What's the buzz on campus? Apis mellifera, of course

Patrick Garrity
May 14, 2018
Boy in bee suit holds a honey bee.

Handle with care: James Fortin '18 poses with a resident honey bee from the Exeter apiary.

James Fortin ’18 signed up for the Beekeeping Club on whim as a lower three years ago. Now he’s the head of the club, learning new things about bees every day and helping to build the club and the Academy’s fledgling apiary.

Ahead of World Bee Day on May 20, we asked James some questions about the club and our resident bees:


Q: OK, the first question that needs to be answered: How many times have you been stung?

A: Good question! I have never been stung by a honey bee. Often, victims of insect stings will think they have been stung by a “bee,” but there are a lot of stinging insects out there. More often, the culprit is a wasp or hornet. Yellow jackets spend a lot of time near picnics, increasing the likelihood of a harmful encounter. These insects aren’t “bees;” they look quite different and make different nests. An important distinction is that they do not die when they sting you, allowing them to strike multiple times. Honey bees really don’t want violent confrontations.  When they sting mammalian skin, their barbed stinger becomes stuck. When they try to fly away, it pulls out their vital organs, and they die.  So, a honey bee will only sting you if you threaten its hive. 

Since the queen bee passes on the genetic material shared by her offspring in the hive, the individual worker bee’s prime directive is to ensure the queen’s survival, which is dependent on hive security. The copies of genes in the worker sacrifice themselves to save the identical copies in the queen. It’s really neat (for the scientist, not the bee). 


Q: OK, we can avoid bee stings by avoiding the hive, but that’s not an option for beekeepers, so …

A: Calm, deliberate action is important around a beehive. Before opening the hive, you have to smoke it (this doesn’t harm the bees). This will interfere with their chemical communications, preventing them from launching a coordinated defense against you. Honey bees are really very docile most of the time. If you live in an area with Africanized honey bees (a more aggressive type), you need to be more careful, but this is not the case this far north. There’s a lot of media hype about Africanized honey bees, and they give other bees a bad rap. 


Q: How did you get involved with beekeeping and the club? Have you always been interested in bees?

A: I always had a background interest in beekeeping. It seemed very relaxing and bucolic, and it was a way to get close to other animals. On a whim, I put my name on the email list at a club fair. That was in my lower year, and the Beekeeping Club at the time was quite small. We had our founder and club head, Olivia Liponis ’17, our advisor, Ms. Safford, and three students, including me. Ms. Safford and Olivia both had beekeeping experience, so our leadership was excellent. Last year, Olivia graduated, and Ms. Safford took a new job opportunity outside of the school. I became head of the club essentially by default, since I had come to the greatest number of meetings. 

Hannah Johnson '19 and James Fortin' 18 stand beside Exeter's two beehives on South Campus.

Q: So, you had to learn on the fly, pun considered.

A: Inheriting the club was intimidating – my only beekeeping experience was what we had done inside the club! At that point, we had our first hive, and so there was a responsibility to care for the bees and keep the club going. Fortunately, Ms. Safford recruited Ms. Appleton to be the new club advisor. Both of them have essential roles in hive management, advising and organization, and I am very thankful to them.


Q: And how has it gone, being the head of the club?

A: I tried to learn as much as I could about bees and beekeeping, and I found it more and more interesting. At the club fair in the fall of 2017, I wore a beekeeping suit to attract attention, and was shocked to find 74 email addresses on my list by the end of the night (the complimentary honey sticks I offered probably helped). Given the small size of the club in previous years, I was even more surprised that six of these interested students became consistent attendees. I think it’s a sign that the club will continue to grow. 

I searched for articles to send to the club members every week, and we held lunch meetings to discuss them every Wednesday. The articles have ranged in theme from honey bee evolution to how to keep bees in urban settings. There’s a whole world out there of bee history, human history, bee biology and social structure, the mechanics of beekeeping, the economics of beekeeping, and the culinary applications of honey. I learn so much every week as the club explores this world, and I have such great people in the club who always bring questions that push me to discover more. My adventure in beekeeping has convinced me to join a beekeeping club in college, and someday I hope to have my own small apiary. 


Q: Who are our resident bees?

A: In our hive, we have the western/European honey bee, Apis mellifera, which has been widely introduced across the world. The genus Apis has several other species, each with its own special characteristics, and there are many other bees outside of this genus. I believe our particular race/breed of western honey bee is Carniolan, which is quite popular. Different breeds have different strengths and weaknesses. One of our primary concerns is hardiness (i.e. resistance to New England weather). Since our hive survived this past winter, we seem to have found some good genetic material. 

Bees need honey for warmth as well as sustenance. If their food supply runs out, they can no longer heat the hive. Early in the spring, there are no flowers to replenish the stores, so we can try adding a box of sugar syrup to the top of the hive. This should give the bees a boost to start the season on stable footing. It is critical that the hive is not opened during the winter – if that much heat escaped, the bees would surely run out of fuel. Getting a hive through the winter is an ordeal, and success is up to the bees and chance as well as the beekeeper’s efforts. They seem to have made it. That’s really exciting for us. 


Q: Are the bees we see on blossoms around campus “Exeter” bees?

A: Their range seems to be between 2 and 4 miles. My guess is that many of the bees we see in town and on campus are ours, but there are plenty of other apiaries and, I’m sure, wild colonies in the area. We have many bumblebees and carpenter bees around on flowers, too, not to mention wasps, hornets and solitary bees. Honey bees really cover a lot of ground, if you think about how small they are. The foraging occupation is the last one that a worker bee will perform. The exposure to the elements and the strain of hauling nectar and pollen back home take their toll.  These are really tough and driven insects. 


Q: What’s next for the club?

A: We are going to divide our hive into two. This is a fairly simple process but requires care and thorough preparation. Essentially, we will take queen cells (where new queen bees develop) from our old hive and transfer them, with a force of worker bees, into the new hive boxes we built a few weeks ago. By the end of the year we should have two strong hives, with genetically related queens. I hope that our apiary will continue to grow; perhaps within a few generations we will have our own PEA bee strain.  It’s possible that we could provide honey for use in the dining halls or at Grill, perhaps even market it outside Exeter. Where the club goes from here is of course up to next year’s club heads, and I look forward to seeing what they come up with. 


Q: When do we get to taste some honey?

A: Within the next year or two, we may have some honey available for the community at Grill or the dining hall, as well as at our club events. This spring, our hive appears strong, but we don’t want to risk weakening their food supply, especially since we will be splitting the hive soon. Fall honey is a possibility, but again, we have to be careful not to let them starve or freeze in the winter, without enough energy. We’d only take small amounts, I think.  That means that for now, the best way to get some honey from the Exeter hive is to join the club! 

James Fortin is a senior day student from Ipswich, Massachusetts, who will attend Williams College in the fall — where he hopes to join the beekeeping club.