A Sweet Course

At Aacc, Lessons In Beekeeping - And A Honey Of A Payoff

August 02, 2009|By Olivia Bobrowsky | Olivia Bobrowsky,olivia.bobrowsky@baltsun.com

In a remote corner of Anne Arundel Community College's campus, behind a parking lot and a stormwater pond, two hives of honeybees are tucked into a forest.

Unknowing passers-by could easily overlook the tens of thousands of bees that make their home in the two wooden boxes, but not two instructors from the college's culinary institute, who on Wednesday donned full-body suits and ventured into the woods to extract 55 pounds of honey.

"I don't know how many jars of honey that means because we're beginners at this," said Virginia Olson, one of the Hospitality, Culinary and Tourism Institute's two teachers who are spearheading the new beekeeping project.

Olson and David Ludwig, the other instructor, bought the college's first hive last summer and then added another one this past spring. Wednesday marked their first harvest.

"We went from having a baby hive that was kind of a start-up to having a strong bee population and a good surplus of honey, which we really didn't expect," Olson said.

Ludwig will use that honey - a high-quality, wildflower variety - in the food science class he teaches. He incorporated the entire beekeeping process into the curriculum, letting students work with the colonies.

"We just let students understand about sustainable foods, and about how really attainable it is for local restaurants and hotels to actually do this rather than using commercial products," Ludwig said.

The beekeeping project fits with the college's green initiative, and so school administrators have supported the idea from the start, said Mary Ellen Mason, the director of the culinary institute.

"This has been an incredible student experience," said Mason, who said she's "played with" the bees firsthand. "Students learn and they have a good time while they're doing it."

Ludwig said he's tried to make the required class a "fun course." When he revamped the curriculum, Olson said he focused more on the subject's culinary applications than on the science. Beyond beekeeping, students make wine, cheese and bread and explore the chemical processes behind the food.

Students can get up close to the bees, or hang back. Last semester, one of Ludwig's students happened to be an amateur beekeeper.

"She was actually more brave than I was," he said. "She brought her own suit and everything. The students are always fascinated with it."

Olson said she's surprised how many bee enthusiasts she's stumbled upon in the community among students, staff and faculty. One of the security guards keeps bees, as does a school wine instructor.

But most of the school community has remained oblivious to its winged neighbors.

"More and more people know about it, which is good, but it's kind of a slow intro to the idea of bees on campus," Olson said. "If they found out, [people might say], 'Oh, you've had them for ... years and no incidents?' It calms everyone's anxieties."

Any anxieties are unfounded, said Peter Quinton, a local beekeeper who's helping Ludwig and Olson with the project. As he helped them transport the honey-covered frames, he casually brushed bees on the wood with his bare hand. One landed on his shoulder, but he barely noticed.

Bees die when they sting people, and they're generally too focused on their work to bother humans anyway, Olson said. Still, beekeepers use smoke to distract bees while harvesting. Olson's never been stung, although Ludwig has been a few times. Olson said they're jokingly keeping score of who gets stung the most.

"You get stung occasionally, especially if you get complacent," Ludwig said. "I've been getting complacent and not taking all the precautions. But they're not yellow jackets."

Mason said she hasn't heard any complaints from students or parents. And aside from a struggle to find a safe location for the bees, the project hasn't encountered any problems.

On the contrary, she wants to show off the hives, and is thinking about giving out little jars of honey to college visitors. They've even printed out professional-looking labels for their jars, which describe the contents as "wildflower honey" and credit the college and culinary institute.

The college isn't looking to make money off the honey, and Olson said the two hives are enough. Sure, the locally grown product saves money, but the whole point of the beekeeping is mostly educational.

Still, there's a bonus: the honey's rich taste.

After Quinton, Ludwig and Olson lugged the honey frames to a baking and pastry lab in the Humanities building and extracted the honey, everyone grabbed a little plastic spoon and dug into a jar.

"It's wonderful," Quinton said after his first taste. "Good quality stuff. ... I almost feel bad taking the honey from the bees, but not quite."

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