Hendrix beekeepers study insects, harvest honey

DANIEL A. MARSH Staff Writer Published February 5, 2012 at 2:31 a.m.
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— Members of the Hendrix Beekeeping Society are learning the value of honeybees by maintaining hives of the insects.

Dillon Blankenship of Pea Ridge, a senior biology/environmental studies major at Hendrix College, and Abby DeLoach of North Little Rock, a junior environmental studies major, are the society’s top officers. They said honeybees are an irreplaceable part of life and not necessarily a threat to humans. The club maintains three off-campus hives of European honeybees and supports itself by selling honey harvested from the hives.

“A beekeeper is not a master of bees; a beekeeper is a steward,” Blankenship said. “That’s an important distinction. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship. The bees are just doing what they do, and we take care of them. They have the ability to make more honey than they need to survive, and that is what we take - the extra honey.”

“We use the bees as an educational tool,” DeLoach said. “It’s really cool to learn about bees as instrumental to life, and then go and see them in the hives.”

Chris Campolo, the group’s faculty adviser, said the Beekeeping Society formed in 2005 after a gift of a hive from a local beekeeper. Maintaining honeybees seemed like a manageable and natural thing to do,” Campolo said. “When I kept mentioning the beehive in my classes, my students wanted to know more and more, until two of them decided to form the Hendrix Beekeeping Society. I agreed to be the faculty adviser.”

Blankenship said he had a friend who was president of the club at a time when Blankenship was “looking to get more involved.”

“Bees in general are important,” he said.“A third of all our food is a product of the pollination that bees provide. That’s what bees do, and they’re cool for that. And, honestly, this is a trade - beekeeping has an immediate use.”

The Hendrix society maintains hives of apis mellifera, or European honeybees.

“Their native range is all of Europe and Africa and a little of Asia,” Blankenship said. “They were introduced here by Europeans, and in general, they do really well.”

Apiarists normally deploy suits, gloves and veiled helmets when working with bees, but sometimes DeLoach and Blankenship simply dress for comfort.

“I’ve worked [in the hives] in a skirt,” DeLoach said with a laugh.

“I remember wearing way too many clothes one time,” Blankenship said. “I had on two long-sleeved shirts, and it was late August! I’ll just wear a T-shirt now. Dr. Campolo will wear sandals.”

Getting stung is part of the routine. Blankenship said he was once stung three times while doing maintenance on a hive. Because he was lifting one end of the 100-pound box, “I toughed it out,” he said.

“I did a summer doing bee research in Oregon, and the bees were really happy - I was working with them bare-handed,” he said. “When they’re not stressed, they have no reason in the world to sting you. They’re not mean. You can pet a honeybee when it’s sitting on a flower. There is a difference between yellowjackets and honeybees. Honeybees aren’t aggressive.”

While it hurts to get stung, “it’s sad to think you are killing bees,” Blankenship said. Honeybee stingers are torn from the insect’s body, causing internal parts to be torn from the body resulting in death.

The student beekeepers harvest honey every other week in spring and summer.

“We try to take as much as we can,” DeLoach said.

Hives are smoked to “calm” the bees, Blankenship said.

“A honey harvest is interesting because it’s the first time you’re really messing with them,” DeLoach said. “A hive can be intimidating because each one contains 50,000 bees, and they get really loud. You think, ‘Oh, they’re coming at me!’”

Blankenship said the hives can still get his adrenaline going.

“You have to be calm and intentional when you’re working with the bees,” he said.

“If you don’t have the confidence, you have to fake it,” DeLoach said. “I always feel a connection. People talk about the hive as a single living organism. When you reach into it, it’s like being grasped by one animal - it’s all emotion.”

Frames containing combs are removed from the hives.

“You have to give the frame a big shake to get all the bees off,” Blankenship said. “You flick it, and they fall back into the hive.”

Honey is extracted on campus, usually in the kitchen of the Student Learning and Technology Center. A hand-cranked stainless-steel extractor is used to force the thick fluid from the wax.

“You cut the surface off the combs on either side of the frame, and you have honey flowing. It’s pretty messy - we end up cleaning honey off the floor,” Blankenship said.

Honey sales keep the club afloat financially.

“We’re self-sustaining,” said Blankenship, the club’s president. “We sold 75 bottles of honey last year. They go pretty quick. We make labels, and sometimes the bottles represent different dorms. We’ll do bottles that are the four Beatles, or Lord of the Rings characters.”

In winter, when the hives are less active, the club focuses on educational activities. It will screen the film Queen of the Sun for the public. The film explores the dangers posed to bees by commercial agriculture and “colony collapse.”

“Hendrix is definitely an open campus. Students are interested in engaging with the public on these broad issues,” Blankenship said.

“Bees are the representatives of pollinating insects. There have been huge declines in bee populations all over the world.”

“Imagine pollinating all our crops by hand,” DeLoach said.

Blankenship and DeLoach encourage anyone to manage beehives. For more information about beekeeping organizations around the state, visit the Arkansas Beekeepers Association website, arbeekeepers.org.

Staff writer Daniel A. Marsh can be reached at (501) 399-3688 or dmarsh@arkansasonline.com.

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