UMass, Agricultural Department Create First State Apiary (Beehives) in Amherst

MassLive, July 6th, 2016, by Diane Lederman. Fifty or so years ago, there were beehives in the orchards at Orchard Hill and the Butterfield fields at the University of Massachusetts.

According to the UMass Sustainable Food and Farming Program website, “… the eastern edge of campus buzzed with fifty working hives and a dedicated Apiary Laboratory.”

But UMass was growing and needed more dorms, said Ori Ben-Shir, a soon-to-be senior in the Sustainable Food and Farming program, and the Orchard Hill and Central (which includes Butterfield Hall) dormitory complexes were built.

After the last beekeeping professor retired in the late 1960s, the apiary program went dormant.

But now it is back and growing.

A few years ago, students created a beekeeping club with three hives. Now, with a recent collaboration between the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources and the Stockbridge School of Agriculture, there are now 23 hives.

The state opened its first apiary here in June. It will be used for education and research on issues related to honey bee health, pollination and hive management.

Agricultural experts question whether banning or limiting the use of neonicotinoid insecticides is the most effective way to protect the bees.

Ben-Shir and others have been building the hive stands, putting in the fencing and getting it ready since May. Solar-powered, electric fencing is needed to keep out the bears, said Kim Skyrm, chief apiary inspector and apiary program coordinator with the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources. She oversees the UMass program and works with the students at the site.

Ben-Shir said he started learning about the threats to bees and the decline in bee colonies about six or seven months ago and wanted to get involved to help.

According to a state report released in February, 29 percent of the annual colonies were dying off at the end of each winter, significantly higher than the acceptable level of 18 percent.

“The occurrence of Colony Collapse Disorder and documented deficits in crop pollination has drawn attention to losses of managed bee pollinators and the need for efforts to evaluate, sustain and ultimately enhance these populations,” the report states.

As a beekeeper, Ben-Shir can tend to the hives and do research.

The apiary sits at the foot of student farmland at the UMass Agricultural Learning Center on North Pleasant Street across from the Food For All Farm — A UMass collaboration with the community — and near the bee pollinator garden created by agronomy professor Stephen Herbert.

“It fits in so well with the landscape,” said Ben-Shir.

Skyrm said the landscape is perfect for the bees too.

The apiary provides research opportunities for students and resources for beekeepers from all over the state, Skyrm said. It will also offer education and demonstrations to the community at large.

There will be a community program at the end of the month, she said. The date will be announced later.

This is the first such state bee collaboration with UMass. Having the hives here will help increase student interest, Skyrm said.

Ben-Shir said part of his work this summer is inspecting the hives, checking on the health of the queen, making sure she is laying her thousands of eggs, checking on the frames and making sure there’s enough space for the queen to move.

The farm center will begin next year but be operational in 2014.

He said at some point the program might be able sell honey or expand, but it’s so new, “We just want to make sure we know what we’re doing.”

He said the bees are Italian and are a docile breed, but he also tries to move slowly so they get used to him. He said he gets sometimes gets stung, but underscores the hours he spends working near the bees. Ben-Shir said he doesn’t like wearing the protective bee suit, but is more apt to wear a veil to protect his head and face.

Skyrm said learning goes both ways in this collaboration. Students learn from her, and she from them.

And the research they engage in could help create “new good beekeeping practices and good husbandry.”