It’s a BIG deal: The hives have arrived

Cornell College now has its own beehives, thanks to an art show, an English class, and a group of students who formed the Cornell Bee Interest Group (BIG) with their faculty advisor English professor Michelle Mouton.

It all started when Mouton was invited by gallery coordinator and art lecturer Sue Coleman to collaborate with artist and bee researcher Mike Bianco, who came from Australia as a visiting artist for Block 3 in fall 2015.

“Sue said he was very active in linking art, activism, and sustainability with a specific interest in bees, since he was a beekeeper. I was scheduled to teach one of my regular courses, Writing about Farming, Food, and Sustainability,” says Mouton, herself a beekeeper in Mount Vernon. “I jumped at the chance to collaborate on a pollinator-focused project. I assigned bee-focused reading and writing assignments.”

One assignment was to write a proposal on why Cornell should become part of Bee Campus USA, a national initiative to encourage bee-friendly practices on college campuses. To prepare students for the writing assignment, Mouton led discussions on scientific and popular writings about bees and the challenges they face. In Block 2, she led the class around Mount Vernon to observe locations that provided good pollinator habitats and to identify areas that could be better utilized for this purpose. In Block 3, she and Bianco led a similar tour of Cornell’s campus.

Bianco is pursuing a doctorate in biological arts at the University of Western Australia, which happens to be a major bee research center, Mouton says. The artist holds a master of fine arts degree from the University of Michigan, helped establish the beekeeping program there, and has taken an active role in addressing the colony collapse issue by presenting about bees in France, Japan, Tanzania, and the United States.

During his time on campus, Bianco spent a week holding workshops and discussions about employing art to envision Cornell College as a sustainable campus of the future and as a refuge for endangered pollinators, including bees and butterflies. One of the workshops taught participants to create “seed bombs” made of clay that contained seeds of plants preferred by pollinators. The “bombs” are tossed into ditches where the seeds germinate.

A product of his work with students and faculty was an installation in the Luce Gallery that included 10 wooden supers (containers) to house bees, a honey tasting, student artwork from writing and photography classes, a video installation, and found materials related to pollinators on campus.

Mari Dettweiler ’19 extracts honey from a comb. (Photo by Zara Anderson '19)
Mari Dettweiler ’19 extracts honey
from a comb. (Photo by Zara Anderson ’19)

After Bianco had completed his time on the Hilltop, he left behind the hive boxes, which BIG members Mari Dettweiler ’19, Camden Grundeman ’19, April Richards ’16, and George Zimmerman ’18 used as the foundation of Cornell beehives.

Biology professors Tammy Mildenstein and Brian Nowak-Thompson were on board right away, Mouton says, and brought a compelling scientific presence to the students’ efforts by providing an ecological context for the project.

The students who will monitor the hives regularly to check on the health of the bees met with administrators to pursue the permissions needed to establish a colony on campus. They also made a presentation to Enactus, a student entrepreneurship group that holds an annual Shark Tank competition for student groups seeking funding. Enactus awarded BIG $400 to pursue the project. In addition, Bon Appétit, Cornell’s food service, has indicated interest in purchasing BIG’s honey.

After scouting the campus for a suitable location, BIG selected a college-owned lot across the street from the main campus, which includes an apple orchard once owned by the late English professor and Cornell Trustee Geneva Meers.

“Perfect for the bees!” Mouton says. “It’s far enough from the main parts of campus and people’s homes that the bees and people won’t bother each other.”

BIG worked with a local beekeeper to order the bees for the Cornell hives. The hives were brought onto campus on April 21, and Dettweiler will work with Mildenstein during the Cornell Summer Research Institute to manage them.

Because bee populations are so fragile, Mouton says she has cautioned the students that the success of the project isn’t certain.

“There are so many challenges to raising bees these days,” she says. “If we’re successful, it will be something all of us can take pride in.”