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Bees On Campus Teach Students About Sustainability

Augustana student and head beekeeper Janae Becher stands with the campus hives and professor David O’Hara.
Lura Roti
Augustana student and head beekeeper Janae Becher stands with the campus hives and professor David O’Hara.

In 2022, an old city ordinance that did not allow institutions to raise bees within city limits was changed thanks to the advocacy of Augustana faculty and students and a vote by the Sioux Falls’ City Council.

Augustana University is now home to hives full of honeybees. SDPB’s Lura Roti wanted to understand how an apiary impacts education. So, she spent a few hours on campus with a professor and student beekeeper.

Although the topic of our conversation is busy collecting pollen outdoors, the windy day forces us inside. Seated on comfortable chairs in the cozy office of Augustana professor David O’Hara, O’Hara and senior Janae Becher visit about how and why the campus of South Dakota’s largest private university became home to two colonies of honeybees.

“We received a generous grant from a regional philanthropy and what that allows me to do as director of sustainability and environmental studies is to empower students, like Janae, our head beekeeper, to start up new projects. So, Janae and several of her classmates had this idea, what if we raised bees on campus? What would we need? And they described the apiary. They described beehives, and I got to help them to build that. But it's really the students who lead in these things,” said David O’Hara.

Surrounded by dormitories and other three-story buildings, the Apiary or stack of wooden boxes that house the bee hives – is located inside a locked wooden fence near a grove of trees and a large vegetable and native plant garden. The garden is another student-led project.

Although O’Hara does conduct in-class lectures focused on sustainability and the environment, he said learning would not be complete without these hands-on components.

“I think that good education is kind of a friendship, almost like a romance with an idea. If you are only thinking about it, if you're only thinking about the beekeeping, if you're only thinking about sustainability but not actually doing something to practice it - it would be like reading music but never playing an instrument. We really believe in educating the whole person. And that means getting people engaged in their studies and doing things that will make a positive and lasting difference for their community,” O’Hara said.

Maintaining the hives and caring for the honeybees takes a bit of coordination, explained Becher. She is the head beekeeper and a senior majoring in biochemistry, environmental studies and German.

“There's four of us, and depending on how many can make it, we try to go out midday when it's usually the hottest, but that's because we want to have the least amount of bees in the hive. Around noon they're all out trying to forage. Then we don't have to deal with as many in the hive, and it greatly decreases our chance of having problems or like getting stung or squishing bees or other things like that. And it just allows us to get in and out of the hive quicker. And then once we go in, we'll get suited up. We'll start the smoker,” Becher said.

The students fill up the bees’ sugar water and with one student holding the smoker, another student opens the hive and pulls out each frame one at a time. Together the student beekeepers analyze each frame of the hive and document their findings.

“With bees I am able to connect easier because can see what they're doing in front of me, and I can see that they're interacting with each other and seeing that kind of community really piques my interest,” Becher said.

Becher became so enamored with bees that in addition to her already heavy three-major class load, she began studying bees on her own. And she joined a local beekeeper club to learn from other beekeepers. Becher even spent the last three summers studying the microbiome of bees.

Her connection to bees changed her career and academic focus.

“Originally, when I came to school, I thought, I’m going to go and become a researcher and I'll probably go to Graduate School to like be a professor. And do research and have students in my lab. But that's slightly changed. Just because I like bees and I wanna be outside, I don't wanna be in a lab all the time. I know that there's my professors listening. Would be like, ‘Oh my God, Janae, you know what the heck? What? This is totally different than what you've said.’

And I'm like, I know, but it's changed really so dramatically just because of, like this experience I've had with being outside. And being able to connect with nature and connect with the surroundings around you and how that really impacts mental health, but then also your greater purpose and making a difference in your community. And I found that I really want to do that and make a difference and kind of do what we're doing now and do outreach and do education,” Becher said.

With only two semesters left at Augustana, Becher is currently researching entomology graduate programs and plans to focus her graduate work on bees.

Lura Roti grew up on a ranch in western South Dakota but today she calls Sioux Falls home. She has worked as a freelance journalist for more than two decades. Lura loves working with the SDPB team to share the stories of South Dakota’s citizens and communities. And she loves sharing her knowledge with the next generation. Lura teaches a writing course for the University of Sioux Falls.