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An Idea Takes Flight

In 2014, Taylor Tai ’15 spearheaded the creation of a student-led beekeeping class at Swarthmore. Here, Tai shares her thoughts on the course and the impact it's had on her graduate studies.


What inspired you to pursue the beekeeping course, and how did it come together?

My first experience with beekeeping was through a Tufts University research project with professor Phil Starks and Ph.D. candidate Rachael Bonoan in 2014. That summer, we were investigating why honey bees seem to prefer dirty drinking water even when clean water is available—a behavior that had often been observed among beekeepers but hadn’t received much scientific attention. We kept eight hives as part of the study, and I completely fell in love with the little clumps of pollen they brought back from foraging, the smell of beeswax, all of it. I wanted to stay connected to beekeeping, especially since there is a wealth of behavioral and ecological knowledge constantly circulating in the beekeeping community.

When I returned to Swarthmore, I discussed the idea of a beekeeping course with Peter Collings (physics), who was acting as the chair for Environmental Studies at the time. He suggested the format for a student-run course, where we would design class material as a group and take turns leading discussion and projects. I met with other interested students to develop a syllabus and talk about what we’d like to get out of the course.

After we consolidated our ideas, Vince Formica (biology) took us on as a faculty sponsor and Lara Cohen (English) joined as our resident beekeeping expert.  

What was the primary focus of the course?

The course drew students from a wide range of disciplines, which made it much richer than if we had limited ourselves to basic beekeeping how-to. Students presented on the use of bees in literature, the history of beekeeping in other cultures, the biology of honey bees, and the role of pollinators in our food system. These academic sessions were interspersed with more practical meetings, where we discussed plans for our hives and did the hands-on work of installing the bees, feeding them, addressing pest issues, etc.

What was your biggest takeaway? Anything surprising?

This class happened because so many people contributed their time and work towards building it from scratch. Vince Formica supported us at every single step, and was just as excited and curious about the bees as we were. As the only member with substantial beekeeping experience, Lara Cohen took the time to lead us in hive checks on top of her responsibilities as a new professor. Students brought perspectives that never would’ve occurred to me if I had tried to manage a hive alone, and did an incredible job of workshopping ideas for bee care. At the end of the day, I was surprised by how quickly an idea and a bunch of inexperienced students turned into a class of beekeepers with two establish honey bee colonies.

Any fun or memorable anecdotes you’d like to share?

My favorite memory was when Vince drove us all the way to Lansdale to pick up our bees. They came in screen-sided boxes, which we put on the center console of the van for the ride. We kept the windows down because rogue bees were flying around the van, and the ones still trapped inside were buzzing with the simultaneous effort of trying to escape and trying to chew their queen to death (because they weren’t yet used to her smell)—none of which could’ve made driving easy. I think we all felt like new parents: overexcited and suddenly unprepared despite months of preparation.

What are you studying now? Is it in any way related to that bee course?

This fall, I’m heading to the Gratton Lab at the University of Wisconsin–Madison to start a graduate program in pollinator health. I will be departing from my past work with honey bees, which are not native to the U.S., to study native bees and the ways we can support them through agricultural practices and land use. There is no doubt that the beekeeping course was a critical part of my path to this program, and I can’t wait to put the experience to work.

Anything else I should know?

People often ask me what’s killing the honey bees, and whether they should start a colony to help save them. Although it’s not the most charismatic answer, bees appear to be threatened by a combination of human influences, from habitat destruction to changing global temperatures to invasive species, rather than one defined culprit. This perspective might make the whole issue seem impossible to tackle, but paying attention to these bigger-picture factors can also ensure that we allow a diversity of native bees, butterflies, flies, and other pollinators to thrive in addition to honey bees. In truth, we rely on thousands of species for our food production. Beekeeping is a beautiful way to better understand bees, but honey bees are far from being the whole picture.