RIC Positioning Itself as Leader in Art of Urban Beekeeping

A thick blanket of snow covered the campus at Rhode Island College, where more than 100 people gathered last month for the start of a beekeeping course to learn everything they need to know about caring for bees and their hives.

The students – a mix of young and old – are among a growing number of urban beekeepers, a field that has exploded in recent years in response to the drastic reduction of local honeybee hives and waning interest in the art of beekeeping.

RIC is positioning itself as a leader in the art of urban beekeeping, in large part because it’s the only public college or university in the region to own and maintain its own beehives, said Jim Murphy, the college’s sustainability coordinator. It’s also one of few collegiate programs designed not only for students, but for the entire community.

Since Queen Latifah and Queen Bee-atrice’s hives were donated to RIC by the Rhode Island Beekeepers Association (RIBA) last summer, the college has hosted a workshop with Southside Community Land Trust and invited students from the Henry Barnard School to observe the hives, among other initiatives. But this beekeeping course, offered by RIC in partnership with the Rhode Island Beekeeping Association, is the first series of actual classes.

“RIC is poised to become a leader in the state in urban agriculture, which can educate citizens about homegrown food, waste minimization and how this is good for the local economy,” said Murphy.

“The hives are for the purpose of public education, and hopefully, research in the future,” said Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban, RIC professor emerita of anthropology and RIBA secretary. “This ties in with urban farming, sustainability and outreach in our community.”

Beekeeping classes are a perfect fit for the college, given its commitment to green initiatives, said Fluehr-Lobban. The beehives bring RIC one step further in becoming a greener college.

“I am very proud that we are making this kind of knowledge available to our campus community, as well as interested others in the external community,” said Carriuolo.

Betty Mencucci, RIBA’s bee school director and the instructor of the beekeeping class at RIC, recalls when beekeeping was a dying art.

“I have had more and more people sign up for these classes in the last five years or so, whereas before, I had a hard time recruiting 15 people,” she said.

When she came into beekeeping in the late 1980s, Mencucci said that older men dominated the field, and there were very few female beekeepers. Beekeeping appeared to be a waning field more recently still when she served as RIBA president from 1993-97, when the organization struggled to get even 10 people to attend monthly meetings.

However, today there are over 500 RIBA members from R.I. and neighboring states, and men and women from all ages are interested in learning the art.

Mencucci attributes the fascination with beekeeping to the recent disappearance of honeybees, a phenomenon called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) that has been well documented in the media, and has contributed to a significant rise in urban beekeeping.

Researchers estimate about 35 percent of all honeybee colonies in the country have vanished entirely, and according to the National Resources Defense Council, honeybees pollinate one third of what we eat, putting CCD at fault for $15 billion worth of fruits, vegetables, nuts and other field crops at risk since 2006.

Yet crop loss could be the least of our worries, said Murphy. Honey that bees produce is used to treat burns and other wounds, and in terms of antibiotics, has been successful in combatting the MRSA virus. In addition, bee venom has been known to alleviate arthritic symptoms.

“These treatments are groundbreaking,” said Murphy. “The enzymes that bees produce have health related aspects that still need further study.”

It also seems that Rhode Island isn’t the only place where urban beekeeping has taken off.

In Virginia, where beekeeping is also on the rise, anyone who purchases a hive or materials to construct a hive can apply for a grant of up to $2,400 per year, giving backyard beekeepers compensation for establishing new life, and new homes, for bees in their own back yards.

Pennsylvania State University even gives students the option to enroll in a beekeeping class taught entirely online. While Fluehr-Lobban and Murphy each recognized the idea, they were unanimous in their decision that hands-on training, like the knowledge and skills Mencucci is offering the local community at RIC, is the best way to teach.

The five-week program concluded March 9.

For more information about RIBA’s bee school, contact Betty Mencucci at bmencucci@cox.net, or visit http://www.ribeekeeper.org/beeschools.php.

RIBA is a non-profit organization whose purpose is to: raise the standard of beekeeping, bring into closer relations all persons interested in beekeeping, stimulate any activity pertaining to beekeeping, educate the general public about the value of agriculture to the farming, gardening, and general communities.