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A Trip to the Beeyond: Students in "From Bees to Beetles" Visit the Starks Lab

Photograph by Instructor, Rachael Bonoan

When I joined her ExCollege course, From Bees to Beetles: Insect Pollinators and Real-World Science, Rachael Bonoan was asking students to consider the ways in which scientists approach hive societies. Bonoan poses what seems a simple question — “are you convinced that honey bees can be considered a superorganism?”—but the room is already buzzing with conversation. The class hovers around a split vote, with some students declaring beehives a unit, while others are less willing to discount the autonomy of individual bees. Though they eventually concede that honeybees act as superorganisms, simply by asking students to think so closely about an insect they might otherwise ignore, Bonoan is slowly expanding their world view to include the small creatures responsible for so much of our existence.

Bonoan’s class certainly has students getting up close and personal with the subject matter. Besides researching their own insect pollinators throughout the semester, students also have a chance to physically interact with the insects they are studying. At their last class, Bonoan brought students to the Starks Lab, whose observational beehives are tucked away behind Cousens gym.

Photographs by Emma Hodgdon

The beekeeper’s hut is small and cramped, bringing students closer to the thousands of bees swarming behind the colorful hive structures. But Bonoan is not content with allowing students solely to look—she wants them to experience the bees as she does. “Who is brave enough to lean over and breathe into the hive?” Bonoan challenges, daring students to interact directly with the insects. “Their alarm pheromones smell like bananas...anyone smell bananas yet?” A couple brave souls blow into the beehives, and soon the rest of the class joins in the adventure. Bonoan smiles as students laugh and squeal over the banana-scented beehives. “The main objective of this course,” she later mentions, “is to familiarize students with insect pollinators and make them think of the importance of insect pollinators in the world. But my personal thing is to get students to become less afraid of bees, and it usually works.”

So is there anything everyday people can do to keep these creatures around so that future generations can experience the joy seen in Bonoan’s class? Surprisingly, yes.

Bonoan was eager to share a few points with me after her class:

“Plant more flowers!” Her first fix for homeowners, asking people to plant not only more flowers, but a larger variety of species, for different bees require different flowers to pollinate. Flowers blooming in late-August to December and late-March to early spring are particularly helpful for insect pollinators, since these are the hardest times of the year to find viable plant life.

“Be more careful reading labels.” Fix number two: while agriculturalists regularly use heavy-grade pesticides, these are curated and applied carefully to prevent any undue harm on the ecosystem. By contrast, homeowners tend to use nondiscriminatory pesticides which, besides eradicating the desired pests, can also kill the insect pollinators required for healthy plant life.

And lastly, “Don’t mulch!” Bonoan is emphatic in her last point: mulching the soil can get rid of important nutrients for native pollinators, as with certain bees who grow in the stalks of dead plants. Mulching is an issue of protecting native habitats, which in turn protects the biodiversity of our environment.

Bonoan stresses that these fixes are “easy to do, even in this urban area.” More than gardening or mulching, Bonoan’s tips relate an important goal for people to “slow down and look at the world around them,” and that bees are not the only creatures who need to work together to preserve our planet earth.

About the Author

Emma Hodgdon is a senior studying English literature. Apart from reading Gothic fiction, she can be found practicing cello for the Symphony and Chamber Orchestras, or dancing with the university’s ballroom dance team. She spends her free time experimenting with calligraphy, learning to speak Chinese, and caring for her succulents, Verotchka and Geraldine.

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