By John Syme
This story starts with a summer storm. Late one Friday in July, an afternoon squall barreled up the sidewalk between Eco House student apartments at the corner of Glasgow and Main streets and Julia Johnston House communications offices next door, home of the Davidson Journal.
The storm split an old mulberry tree that had doubtless guarded that backyard since the days of Miss Julia herself. Eagle-eyed communications staffers soon spotted a honeybee hive inside the split tree. The staffers alerted Eco House students, who sprang into action to notify Jessie Blount ’13, co-president of the Bee club, who told club adviser Mike Goode ’83, assistant director of Davidson Outdoors, who buzzed fellow beekeeper Keyne Cheshire, associate professor and chair of classics.
As this cast of characters assembled, Miss Julia’s backyard became a hive of activity to save the honeybees. the story started by a summer storm would soon open up like the old mulberry tree itself, to reveal the heretofore private life of bees at Davidson college.
First, the mulberry tree needed a stay of execution. even the expert groundskeepers of Davidson’s canopied campus, designated a National Arboretum since 1985, couldn’t save this tree. But they made it safe for the time being, and delayed the tree truck long enough for an attempt at hive relocation.
Goode and Cheshire installed a long, paperboard tube, approximately 42 quarts in volume and outfitted as a temporary bee home. It had to be placed very close to the hive; more than a few feet would confuse bees returning from forage. They’re very particular, honeybees.
A day or so passed. Nothing happened. Goode and Cheshire doused a towel with a noxious-smelling product formulated to make bees move out, and placed it over one side of the tree. After a few days of this, the bees swarmed their new home, which was promptly moved to the “bee yard” chez Goode. Though the distance from old hive to new was not a full two miles away, per standard anti-honeybee-confusion protocols, it was the best choice under the circumstances.
“Bees are a metaphor,” says Cheshire, who recently delivered two invited lectures, “Beekeeping: Old and New” at the National Junior classical League at Wake Forest University in July; and “The Symbology of the Honeybee in Ancient Greek culture” at the Yiasou Greek Festival in Charlotte in September. He proudly displays a N.C. certified Beekeeper diploma in his chambers office.
Cheshire never set out to study the classical poetics of bees, any more than he set out to be a beekeeper. But he finds the twin pursuits immanently rewarding.
His first season of producing Nine Muses honey in his backyard yielded enough bounty to warrant a trip to the Charlotte regional Farmers Market. The night before on a lark, he posted the honey’s availability to academic colleagues on a faculty list-serve. All the honey was collegially claimed by breakfast.
Aristotle thought honey came from dew, or perhaps fell off of rainbows, says Cheshire, who has researched and translated an increasing body of bee knowledge in recent years. He’s studied Pindar and Hesiod and Homer and Semonides of Amorgos, poets who have variously portrayed honeybee drones as the epitome of the lazy man, or the queen as symbol of noble woman. In the Callimachean aesthetic, the bee is a symbol of purity, even of poetry itself, as in this Cheshire translation of Callimachus’ “Hymn to Apollo”:
Bees bring not just any water.
Pure, untouched, it wells up from a sacred spring.
A tiny trickle, pinnacle of prime .. .
“Bee biology is fascinating,” says Eric Awwyer ’14 of st. Joseph, Mo.
Sawyer is a Bee club member who does laboratory genetics and genomics research with Associate Professor of Biology Karen Hales and Professor of Biology and James G. Martin Program director of Genomics Malcolm Campbell.
It’s useful to view the hive as an organism, Sawyer says, with individual bees going through a series of genetic programs in their life cycle. They’re mostly female, moving from nurse bees that feed larvae to building comb to serving as hive undertakers and, eventually, foraging. “
At the foraging stage, they can wear themselves out within six weeks,” Sawyer says. “Males (drones) sit around and get fat and hang out and can’t sting, then they get to go on one mating flight with the queen, which kills them.”
Honeybees typically forage up to two miles from the hive, for nectar for honey, pollen for protein, and sap for propolis, a kind of construction sealant. Also, there’s royal jelly, a specialized nourishment that helps create a new queen and touted in some health circles as having special benefit for humans, too. Sawyer can go on. He keeps up with the scientific literature, and is most recently fascinated by the possibility of equipping foragers with nanotechnology trackers to shed light on how a hive “resets its GPS” when it moves. Not to mention perhaps further unveiling mysteries of honeybees’ infamous “waggle dance.”
Beelines extend through a variety of campus stories that make up the web of Davidson life, academic and otherwise. For example:
Cakey Worthington ’13 of Indianapolis is researching native pollinators, bees and beyond. Her work and the work of other students of Associate Professor of Biology Chris Paradise, have resulted in a campus butterfly garden. It is an interdisciplinary effort beyond biology, says Director of Grounds Jim King. “We have art students doing garden design in classes,” he says. The first gardens of lavender, white, yellow, and red Buddleia davidii grace the grounds of the Katherine and Tom Belk Visual Art center.
Paradise sums up some of the scientific complexities of “colony collapse disorder” or ccd: “We have some ideas about ccd, and honeybees have certainly been adversely affected by many pathogens, pesticides, etc. Over the years. Because of all the stressors, it is possible that CCD is caused by multiple factors, weakening the bees to the point where they become susceptible to the next stressor that comes along. For instance, mites, diseases (e.g., a virus has been implicated), environmental change, malnutrition, pesticides (e.g., neonicotinoids are a major hypothesized factor), and migratory beekeeping (sending hives from the Eastern U.S. to California to pollinate almond orchards, e.g.) are a range of factors that have been hypothesized to play a role.”
Tori Mayernick ’14 of Philadelphia heads up a chapter of Hives for Lives, a group that has grown from a memorial for a beloved grandparent to a regionally-based honey distribution network that facilitates “local honey with local money” to the benefit of local cancer research.
John “Egg Man” Wilkinson, senior athletic groundskeeper, is known across campus for the sweet honey he delivers to the deskbound from his nearby farm. Other staff and faculty have a hand in the honeypot, too, and local beekeeper Johnny Elliott serves a regular clientele of town and gown at the Davidson Farmer’s Market every Saturday in season.
At The Farm at Davidson College, recently acquired farmland adjacent to campus off Grey road, Bee club students recently got together for a honey extraction party, with equipment borrowed from Professor of Classics Michael Toumazou. At presstime, the club was planning an October campus visit by renowned natural beekeeper Ross Conrad.
Quinn Libson ’13 of Bryn Mawr, Pa., co-president of Bee club, is concentrating her academic beelines on a Watson scholarship application. A political science major, Libson is especially interested in the micro-economic prospects of beekeeping in countries including Ukraine, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Nepal, and Honduras, where beekeeping is a centuries-old practice.
What, finally, became of the Julia Johnston/Eco House hive? Goode tells the tale in an update e-mail to interested parties: “Keyne and I… were looking for new eggs that would indicate that our greatest hopes had been realized. Well, it wasn’t to be…. When a hive has no queen and no viable eggs that can be made into a replacement queen, one or more of the worker bees begins to lay eggs. Unfortunately, since the female worker is not fertilized, the eggs she lays can only turn out to be drones (male bees). so when Keyne inspected the hive, he saw multiple eggs per cell with some on the sides instead of dead in the center of the bottom (only the queen can reach so far down), raised capped brood (since the drone larvae are bigger than workers), and shotgun pattern (not the regular dense pattern of brood created by a healthy queen). All are signs of a laying worker. so, we knew then that the Eco House bee colony would not survive on its own. therefore, the exceptionally perceptive and quick-thinking Cheshire suggested that we combine it with another hive in my bee yard that seems to be queenright…. the way we did this was to put the laying working hive box on top of the queenright hive while separating the two with two sheets of the Charlotte Observer. The time that it takes the bees to chew their way through the newspaper hopefully allows them to take on the scent of the queen below and to feel at home. otherwise many will just duke it out with the bees from the different hive. Without cameras and reporters inside the hive boxes we can only guess what is going on. today i did notice some bees wrestling at the entrance, but not an extraordinary number. Hopefully in a day or two more it will all be worked out and that hive will begin to flourish.”
And indeed it did.