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There’s a buzz in the air at George Mason University’s Fairfax campus, and it’s being caused by the school’s newest one million or so inhabitants: honey bees.

In 2012, GMU partnered with local bee experts to build two small apiaries on campus that housed several beehives.

In March, Mason’s New Century College expanded the project by adding more colonies, for a total of 12. The majority of the hives are kept on the top of the school’s Rappahannock parking deck. A beekeeping class at GMU allows 12 students, one for each colony, to manage the bees.

Now, an effort is underway to expand even further.

“Because we only have 12 colonies, we can only have 12 students in the class,” said Lisa Gring-Pemble, dean of New Century College. “There is a waiting list of more than 100 students who want to participate, but we currently can only accommodate 12 per class.”

According to beekeeper German Perilla, a research fellow for bee conservation with New Century College, some of the larger colonies can house as many as 100,000 honey bees, making their management a fun challenge for students.

“The students research the bees and ensure the health of each colony by looking after them and making sure they are producing enough honey — generally a good indicator of the health of a colony,” Perilla said.

According to Gring-Pemble, in addition to the beekeeping class, the bees are studied and researched for many different educational applications, making their presence at the university a benefit for a large number of academic disciplines. “For example, they can be studied in terms of nutrition, sustainability, sociology, business, anthropology, economics and even visual arts,” she said. “So far, more than 800 GMU students have studied these bees in disciplines spanning the entire university.”

And the bees get something out of the deal, as well.

According to Gring-Pemble, over the past few years, honey bees have faced a mysterious and severe decline known as Colony Collapse Disorder. This loss has affected bee colonies throughout the United States and in parts of Europe, and because bee pollination is crucial for the successful growth of many agricultural crops — from almonds to soybeans — strengthening the health of bees directly supports agricultural diversity and success.

Toward helping to understand and address this issue, GMU has teamed with the Sweet Virginia Foundation, a Northern Virginia beekeeping cooperative, to launch HiveStarter: a Honey Bee initiative of George Mason University & Sweet Virginia Foundation. HiveStarter is a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo, the world’s largest crowdfunding site.

The goal is to raise $10,000 to double the university’s 12 hives to 25, as well as support the construction and management of new apiaries throughout Northern Virginia and the National Capital Region.

By visiting the campaign site, a donor can claim one or more unique perks, ranging from a sample of honey to an up-close tour of the Mason apiary while clad in a protective bee suit.

“New Century College is delighted to be part of this exciting campaign,” Gring-Pemble said. “Mason’s unique partnership with Sweet Virginia Foundation highlights how our community can make an impact in addressing a serious social and worldwide problem — the alarming disappearance of honey bees. Together, we aim to establish more hives in our region, educate young people and create a model for sustaining honey bees that can be replicated around the world.”

According to Perilla, the initiative also is a first step toward strengthening bee populations on a global scale.

“Bees in the U.S. are primarily European honey bees that were brought here by colonists in the 1600s,” he said. “There were no indigenous honey bees in North America prior to that. Different factors and conditions make tending to bees in different parts of the world unique. There is no one-size solution. Educating students about the needs of bees here in Virginia is a great first step toward other localized programs like this in other areas throughout not only America, but the entire planet.”

That message seems to be hitting home with many GMU students who have studied the bees up close in their colonies.

“I am hoping to take what I learn here about bee sustainability back to India,” said Snigdha Dewal, a doctoral student in GMU’s School of Public Policy, who put on a bee suit and observed the bees for the first time this week.

“Bees rely on us and we rely on them,” added Clara Bonayed, a GMU sophomore from Paris, France. “I am taking a class called Leadership for Sustainability and I am learning a lot from bee populations in terms of our relationship with them and sustaining bee populations.”

Other, more fundamental, lessons also are being learned.

“The main thing I have learned by studying bees is that they are really very social and are not out to sting you,” said Andy Sachs, a GMU freshman from Leesburg. “They are gentle and important to the ecosystem. There is no reason, even if it is your initial instinct, to swat and kill them.”



gmacdonald@fairfaxtimes.com