This April LaFarm embarked on an initiative to bring a small apiary of 2 hives to our campus farm. LaFarm, The Lafayette College Working Farm and Community Garden, has been a sustainability initiative and a part of our Environmental Studies and Sciences Program since 2009. We operate a 3 acre farm and garden, with garden plots for staff, faculty, and students, and 1 ½ acres in sustainable vegetable production. Our produce goes to our campus dining services, an off-campus community vegetable stand, and a weekly on-campus farmer’s market. We adhere to organic practices in our farm operation, and depend on our own campus-generated compost for soil fertility. We employ a student farm crew through the Spring, Summer, and Fall, for all farm work, and host student volunteer groups during the semester for big farm projects like spreading compost, building hoop houses, and fall garden clean-up.
Inspired by one student with prior experience in beekeeping, students in our Lafayette Food and Farm Cooperative (LaFFCo) wanted to start a bee initiative at LaFarm. LaFarm, located 3 miles from our main campus at our Metzgar Sports Complex, is surrounded on 2 sides by an 80 + acre corn-and-soy field which uses conventional farming practices, including potentially the use of pesticides which are toxic to honey bees. Added to this, our student with bee experience would be abroad during the spring of our bee’s arrival, and our farm manager (me!) had no prior beekeepng experience. We knew keeping a thriving hive would be a challenge given these conditions, but with hope and passion we initiated our journey into beekeeping.
Beekeeping has become increasingly challenging in an ecological climate dominated by conventional agriculture and widespread use of neonicotanoids by farms and homeowners. In 2017-18, loss of overwintering bees in PA managed hives was 44.5% according to the Pennsylvania State Beekeeper’s Association, with that number climbing to around 50% in 2018-19. LaFarm had once before kept and lost hives, but we wanted to try again in an attempt to learn more about this fascinating animal who helps support food production on our farm through pollination. Through a local community college and the Lehigh Valley Beekeeper’s Association, nine LaFFCo students and 1 LaFarm manager participated in courses to increase our bee knowledge, including hands-on at-the-hive experience in handling bees.
In early April we picked-up our colonies—two “Nucs” or nucleus colonies, which consist
of 5 frames of brood and honey, a queen, and a few thousand bees—from a local
beekeeper and transferred them into our hive boxes. The months since then have been
an experience in learning to tell the queen from the workers from the drones (males),
testing different styles of feeders, a few bee stings, and a whole host of other questions,
problems, and decisions previously not anticipated. All of the facts and concepts which
felt so clear and crisp on a power-point presentation in a classroom over the winter, suddenly felt not-so-clear and a little confusing when brought to real life on our small farm where we were suddenly the caretakers for 10,000 living, buzzing, stinging, beings
flying around us.
Our first year we will not take any honey from our bees, but instead feed them a sugar- syrup solution every week to support them in building out their comb, which will house their brood and their honey stores through the winter—each colony needs about 60-70 pounds to make it through the winter. Though we don’t know if we will find success in keeping our bees alive, we will keep learning about the plight of the honey bee. As LaFarm expands over time, and our sustainability initiatives expand on our Metzgar campus, we intend to continue to grow our footprint in creating pollinator habitat for our bees, and thus allow for an opportunity for bees to thrive at our campus farm.