At the University of Texas at Dallas, you’ll find more than a dozen thriving hives with over half a million bees.
Each semester, the university offers two honeybee courses. The campus hosts so-called pollinator events, where students learn about and appreciate these insects and animals that help fertilize plants. And the university offers sales of honey to support its sustainability agency.
Last year, the program’s 224 bottles of honey sold out in six hours.
But this extensive engagement with bees on campus did not come from a strategic plan from the university or a grant. Rather, it arose from a student’s simple question to his instructor, “Want to see something cool?”
The instructor, Scott Rippel, answered yes without hesitation. And the “something cool,” it turns out, was a beehive the student had found on campus.
Ten years later, the follow-up to that student’s question resounds on campus. In keeping with its beginnings, the UT Dallas bee program is primarily student-led, with professors and staff usually serving as advisors.
“They couldn’t do it without us, and we couldn’t do it without them. It’s really integrated,” says Rippel, professor of education in biological sciences and one of the two faculty representatives of the bee program.
A decade in the making, UTD’s programs and courses on bees and pollinators offer students the opportunity to understand sustainability as something far beyond textbooks and PowerPoint presentations. Students don’t just read about the benefits of planting native plant species and creating pollinator-friendly spaces, they see them all over campus.
After serving in the United States Army for four years, Rippel received his master’s degree and Ph.D. at UTD in molecular and cell biology. In the fall of 1999, he started teaching at the university. At his student’s fateful question, Rippel asked his head of department if he could teach an elective on honeybees.
Shortly afterwards, in the fall of 2013, Rippel gave his first honeybee biology course. What started as a few pilot courses became an elective that drew students every semester.
A few years after teaching the course, Rippel received an unexpected email from Christina Thompson, an associate professor of instruction at Honors College. Thompson’s parents had decided to move to a farm with the aim of being self-sufficient after living in the suburbs all their lives. They asked Thompson if she knew anything about beekeeping.
The first person that came to mind, of course, was Rippel, who took Thompson to one of the apiaries on campus: a collection of beehives. She was addicted.
When Thompson shared her experiences with her class of 150 organic chemistry students, they not only knew about the apiaries and the honeybee class, but they wanted to get involved. They just didn’t have the chance, because the class was limited to a certain number of students in a certain major.
From there, Thompson presented the idea of a honeybee course for non-biology majors, and the university’s second bee course was born: Honeybees in Society. This shorter elective course focused less on the science of honeybees and more on their history and role in society, as well as “bee democracy,” the way they interact with each other.
But the courses have one thing in common. Equipped with bee suits, the students experience what it is like to be surrounded by thousands of buzzing bees. This experience, Rippel and Thompson say, is transformative. Both for them and for their students.
As early as World War I, beekeeping was used to help veterans with post-traumatic illness, Rippel said.
“I’m telling [my students]”When I feel anxious outside, when I put my head in a beehive, all my worries just disappear,” Rippel said. “As they sit there with a frame of 2,000 to 3,000 bees, stinging insects, there’s just this awe going on.”
Likewise, Thompson has found that the most rewarding experience of teaching these courses is watching even the most anxious students transform their fear into fascination with the thousands of bees around them.
“We involved students throughout the process, from installing the hives to managing the hive and bottling the honey…it is central to student engagement,” said Gary Cocke, UTD’s director of sustainability and energy conservation.
Cocke is one of the co-chairs of the university’s Bee Campus USA program. Bee Campus USA is an organization that provides a framework for campuses to conserve native pollinators. The university has been officially affiliated with the organization for four years now. It is one of only seven universities in Texas with affiliation; there are 142 such campuses in the US.
Each year, UTD students act as program representatives and lead the university renewal application process.
Eve Gersh, a UTD public policy major and one of the program’s student representatives, says the program deeply shaped her experience as a student. “I mean, how many students can say they had to get some honey from a real beehive right after their math exam?” said Gersch.
The program has fueled her academic career, distinguishing her for the prestigious Sumners Scholarship she recently received.
“This job has really helped me become a leader and meet other students, especially those interested in sustainability,” Gersh said. “So it was great not only to develop my own leadership, but also to just make friends and meet other people on campus.”
For Gersh, the experience will extend well beyond her time at UTD: “This is something that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. Bees have been a way of bridging the gap and talking to anyone, anywhere.”
Jessica Rodriguez reports on science for The Dallas Morning News as part of a fellowship with the American Association for the Advancement of Science.