What’s all the buzz about UTD’s beehives?

Shreya Ravi | Mercury Staff

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Amid violet, pink and blue flowers, an apiary sits nestled in a strange place — directly next to Parking Lot A. This apiary serves as one of the havens for commercial beekeeping on campus and as an educational opportunity for students at UTD.  

Scott Rippel, one of the professors for UTD’s Honey Bee Biology course, is using these fuzzy creatures to educate students about their biology and sweet benefits. Honey Bee Biology — or BIOL 3388 — is an upper-elective course offered to Biology majors. Alongside a semester trip to the apiary, this class offers a deep insight into the most mesmerizing parts of honeybees’ lifestyle, such as their dance-based communication and swarming behaviors. 

Rippel’s interest in studying bees stems from his childhood on his grandfather’s farm. The lack of emphasis on courses about animal biology offered at UTD is piqued his interest in starting the Honey Bee Biology pilot course — a trial-run period for the class.  For Rippel, working with beehives helps him escape and recuperate from long days.  

“When you open up that hive, and there are thousands and thousands of these insects buzzing around, your mind becomes totally focused right there, you lose sight of all the other stresses that happen in life, and you end up focusing right there, into the present moment … it calms you,” Rippel said.  

After seeing a swarm of honeybees outside his home and wanting to kill them to protect his granddaughter, Rippel became interested in their biology. After reading Thomas Seeley’s Honeybee Democracy, the barrier between him and the fuzzy creatures melted away when his fascination overpowered his fear. 

“I was naïve, there was no sense in killing them, I could have saved them.  I learned about their biology … and learned about their swarming behaviors and everything coalesced … a year later [in 2013], I was teaching [this] class,” Rippel said.  

Currently, there are twenty beehives and almost half a million bees in total at Lot A and in the Eco Hub, which were built by students and installed in 2014. A thousand-dollar grant from Nature Nate, a honey company, supports the other apiary on the south side of campus.  

The apiary on Lot A itself is a small patch of land with multiple clusters of bee habitats called honey boxes. These boxes contain frames, a piece of plastic with octagonal shapes where bees roam and perform their daily tasks. When held up to the light, these framings expose the colorful nature of honey — reflecting many shades of blue, green and gold. Students in this class enjoy working with these boxes to uncover the way honeybees interact with one another.  

For biology senior Nadia Painter, learning more about honeybees has helped her understand their importance, and she hopes to cultivate a hive of her own one day. Her interest in taking this class stems from helping cultivate gardens throughout her childhood and her mother’s advice. 

“Though she [Painter’s mom] was deathly allergic to bee and wasp stings, she would always promote as long as you leave them alone, they will do their thing. I’ve never been afraid of bees … they’re adorable and they’re helpful,” Painter said.  

Honey Bee Biology not only exposes students to the intricacies of colony life, it also provides an opportunity for students to taste different varieties of honey and explore each type’s background. Tasting these honeys allows students to explore each honey’s palette and dispels the notion that all honey tastes alike.  

“Once they start tasting different honeys like manuka honey, lavender honey, tupelo honey, the floral tastes that they get, oh, I love the responses,” Rippel said.  

Much like Painter’s desire to grow a hive, biology senior Brian Nguyen also hopes to pick up hobby beekeeping after being introduced through his mother’s garden. One aspect of honeybees that stands out to Nguyen is their symbiotic nature and how they communicate as a super-organism; they all function to aid the continuation of the species.  

“There’s very little individuality and I think you can learn a lot from that … they’re willing to sacrifice themselves in a way, if necessary,” Nguyen said.  

Rippel hopes that by the end of the course, students understand the importance of the commercial honeybee in society. Because of the loss of habitat, pesticides, and climate change, Rippel said raising commercial honeybees is becoming increasingly important. In honor of Earth Week, six beehives will be installed the week of April 22.    


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