Hive Haven

Buzz buzz
Buzz buzz // Michael McHugh

It is the third meeting of the Yale Bee Space at the Center for Engineering, Innovation and Design (CEID), and hive coordinator Fred Rincon ’16 is at the whiteboard with a marker, drawing a beehive.

“So, there’s basically two types of standard hives, two types of templates: there’s the Langstroth hive, that’s mostly used for industrial honey harvesting, and there’s topbar hives, or Warré hives,” Rincon says, continuing to diagram for the six other members in attendance. The floor is otherwise empty, and Fred’s voice carries through the quiet.

Rincon explains that the Warré hive, unlike the Langstroth hive, only needs to be opened once for honey harvesting during the springtime, a feature that largely preserves the moisture within the hive to which the bees are naturally accustomed. The Langstroth, however, is potentially more useful for research because it relies on frames, or structures composed of honeycomb, that are removable and allow for easier bee management.

Club president Glen Meyerowitz ’14, who founded the group this year, sits up in his office chair. “I think the important thing to remember here is that, with the stuff that we have at the CEID, we could pretty much do whatever we want,” he says, his right leg bouncing up and down like it has since Rincon began his presentation. The members smile, and a few of them laugh; in the back, colorful pliers and wrenches, hanging like fruit, shine in the industrial lighting. “We could pretty much go to Home Depot, get a giant thing of plywood, and make a hive in a few hours with a laser cutter.” Everyone pipes their assent: cool, okay, sounds good. Rincon sits down to soft applause.

Of the members present this evening, including Meyerowitz, Rincon is one of the few with prior beekeeping experience, and unintentional at that: his brother flew to New York over the summer, leaving his newly acquired hive and its 30,000 bees for Fred to figure out how to tend. And only Meyerowitz and secretary Sam Faucher ’16 among them plan to major in the sciences or engineering. Meyerowitz hopes to give tutorials for those unfamiliar with the tools they will be using in hive construction, like laser cutters.

The group continues their discussion of plans for the year: an iPhone app for following hive humidity and temperature, dabbing bees for tracking with fluorescent paint, experimenting with bee pheromones, and, for those of age, perhaps experimenting with honey fermentation to make mead.

Students at Yale might not know much about beekeeping, but they will find the Bee Space’s approach to the venture old hat: have problem, will solve. Here, on the members’ minds is not a problem to solve so much as a dearth of knowledge; according to Meyerowitz, most scholarship on bees is largely speculative. “I’m not hoping to answer any questions,” he says. “But any data that could shed light could be a cool way to participate in the discussion.”

* * *

There are two Langstroth hives at the Yale Farm, separated by a few, cautious feet, to be found behind a hill that leads away from the main grounds. The Langstroth hive is visually unimpressive, like a minimalist totem pole — two white wooden drawers are bookended and secured by a large rock, lying on top of a fitted wooden cover, and a board on bottom. This structure sits solidly on top of a stout wooden stake.

To look at the hives is to instantly see more than the hives themselves. From a small vent at the base of each, a persistent trickle of bees broadly loop-de-loops like a self-knotting skein. The patterns of this emergence are variable, and change with the wind, though the bees keep to their course and return, always, to the hive. Nearby cars and airplanes above are noisy in their passage, but in their absence it is possible to discern the bees’ low, insistent buzzing.

On Monday, New Haven-based beekeeper Ben Gardener gave the first workshop on introductory beekeeping at the Yale Farm hives to members and prospective members of the Bee Space. Educational coordinator Eleanor Marshall ’16, who beekept while working on a produce farm last summer, said that beekeepers actually play a minimal role in managing the incredibly complex activity inside the hives. At the farm, she said that beekeeping was primarily opening up the hives, cleaning up excess sticky material and making sure you could find the queen — the only bee who can lay eggs, and without whom the hive will die. For Marshall, beekeeping was a largely uninvolved process.

Rincon, however, is less optimistic about the practice. “It’s like raising a really incapable baby,” he says. Over email, he wrote that beekeeping could be both heartbreaking and frustrating when colonies collapsed, or when the bees wouldn’t settle into the hive.

But Rincon is continuing to beekeep at Yale because “bees are pretty badass.” Marshall has continued to find beekeeping exciting as well. “Every time I see [the hive], it’s awesome,” she says, “because it’s always sort of unexpected. The average hive has 50,000 bees, and it looks like synchronized swimming, the way they will fly and land. Some of the honey cells are still sort of uncapped, and you can see the bees up to their abdomens, eating the honey. It’s a whole world going on inside of this boring white box.”

To Meyerowitz’s surprise, 24 people attended the first meeting of the Yale Bee Space. He developed the group over the summer with the Yale Sustainable Food Project, and expected to be working with a small, concentrated group. Instead, he found himself dealing with unanticipated interest — their panlist has about 60 subscribers.

“I have had to answer questions about ‘why are you doing beekeeping?’ a lot,” says social chair Ben Healy ’16. “Last year I did basically everything that I did in high school. This year I’m trying to figure out things that I can do that are interesting to me, and that I have not had the chance to try ever, and may never be able to try again.” Faucher agreed, saying that beekeeping appealed to him because of its separation from other, more typical activities at Yale.

Students from both rural and urban areas have expressed interest in the Bee Space. Though students from the latter might be intrigued by the possibility of exploring an activity that seems out of their environmental comfort zone, Meyerowitz says that there is nothing necessarily rural about beekeeping. “Central Park doesn’t pollinate itself,” he points out. “There are lots of urban hives, even in New York. It’s something that people may associate more with rural areas, but it’s definitely something that can appeal to anyone, anywhere.”

* * *

In the next few weeks, the Yale Bee Space will take control of hives currently located in West Campus, left by a lab that was studying the pollen composition of honey before it moved to Texas. The Bee Space will move the hives to the West Campus Farm, where their work will officially begin.

What they actually plan to do with the hives, other than beekeep, remains up for discussion. Meyerowitz, a physics major, is particularly enthusiastic about developing an iPhone app that would render 3D temperature and humidity maps of the beehives, but the general attitude of the Bee Space suggests that no idea is a bad idea.

“Glen is great — he’s our queen bee,” Healy said. “He’s really been prepared for every step of the way. When I first came into the club, my thought was that this was a group of people who looked at a beehive every week, but it’s turned into a really interesting project.”

Meyerowitz’s vision for the Bee Space is more extensive than a training ground for Yale beekeepers. He wants the Space to use elements of design and engineering to improve upon beekeeping and hive structure, the latter of which they have already begun to address. According to Meyerowitz, there has been little extensive research on beehive designs or technology since the 19th century, when both the Langstroth and Warré hives were invented. Although people have continued to hold beekeeping as a casual interest — Faucher brings up a website called “Beehacker.com” that bills itself as a “cross-pollination of beekeeping and technology” — few, if any ventures in the field have resulted in real impact for bees and beekeeping since the 1850s. The Langstroth and Warré hives were designed before the development of tracking and sensing technologies, both of which the Bee Space plans to implement when they begin work. Modern hives have undergone scant changes that would allow them to accommodate more advanced research on bees; whether the Bee Space chooses to use Langstroth hives or Warré hives, they will only be as a baseline on which to make modifications.

“It’s an interesting challenge from an ecological engineering standpoint,” Meyerowitz says, adding that their work is complicated by the relatively little scientists understand about bees. Among the mysteries is colony collapse disorder, a phenomenon resulting in sudden death among worker bees that gained widespread attention in 2006. Pesticides have been proposed as a potential culprit, but its cause remains a source of speculation. With additions like heat and humidity trackers to Bee Space hives, the group hopes to gain new findings that, unlike more recreational beekeeping, will be useful and relevant to protecting the welfare of the species.

Though equally excited to begin the upcoming projects, Faucher has a solidly pragmatic view of the Bee Space’s aims. “It’s a whole new area of scientific research, so we’re sort of choosing the low-hanging fruit — things that are more portable and relatively simple that can be done by undergraduates. We [have to take into account] the practicality of the research.”

Meyerowitz adds that he himself is unsure whether any of their ventures will yield results. But earlier, after Rincon had finished, he had swiveled around and pointed at a sleek, white Yale-designed racecar on display in a corner of the CEID. “One day, soon, they’re going to take out that racecar and [replace it] with one of our beehives instead,” he said. There was a pause in which nobody spoke — perhaps they were considering if and how that day might actually be a possibility.

* * *

The Reverend Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth coined the term “bee space” in 1851 over the course of designing his namesake hive. Considered the “Father of American Beekeeping,” Langstroth, who graduated from Yale in 1831, revolutionized beekeeping with the idea, which is Goldilocks in nature: a space between two slits of wood less than one centimeter apart will be just the right size for a bee to crawl through — not too small so that the bee takes it for a crack and seals it, and not too large so that the bee fills it with unnecessary wax comb.

The concept of bee space has endured. Respecting it results in more efficient beekeeping and a more manageable hive, and now it has lent itself to the name of a student beekeeping team at Langstroth’s alma mater. But it is a lonely concept, one of few notable advancements in a practice that has been around for hundreds of years. At the Yale Bee Space, there is enough curiosity and enthusiasm to convince their skeptics that the idea of bee space may very well be in good company in the next few years.

“At a certain point of learning about honeybees, it becomes difficult not to spiral into fascination,” wrote Jeremy Oldfield, Field Academic Coordinator at the Yale Sustainable Food Project, in an email. “I love the idea that [Glen’s] work … may help inform the next generation of data-gathering honeybee hives. There’s a lot of excitement around the [Farm] about this effort.”

Meyerowitz will graduate this year, but he believes the club will continue in his absence. Watching the members, abuzz with activity about their plans, you are inclined to agree with him.

Correction: September 27

An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Eleanor Marshall ’16 as “Eleanor Dunbar.”

Comments