Tens of Thousands of Honeybees Make University Campus their Home

Thanks to a donation from the New Jersey Beekeepers Association, students have a new research facility on campus

Some of William Paterson University’s newest residents are causing quite a buzz on campus. 

This summer, approximately 60,000 honeybees were given a home on the roof of Science West thanks to a donation from the New Jersey Beekeepers Association. The new four-colony apiary, under the direction of associate biology professor David Gilley, offers expanded opportunities for student education and research. The apiary joins Gilley’s already-established indoor honeybee lab and observatory.

“We hope that William Paterson University can further the development of its educational processes with their students in biology, and in animal behavior, with respect to honeybees,” said Charles Ilsley, treasurer of the New Jersey Beekeepers Association and vice president of its northwest New Jersey division. “Our reason to be is to educate the public on the art and science of beekeeping. That means answering fundamental questions about honeybee behavior that we then try to put to use. And there’s no one better with which to try than Dr. Gilley. We think putting our eggs in this basket is a good bet.”

“Biology students will be able to directly contact and manipulate live animals, which is a critical experience for students interested in behavior, physiology, evolution, and ecology,” Gilley says of the new apiary. “Plus, bees play an important role in sustainability and agriculture, so both the training and the research we do with the apiary will be of public benefit. This generous donation from the New Jersey Beekeepers is a perfect example of the good that can come from partnerships between our state universities and the New Jersey community. “

The New Jersey Beekeepers Association donated both the honeybees and two of the four wooden colonies in which the bees work and reside. Gilley, whose research is centered on honeybees, previously housed a few colonies off-campus, in nearby Haledon. He relocated two of those structures to Science West following the Association’s donation, and students are already benefitting from having  full-scale hives right on campus.

Bees_Inside_Pic300Honors biology student Trevor Courtright ’18 (at right) interned at the apiary this summer, working with Gilley to analyze data that the New Jersey Beekeepers Association collected from hundreds of beekeepers across the state. The data focused on swarms – which occur when a hive gets so large that it splits and half of the bees establish a new hive elsewhere. Farmers, who rely on the honeybees to pollinate their crops, would like a way to forecast when half of their resident honeybees will depart.

Gilley and Courtright’s “statistical magic,” Ilsley says, helped debunk a long-held belief: that farmers can best forecast when swarms will occur based on accumulated thermal energy. Gilley plans to submit the findings for publication, a noteworthy venture due to joint authorship by faculty, students and beekeepers.

In the meantime, Courtright is hooked on the apiary. Though he was always interested in nature, on a broader scope, he said interning with Gilley has really sparked his interest in honeybees.

He is subsequently launching a new bee-centric research project at the apiary this spring. With the use of pollen traps on the colonies, he will analyze the pollen honeybees carry to campus to learn what types of plants the bees visit and with what frequency. Then, he will correlate what the bees are eating to the health of plant species in our area.

“The inside lab alone is a really unique and special thing to have in the University. The addition of the apiary opens up a whole other side, so we’re not limited to doing only certain types of studies,” Courtright says. He hopes his fellow students will take the time to learn about the new facility and its inhabitants. “I think a lot of people would find it more interesting than they would originally think. It’s important that people know that the apiary is here now and that it can be open to them.”

Biology majors Richard Muzika ‘17 and Aniesha Walrond ’17, intrigued by lessons about honeybees in their Animal Behavior course, are among those who have sought a tour of the apiary.

On a sunny October afternoon, Gilley outfitted them with beekeeper veils, assured them his bees are friendly (writer’s note: they are!), and provided an hour-long hands-on lesson about the hive. The students held a surprisingly heavy, bee-covered frame – emphasizing just how much honey was stored therein; reveled in puncturing the honey’s solid coat to taste the sweet offering inside; observed the bees’ communicatory “waggle dance;” and helped feed them a mixture of sugar and water – an effort to bulk the honeybees up before nectar-barren winter months.

Spring is primetime for honey-making, and Gilley is anxious to see just how much honey he can get the University’s bees to produce. Should there be enough, he’d love to be able to obtain the tools necessary to harvest that honey and provide it to students on campus.