The Bees and Their Keepers

By Meredith Fidrocki

Imagine a quiet community of workers who support a key cog in a billion-dollar industry that produces goods used in every corner of the Earth.

They are tireless.

They are essential.

And they are disappearing.

Meet the honeybee.

Honeybees are among the vital pollinators of the world’s crops, and their decline translates to decreased food supply and increased food costs. As noted by environmental economist Pavan Sukhdev, author of an earth-shaking United Nations report on ecosystems and biodiversity: “Not a single bee has ever sent you an invoice. And that is part of the problem—because most of what comes to us from nature is free, because it is not invoiced, because it is not priced, because it is not traded in markets, we tend to ignore it.”

For Holy Cross biology majors Anthony Criscitiello ’17 and Mary Patrice Hamilton ’17, the value of the honeybee—and the implications associated with its decline—could not be ignored. In the face of this global problem, these two students discovered a passion and a team at Holy Cross willing to support it.

The Motivation

For Mary Patrice Hamilton ’17, of Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey, the germ of an idea began during her first year at Holy Cross in the Montserrat course “Visions of Difference.” As part of the community-based learning extension of the course, she volunteered in a kindergarten classroom in Worcester. “I was always in the classroom during snack time, and I saw the children interact with common foods like apples and oranges with confusion and apprehension; some of the kids had never eaten these foods before. I started researching why fresh and organic foods are so expensive in this country and that’s when I learned about the decline of the honeybees.”

She notes that while “some people won’t notice the price surge, for others it will be the difference between giving their kids an apple or a processed snack.” Classmate Anthony Criscitiello ’17, of Ridgewood, New Jersey, came to Holy Cross with an interest in beekeeping after a family friend took it up as a hobby. He began talking with Hamilton about the issues of food justice and access raised in her Montserrat course. They wondered, “What can we do to supply underprivileged people with quality produce?”

Getting Started

Enter: the bees.

With more questions than answers, they felt that access to a honeybee hive would give them an opportunity to study factors potentially contributing to this global crisis.

Criscitiello and Hamilton’s first explorative step was both collaborative and undeniably liberal arts in nature. Hamilton describes: “It started by shooting articles back and forth and reading about beekeeping in primary literature, blogs, U.S. Department of Agriculture reports, historical accounts and even classical poets like Hesiod. We developed our philosophy of beekeeping before the honeybees even got here.”
Criscitiello mentioned their early research and interest in studying honeybees to Justin McAlister, an assistant professor of biology at the College, who encouraged them to pursue the project.

McAlister describes his early role with the students: “The main advice I gave them was essentially that if they wanted to do it, they could do it! Yes, we would need to figure out the logistics and funding and science, and yes, some initial ideas would have to be cast aside for various reasons, and yes, it was going to be a bit of an uphill climb at times, but if they were passionate about setting up hives on campus, then I thought that there had to be a way for us to make it work.”

Bee School and The Hives

The next step took McAlister and his students back to school—together. During the 2015 spring semester, all three enrolled in beekeeping school, Bee School, through the Worcester County Beekeepers Association, which is the oldest county beekeeping organization in the United States. McAlister and his students attended the courses weekly and made key contacts with experts in the beekeeping field.

Criscitiello and Hamilton pursued and were awarded internal Holy Cross grants from the Marshall Memorial Fund, the Student Grant Program and the Dr. Charles S. Weiss Summer Research Program, providing critical financial support for the project.

The students then took a road trip to Connecticut to a vendor who sells honeybees. They picked up a small cardboard box containing the nucleus “nuc” hive, and the beekeepers and their new bees made the car trip together back to Mount St. James. The bees even got a taste of dorm life before settling in to their home on the edge of campus behind Kuzniewski Field. “I kept the ‘nuc’ in my dorm overnight,” Criscitiello recalls. “The next morning, we carried the box to the back of campus and transferred the bees into the hive body [wooden frame of the hive].”

At that time, no one else at Holy Cross was studying honeybees.

Since the establishment of that first hive in 2015, Criscitiello and Hamilton have donned their beekeeper veils and shepherded the hive’s growth from one, to two and now six hives. Criscitiello notes that his initial fears around the bees “transformed into respect and awe at their complexity and beauty.”

Hamilton echoes this reverence: “Honeybee colonies are fierce, collaborative and mysterious products of evolution,” she says. “They are organized in a fearsomely awesome matriarchy, which I find particularly cool. It is easy to come up with good hypotheses about honeybees; the hard part is designing experiments to test them.”