St. Kate’s student groups abuzz with the business of beekeeping

BioClub's Nicole Szyszka '17, Annette Hayes '17 and Lauren Webster '18 are a few of the "beeople" behind St. Kate's apiary partnership. Photo by Sharon Rolenc

BioClub's Nicole Szyszka '17, Annette Hayes '17 and Lauren Webster '18 are a few of the "beeople" behind St. Kate's apiary partnership. Photo by Sharon Rolenc

St. Kate’s BioClub works with The Beez Kneez

The bees are in trouble — what can we do to help? This simple question posed by students from St. Kate’s BioClub last fall has resulted in the University getting into the bee business.

It all started with the club’s t-shirt design. For artwork, the students turned to biology alumna Claire Hafdahl Lande '09, an Oregon-based entomologist/biologist and insect illustrator. Lande is also a novice beekeeper, so the students’ focus naturally turned to bees.

“We loved how the hives are female-driven. Then at some point, the idea came up — why don’t we host our own hive?” says Nicole Szyszka ’17.

As they delved deeper, the students started discovering alarming facts about the plight of bees — that 75 percent of the world’s food crops rely on some form of pollination, yet 70 percent of the bee population is dying due to colony collapse disorder.

There was no more question. The students knew they had to act.

Chris Palahniuk, faculty assistant for St. Kate’s biology department, connected the students with Kristy Lynn Allen, founder and head beekeeper of the Minneapolis-based The Beez Kneez. “We were excited to find a local expert like Kristy, versed in sustainable beekeeping, who could help guide us.”

The Beez Kneez’s Urban Apiary Program partners with Twin Cities businesses and citizens interested in providing an apiary (aka host site) for hives. Initial plans were made to install two hives this spring.

The Beez Kneez also spearheads the “Healthy Bees, Healthy Lives” advocacy and public awareness campaign – which provided valuable background for the students as they built their own campus campaign to host the hives.

By the numbers

  • 2: Number of hives St. Kate’s will host
  • 70,000: Average number of bees in a healthy hive
  • 90: Percent of bees that are female
  • 2,000: Number of eggs that a queen lays each day
  • 2.5: Distance in miles that workers travel to flowers

Advocacy and Education 

The first and most important hurdle the students faced was gaining University approval. With Palahniuk’s help they worked with administration and Student Senate to obtain buy-in. The students tabled throughout March and hosted a screening of the documentary “More Than Honey” to raise awareness of bees.

One of the biggest fears community members expressed – of being stung – was quickly alleviated. The real culprits behind what is commonly thought of as “bee stings” are often wasps or hornets, who are capable of stinging multiple times.

“Honeybees are not aggressive and rarely sting. When a honeybee does sting, the stinger is ripped out of its body, causing it to die. The only reason it would be advantageous for them to sting is if their hive was threatened,” explains Katie Zarbock ’17.

With the hives tucked safely on Fontbonne’s green roof, there’s little chance of a perceived threat to the bees. As part of their educational outreach, the BioClub also created info cards with bee facts, including one that lists how to identify honeybees versus wasps or hornets.

“Honeybees are more golden and furry, while the others have shiny bodies without noticeable hairs,” adds Szyszka.

Once fears were alleviated, excitement among the student body grew. The movement’s buzz attracted other student groups along the way.

Alexa Harnagel ’17, chemistry major and student leader with the Food Justice Coalition, was an early adopter. The group has long advocated for a community garden to provide another healthy, affordable food source for students. The idea of the bees’ role in food security immediately attracted Harnagel.

“The Food Justice Coalition is about more than just food production and what we eat. It’s also about how we care for the earth and our environment and all other living creatures that inhabit the earth,” says Harnagel.

Lessons Learned

The students see the project as an embodiment of St. Kate’s mission and approach to experiential learning: incorporating education, social justice and advocacy, in an effort to lead and influence.

“That’s in our mission, right? To lead and influence?” says Harnagel. “What’s so exciting about this project is that we can actually make a difference. I see this sparking an environmental movement on campus. This is our chance to catch up and go beyond.”

The environmental focus is fundamental, Palahniuk points out. “If you’re studying biology you’re studying life, you’re studying the way in which we’re interacting with the environment on almost every front, so you’re going to talk about environmental issues. I think we’re well situated to help the community.”

Life after college being top of mind for students, one of BioClub’s major themes going into this school year was preparing for the future — career preparation, internships, building a resume. Their business with the bees seemed the perfect opportunity to achieve these goals.

“The future of our agricultural production depends on the bees’ livelihood, and without them, our future looks pretty dim,” says Zarbock.

They of course, are also developing subject expertise in their major — the biological aspect of keeping the hives alive. And if the hives thrive, there may even be a special crop of St. Catherine University/55105 honey produced.

So move over monkey, at St. Kate’s it’s the year of the bees.

By Sharon Rolenc