievements in Unity’s small community. As she navigates a complicated world of resumes, applications, and interviews in search of her next big step, Pulz is satisfied – for now – to leave Unity College having helped the institution likely earn a new title: Certified Bee Campus.
“Right now we’re in an environmental crisis. Our honeybees are on the endangered species list. We need to provide awareness for pollinators – and not just honeybees…Educating students on this is so important, especially in this time in our lives,” she said. “We can bring these ideas that we learn in college to the outside world once we graduate. I think it’s really important to set that example.”
Correction: In 2018, Dr. Emma Perry taught entomology at Unity College. The article previously stated that Dr. Robert Adamski taught the course in 2018.