In other news: University raises more than 1 million bees on South Campus
A 20-minute walk from The Green, across from a cow pasture on South Campus, there is a little known plot of land that is home to 50 bee colonies.
This bustling apiary, a collection of beehives, is used for teaching and research within the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology. Besides the hives, there is a patch of land that nature-loving students see as an area ripe for the planting of a new pollinator garden.
In light of the countrywide decline of bee colony populations, university environmental clubs led by the Epsilon Eta fraternity are working to support local apiculture, or beekeeping. This spring, Epsilon Eta is planning to introduce native plants to ensure university bee colonies remain healthy and strong.
Ivy Nargiz, a senior environmental studies major, is the co-president of Epsilon Eta. She has been working on introducing native plants to the pollinator garden all year after her group met with Daniel Borkoski, the hive technician, for a tour last semester.
“I wanted to help out in any way I could,” Nargiz said. “I went up and asked [Borkoski] about it, and he said the pollinator garden could use some work.”
With the help of Club Co-President Leanna Stackhouse, Epsilon Eta went to work, spending days removing old growth that crowded the patch to make way for new planting to come this spring.
Lauren McNulty, a sophomore agriculture and natural resources major and the secretary of Epsilon Eta, is looking forward to the project getting off the ground.
“Without our native plants, there are no bugs, no insects,” McNulty said. “Without that, you don’t see birds, you don’t see wildlife. It really has to start at the bottom of the food chain.”
According to the bee team website, in 2010, the university remade its apiary into a living laboratory, a bustling system of more than 25 colonies. Today, students and faculty in the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology study more than 50 colonies: an estimated 1.3 to 2.2 million honey bees.
Besides teaching about bees, the apiary has separate colonies for research projects. It also has the capacity to produce honey that is sold at the UDairy Creamery, the university’s ice cream shop, after every harvest.
The pollinator garden is not just helpful to university bees, it serves as an exemplar patch to teach healthy and diverse planting principles. Native plants make for healthier nutritional options for bees, and the revitalized garden will feature a variety of fauna that blooms throughout the year, McNulty explained.
Epsilon Eta is currently pushing for funding from the university to bring in native plants, to function as the pollinator gardens educational resource. McNulty said the garden will be open to the public, to embody Epsilon Eta’s three pillars: service, socialization and professionalism. The garden features square patches that each show off what is considered an exemplary native Delaware plant in order to promote healthy gardening practices.
After the ball gets rolling, McNulty said she hopes the planting can become a collective effort from all environmental clubs.
“So far the work that we’ve done is to take out any invasives and take out any non-natives, and anything that wasn’t really thriving,” McNulty said. “We’re kind of turning over a new leaf for this plot of land.”
This project will run alongside the creation of a brand-new beekeepers club. Borkoski, while working year-round to maintain the university hives for teaching class and research is sponsoring the new club as an academic advisor.
“There’s this new beekeeping club that is just starting, just getting their start-up funding this month,” Borkoski said. “It sounds like there’s a lot of interest in this pollinator garden, I really hope that all these different people that have shown interest will get together and organize away.”
Every day, Borkoski can be found in the fields of South Campus maintaining the hives and colonies. He works with a smile as he opens up hand-painted bee boxes to check up on the nectar makers. Borkoski never wears a full bee suit outfit besides a face net, because he said he has gotten used to getting stung.
“It’s just part of the job,” he said, as he picked up a bee from a nearby hive.
Much of his work in the winter is cleaning up from storms and preparing the apiary for the lush spring months. Come April, Borkoski will have his hands full, taking care of the peak season populations, he said.
“Over the last couple of years in the springtime, when my hives are bursting at the seams and they need all my attention, that’s exactly when this garden needs attention,” Borkoski said. “Once weeds get ahead of you there is no catching up, I can’t prioritize this over working hives.”
Borkoski has been an apiarist for about 11 years, starting as a self-taught hobbyist. He lives just over the border in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, where he worked as the apiary inspector a few years back before becoming the full-time apiary technician for Blue Hen hives. Since 2017 he has been a hive technician at the university, maintaining hives for study.
This year there are no planned research projects, freeing up time and resources to the breeding of hive-ready queen bees for sale to local beekeepers. Borkoski said along with selling excess honey, the ability to produce locally sourced “nucs” (pronounced like “nukes”), or hive-ready queen bee colonies, can be very lucrative.
“Starting this year, the product I’m most excited about is selling queens to beekeepers,” Borkoski said. “We have a queen breeding program here; they’re called ‘nucs,’ or nucleus colonies. There is a big demand for the local stock if a beekeeper is just starting out or they need to replace colonies.”
Naturalized bees that are used to Delaware’s environment are so highly sought after because they live longer, more productive lives, according to Borkoski. Many keepers ship in factory-farmed bees from Georgia or elsewhere, Borkoski said, but bees that have survived the local winter are better adapted.
When planning breeding, Borkoski considers a colony’s genetic strengths, such as winter survivability, hardiness toward parasites, honey production and even friendliness.
“Because we have students and work with students here, we breed for gentle bees,” Borkoski said. “It is not something everybody selects for, but it definitely is a heritable trait, so you can breed for less aggressive … and I think for the most part we have pretty chill bees.”
Chill bees may be well-suited for teaching classes, but as Borkoski explained, environmental conditions have made resilient and adaptable bees necessary for modern farming: Worldwide bee populations are declining.
Borkoski said that hives in the U.S. can see a 30 to 40% loss over the course of a winter. This is considered no small statistic: Pollinators are vital to people’s diets. Honey Love, a non-profit based in Los Angeles with a mission to protect honeybees, said that 80% of the world’s plants are pollinated by bees.
One out of three or four bites of food comes from bees or animals that eat bee-pollinated plants, accounting for $15 billion in U.S. agricultural crops each year, according to research done by Christian Stoltz at the university apiary. In the past, Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) was a prime concern for beekeepers, the world was worried homegrown pollinators would die out.
Borkoski said that today scientists believe CCD is not as dramatic a problem as once thought, but bees still face struggles. Climate change, “weather weirdness,” pesticide overuse and habitat destruction all contribute to a lower survivability rate of U.S. honey bees.
The biggest issue facing bees is the Varroa mite, a small parasite that spreads from hive-to-hive carrying deadly diseases like a plague rat. Factory farming of bees spreads the parasites, Borkoski said, and that is why he is so excited about producing localized bees for apiarists in Delaware.
To help local bees, Borkoski noted that just pollinator gardens will not be enough. He pointed to a field of 50 hives and said that an entire acre of tree pollen is needed to sustain just one. Borkoski said choosing pollinator-friendly plants and limiting pesticide and herbicide use can help diversify and support bee nutrition.
He additionally advised to reconsider weeds, as they might be helpful. One of the significant floral sources are dandelions and clovers, so Borkoski said letting your lawn “just grow” can help bees flourish.
“It really is the native plants and allowing things to bloom,” Borkoski said. “It takes a lot, you know, but if everybody does a little bit, like recycling, your little bit chips in to make a big difference. And of course, support your local beekeepers.”