Originally published Feb. 8, 2018, in The Hoya.
When Austin Hong (COL ’18), co-founder of Georgetown Renewable Energy and Environmental Network, became a teaching assistant for the “Foundations in Biology II” course in the College last spring, he did not expect to meet someone as interested in beekeeping as he was.
But Angela Bai (COL ’17), a fellow teaching assistant, was more than willing to listen when Hong told her about his apiary aspirations, and their casual discussions evolved into a full-fledged project.
“I talk about what I’m doing all the time to other people,” Hong said in an interview with The Hoya. “She kept coming back to it and helping me out so we just both kind of started leading this project.”
Hong and Bai were captivated by the idea of beekeeping as a pathway to sustainable living — a chance for students to be involved with food production, from cultivation to consumption. A year later, their vision is about to be realized: A team of students in the Georgetown Renewable Energy and Environmental Network is planning to bring beekeeping to Georgetown University’s campus this March.
Gateway to Sustainability
Hong considers bees as a local solution to a national environmental predicament.
“They pollinate, they produce honey. They’re just sort of involved in that whole idea of food becoming local,” Hong said. “We’re shipping tons of vegetables, tons of meat, just like thousands of miles. Nobody really grows their own food or is connected to their own food.”
Accessibility to local food motivates GREEN’s Organics Committee, which contains the roughly 10-member beekeeping team alongside hydroponics and gardening groups.
With funding from the Social Innovation and Public Service Fund, a student-led board that invests in social ventures, and the Georgetown Environment Initiative, a multi-campus effort to promote sustainability, the prospective beekeepers hope to establish a collection of beehives populated with a small colony of Western honey bees — native to Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Western Asia — and potentially sell the honey they produce during Georgetown’s weekly Farmers’ Market.
Georgetown would not be the only university in Washington, D.C. to host an on-campus beekeeping program — the American University and the George Washington University both have active apiaries.
Bai said the beekeeping project would enable members of the Georgetown community to witness for themselves the possibilities of urban agriculture.
“I feel like it’s just going to make people see what they can do with their hands or what they can do by themselves,” Bai said. “They don’t have to rely on an industrial agricultural system.”
To prepare for the colony’s arrival, four freshmen on the beekeeping team travel to the University of the District of Columbia every Tuesday evening for a two-hour class conducted by local nonprofit ,D.C. Beekeepers Alliance, a community partner of GREEN.
The eight-week course runs from late January through mid-March and is timed to give beginner beekeepers the knowledge they need to start their own hives by spring. Late March and early April provide the ideal time to start a hive, as blooming flowers provide ready nectar for bees.
Amanda Cutler (SFS ’21), who is one of the students enrolled in the beekeeping course, said she was compelled to join by her interest in environmental politics.
“The first day they’re like, ‘Oh, we have all these different groups like hydroponics, gardening, composting and then beekeeping,’ and I was like, ‘Wow, that’s so cool.’” Cutler said. “We have really big ambitions. It would be such a nice thing to grow.”
Originally, the team envisioned setting up the apiary on Observatory Hill, near the historic Heyden Observatory. But now members worry the location’s proximity to a small stream and air conditioning units is dangerous for the bees, who could accidentally drown themselves in the water source or otherwise cause problems with the unit.
The beekeeping team is continuing to work with the Office of Planning and Facilities Management to identify a new location on the main campus.
“We have the hive and we’ve painted it, but after the first class we realized that we need to find a new location,” Cutler said. “We’re trying to find a new spot right now.”
Colony and Community
Already, the beekeeping project has rallied a community of backers within the Georgetown community. Georgetown’s Social Innovation and Public Service Fund has allocated $1,760 to funding the team’s project, according to SIPS Project Manager Georgie Reading (SFS ’19), who directs efforts with a sustainability focus. SIPS normally allocates anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000, depending on the project.
“The beekeeping project is a really cool, unique project that is unlike any of the other ones we have funded,” Reading wrote in an email to The Hoya. “It is always a pleasure for SIPS to be able to fund projects that are in the Georgetown community with the hope that it will increase awareness about the issues at hand.”
The team is also supported by faculty adviser professor Edward Barrows of the Department of Biology. Barrows’ specialties include nonhoney bees and Western honey bees, and he has kept a Western honey bee hive in Kansas. Barrows’ expertise has helped identify potential locations, research bee food availability at Georgetown and evaluate grant proposals.
“I think it’s a great project, and I want it to be successful,” Barrows wrote in an email to The Hoya. “I like working on projects with students.”
Bees — both wild and domestic — perform 80 percent of all pollination in the world, according to environmental protection organization Greenpeace. Their survival, however, has been threatened by a mysterious phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder, which has decimated the bee population nationwide over the past decade.
To buck this trend and promote pollination in the District, D.C.’s Department of Parks and Recreation has partnered with the D.C. Beekeepers Alliance to allow residents to keep their own personally owned honeybee hive in one of seven beehive locations across the city.
Hong said he hopes that members of the Georgetown community will engage with opportunities to participate in beekeeping.
“People get involved with beekeeping and they realize it’s not too hard, and then they grow up and they have kids and they have their own bee hives or something,” Hong said. “They see something fun, and then they get involved with it, and then they become involved with GREEN.”