Hands-on learning with bees

November 4th, 2020

By Whitney Baxter

Using a bit of creativity, students were able to get hands-on experience working with bees and harvesting honey this semester.

This is the second time Entomology 358X: Bee Biology, Management, and Beekeeping has been offered at Iowa State University. Due to COVID-19, the course was taught in a hybrid format with a combination of online lectures and in-person field days, adapted to adhere to physical distancing requirements. The field days were made possible by the new apiary, installed at Iowa State’s Horticulture Research Station earlier this year. In addition to producing honey to be sold, an objective of the 20-hive apiary is for it to provide learning opportunities for students.

“We also wanted to incorporate those hives into this class in order to use those hives for more demonstration and for student engagement,” said Randall Cass, bee extension specialist and course co-instructor.

Initially, the plan was to bus the students to the apiary, which is approximately 20 minutes north of campus, said Amy Toth, associate professor of ecology, evolution and organismal biology and course co-instructor. However, the instructors did not feel this was an option due to COVID-19 physical distancing guidelines, so they instead received permission to temporarily bring four of the apiary’s hives to a prairie on the north side of campus near the intersection of 13th Street and Stange Road.

During each of the six field days this fall, the 50 students in the course were split into small groups and took part in various hands-on activities – opening and inspecting the beehives, treating them for mites, feeding the beehives and extracting honey off the hives.

“We actually got to do a lot of the hands-on activities, but we had to adapt it for small groups, and everyone wore masks and gloves and everything, too,” Toth said. “We made it work, but it definitely took a bit of creativity.”

Elizabeth Heckmann, senior in environmental science and environmental studies, said she appreciated how the instructors were able to maintain the hands-on aspect of the course.

“It really just brings in your focus more and you care about what you’re learning and you feel like you have actual practice that you’re ready to jump right in and replicate it if you had to,” Heckmann said of the hands-on activities.

“Learning the procedures on how to deal with the hives specifically, like opening them up and how to treat the bees…has helped me and is going to help me in the long run,” said Brooke Dietsch, senior in horticulture.

During a semester when many classes have been moved to an online format, Cass and Toth are glad they have been able to continue the in-person activities to further educate students about beekeeping.

“I feel a sense of accomplishment about what we’ve been able to do despite all the new health and safety regulations that we’re facing during the pandemic,” Cass said. “I’m proud of ourselves for being able to still offer hands-on learning with beekeeping because I really think it’s an integral part of the class.”

“As an instructor, it’s been really fun,” Toth said. “It’s probably been one of the highlights of my semester.”

Additional learning opportunities

Other ways the apiary will provide learning opportunities for students in the future include the establishment of a student beekeeping club and an internship for students in the Biological and Premedical Illustration program. The student interns will create educational materials about beekeeping and the apiary, as well as signage to install at the Horticulture Research Station to teach visitors about the apiary.