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Class combines beekeeping, gardening, community service

Student holds frame of honey and bees

Ifunanya Ugorji examines a frame shes removed from the beehive. The white area is where bees have filled the tiny hexagonal compartments with honey and capped them with wax, while the yellow area is honey that has not yet been covered.

At a University of Delaware program in Wilmington, students have been as busy as, well, bees as they incorporated discovery learning and a community service project into biology and other science classes.

That was especially true during the first summer session, when Daniel McDevit, assistant professor of biological sciences in the Associate in Arts Program (AAP), decided to add a beekeeping element to an interdisciplinary class focused on the science of local environments.

Students in some of his earlier biology classes had worked in an urban community garden as a way to experience firsthand what they were learning in the classroom. Adding a beehive to the garden and instruction in bee biology and its role in the ecosystem to his syllabus seemed like a natural next step for the summer science course, McDevit said.

The New Beginnings Garden and its hive are located at the YWCAs Home-Life Management Center in Wilmingtons densely populated West Center City community. The center, which provides housing and other services for families in need of refuge, has a backyard thats spacious enough to accommodate several 4-by-8-foot raised beds that produce a variety of vegetables for the residents.

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Two students stand at the hive

Nicholas Matt (left) stands by with a hand-held smoker, used to calm and disperse bees if needed, as fellow student Ifunanya Ugorji prepares to lift the lid from the hive.

The garden benefits the Y and the families who live here, McDevit said. Its a good community service project for our students. Plus, its a great way to teach science.

In addition to fresh produce, residents now will also share in the honey produced by the bees. And because bees travel two to three miles from home on their nectar-gathering forays, they are also helping to pollinate the many backyard gardens and trees throughout the city, McDevit said.

During the summer, his class frequently visited the garden, which is within easy walking distance of the AAP classrooms in downtown Wilmington, working in the garden and with the bee colony.

On one of the last days of the summer session, about a dozen students donned protective hats with veils covering their faces and approached the beehive, a brightly painted, UD-themed wooden box with three compartments. As bees swarmed around them, the students lifted off the lid and began removing, one by one, the frames that were slotted vertically into each part of the hive. 

The foundation inside each rectangular frame was covered with bees and partially covered with the wax that bees use to seal in the array of small hexagonal compartments. Inside some of the compartments was honey, while others held pupa bees that were changing from their larval to adult stages. The students inspected each frame carefully.

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Frame covered with honeybees

A student lifts a frame from the hive to assess the health of the colony.

When they pull them out, theyre assessing the health of the hive, McDevit said. Do the bees have enough food? Do they have enough room? Is the queen laying eggs?

The class came to the site twice a week this summer, which is the peak season for honey production, even though the colony operates like a well-oiled machine and doesnt really require much human assistance.

The bees would be OK with us coming once a month, McDevit said. Theyd probably prefer to be left alone more, but this is a learning experience, and I want the students to see all the stages of the hive.

The lower part of the hive is the brood chamber, where the colonys lone queen lays some 1,500 eggs a day during the summer and where the young are raised. The entire colony consists of more than 50,000 bees at its peak.

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Professor McDevit with bees

Dan McDevit, assistant professor of biological sciences, points to the bees gathered on a frame that students have removed from the hive.

In addition to their hands-on work and keeping records of their observations, students completed small-group research projects, which they presented during the final days of class. Topics ranged from examining whether particular colors are more or less likely to attract bees to a study of different types of honey.

Meanwhile, the students have become comfortable around the bees theyre a mix of two gentle species that McDevit assures visitors are really chill and many forgo wearing gloves or long sleeves. The class uses a hand-held device to blow smoke if needed to calm a swarm of bees or move them away from the hive temporarily.

People in the neighborhood also seem to have grown accustomed to the beehive and the student activity. 

Passers-by walking along Eighth Street often stop at the fence to watch and ask questions about beekeeping. On any given day, there are likely to be first-time spectators and regulars, McDevit said.

A few students expressed interest in doing some backyard beekeeping of their own in the future, but most say their main takeaway was how engaged they were in class because of the hands-on experience.

Im looking at TV production as a career, not environmental science, said freshman Maddie Punke. But Ive learned so much in this class without even realizing it. Its a great way to learn.

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UD at New Beginnings Garden

Students inspect a carrot

Students (from left) Nicholas Matt, Jordan Watson and Ifunanya Ugorji check out a carrot from the garden.

The project at the YWCA began in spring 2018, when Prof. David Teague, associate director of the AAP for Wilmington, organized community collaborations for students in the leadership class he was teaching.

He and his students planted the first garden that semester, arranged for it to be cared for throughout that summer by AAP faculty and students, and kept it going from planting to harvest, Teague said.

Since then, several leadership and biology classes have worked at the garden, and women and gender studies students have discussed the social and gender issues faced by families who live at the Home-Life Management Center.

With McDevits Science on the Scene (SCEN 105) students this summer, six classes have now been involved with the project, and there are more to come.

Its an ongoing partnership with the YWCA, Teague and McDevit say, and both plan to continue taking students to the site.

This is what I consider the gold standard of engaged instruction: substantive capacity-building for our partner that is directly linked to material taught in class, Teague said.

Article by Ann Manser; photos by Evan Krape

Published July 23, 2019

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