Oh honey, there are bees on Memorial University’s Campus!

In July 2022, three colonies of honeybees were established on Memorial University’s campus, housing about 15-20,000 bees per colony. They are located near the Alumni Affairs building and monitored under Dr. Tom Chapman's guidance. Dr. Chapman highlights the importance of bees as a teaching opportunity. However, due to construction in the area, the bees may be in danger.

The goal of establishing bee colonies on campus is to support education in entomology (insect studies). Dr. Chapman’s motivation for the project stemmed from his undergraduate work with bees. “One of the jobs we had was to chase honeybees around a canola field,” Chapman explained. “They needed to see how the bees would move between the two different varieties of canola. The outcome was worth hundreds of millions of dollars.” The importance of honeybees was clear to Dr. Chapman. However, he would not get an opportunity to raise his own until years later.

Since stepping down as Department Head, Dr. Chapman has found time to care for these colonies. His passion has been reignited so the work required to care for the honeybees became worth it. The bees require a lot of equipment and maintenance, which budget cuts make significantly more difficult to manage. Especially near the beginning of a colony, bees need a lot of sugar water to drink. “I was constantly ordering sugar,” Dr. Chapman recounted. The closeness to campus has made caring for the bees easier. Dr. Chapman can now take his classes outside to observe the colonies whenever he wishes. When asked what he would say to students worried about bee stings, Dr. Chapman responded: “I don’t know anyone who has been stung by a honey bee while not at a colony. They’re defensive around the colony, not at flowers.”

“Honey bees get a bad rap because wasps are assholes.” he joked.    

The three hives at Memorial University (Photo credit: Dr. Chapman)

The colonies are an important tool in many current and planned projects for the university, as Dr. Chapman states, “I have one ongoing honours project which is using the morphometry of bee wings to identify subspecies. Often, because we don’t control their mating, we don’t really know what [subspecies] we have.” Different types of bees act in different ways, which can give insights that are beneficial for agriculture. The volume of agriculture on the island is too much for local pollinators, so honeybees—in all their varieties—take on the work load. There are also projects possible for future honours students. Fungi and water selection in the colonies are important research subjects that students can take on by working with these bees. Dr. Chapman emphasises the need for discussion regarding the environmental impacts of bee-keeping: “There is a debate that we need to have about hobby-level honeybee keeping, and I think our honey bees here can be a lightning rod for that discussion.”

Phillip Cairns from CITL inspecting a hive with students from BIOL 3750 (Photo Credit: Dr. Chapman)

The bees are a great benefit to the campus and community, they can even provide honey to students in future seasons. They can also add to the social life at MUN, “I want to make the honeybees part of a club. We want to call them the “Bee Hawks” as a dig at the [MUN varsity team] Sea Hawks.” Dr. Chapman explained.

Despite the importance of these honeybee colonies, their current location may be in danger. An apartment complex and running track are being built nearby, which could compromise their place on campus. “I don’t know where they’re going to end up,” Dr. Chapman grieves. “They need a space.” The hard work put into these animals could be in jeopardy due to developments taking up the space they need to live and gather their food.

By C. Warren

Editor’s Note: This story was written in March 2023. In May 2023, Dr. Chapman facilitated the move of the bee hives to their new home beside the Community Garden, behind Spencer Hall. You can read more about the move here https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/newfoundland-labrador/how-do-you-move-60-000-bees-from-the-mun-campus-very-carefully-1.6846757. By all reports, the bees are thriving in their new home.

Video Credit: Phillip Cairns