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August 26, 2011

It’s an article of faith for many Americans that summer and stress are mutually opposing forces. And die hard followers of this dogma may have never left the couch in an attempt to defend such a notion. But for most, summer seems to be like everything else in life we look forward to so much: Not quite what we imagined, and gone before we know it.

Though, many probably found time for rest and leisure, most, also found their ‘To Do’ list too long to ignore. While the weather feels like summer has just hit its stride, the fact that school is back in session marks the beginning of fall in the minds of many students, and faculty alike.

So what did you do with your summer “break”?

The Courier, interested in how some of MC Professors spent their warm weather recess, posed just such a question. Some professors labored through the summer doing jobs far away from the academic arena—not necessarily geographically, though—while others seemed to remain a little closer to their scholastic home away from home. Research, gardening, painting, traveling for research, or rescuing and keeping bees—yes, bees—everyone seemed to have had plenty of projects to keep them busy.

Professor Craig Watson of the English department spent much of his summer buried in research; a project that will lead to a presentation later in the fall semester. The focus of study is “Empathy and Tragic Consciousness.” This area of study birthed from a simple question he asked of himself, “Why do I like to read and teach works of tragedy so much?”

Watson has been studying empathy for a couple of years, and his research has led him to incorporate an interdisciplinary approach.  He points out that the very definition of empathy changes from one discipline to the next, mostly in terms of the way we understand its function, or how it’s taught. It was the interdisciplinary approach to his own research that gave Watson the idea that a liberal arts college, such as Monmouth College, could provide a great strength where there could otherwise be a weakness in higher education.

If several departments came together to discuss one subject—like empathy—a new, or stronger, idea of what that subject means to, and what its importance is in, our culture could be much more developed at the campus level. Watson defined empathy as a learned emotion, and pointed out that a liberal arts college, by better understanding a single subject throughout several disciplines, could be better adapted to teach such a sentiment.

Craig Vivian of the Education department, along with Marlo Belschner of the English department, spent several of their summer hours whispering to bees. Not literally, perhaps, but nonetheless they have had their share of close and personal time with nature’s hardest worker. From bee rescues—taking bees from areas where they are not welcomed guests to a more formidable home, like the campus garden—to honey extraction, both had plenty of practice working with the, often misunderstood, pollinators.

Last weekend Vivian and Belschner visited the hives in the campus garden to extract a little honey, as well as to check on how each of the five current hives were doing. Vivian pointed out that by this time next year, he would like to see ten additional hives in the same location. The Courier was on site to witness the process, and to ask many of the thousands of questions that come to mind when one watches someone intentionally interact with an insect that has the capability to cause painful stings, and even death if one is allergic to bee venom (Vivian pointed out that bees will often kill mice, and other intruders, by stinging them and then cooking them in a small bee-made furnace they produce by forming a swarm-ball around the body).    

“If you’re going to keep bees, you need to have a smoker and a hive tool,” Vivian said. The hive tool looked very similar to a miniature pry bar, and was used in a similar manner as well. The bees produce a glue-like substance called propolis, which sticks the boards of the wooden hive together, as well as keeps the hive water and wind proof. The hive tool allows someone to lift the boards apart, cracking the propolis seal, and to lift the frames (panels the bees build the combs on, which can be removed in order to extract the honey without harming the bees or hives permanently) as well. The propolis also serves to keep all spaces which allow entrance to the hive to be no more than 3/16 of an inch; a space which bees can pass through but very few other creatures can. The bees collect tree sap and other products of nature inside their body in order to produce the propolis through their mouths.

The smoke is simply, smoke. Vivian used newspaper to stuff the smoker and get a small flame going, then, he later used dried leaves he collected off the ground to produce the smoke needed to calm the bees. The smoke makes the bees think there is fire, and in order to prepare for such a natural disaster they hunker down deep within the hive and feed on honey. Their bellies full, they then become slightly more lethargic and docile. Ready for handling.

As Vivian and Belschner began to dismantle the hive in a practiced and intentional manner, Vivian took the time to explain each process, why they did it, and what they were doing. Displaying a drone bee, he picked up one of the larger bees from the colony and rubbed it along his face to demonstrate the fact that drones have no stinger.

As the process carried along, it became easier and easier to relax around thousands of swarming, and crawling bees—protective equipment included a hat, and not much else. Two students, residents of the Garden House, wore nothing more than khaki shorts, not even shoes. Each hive presented new opportunities for Vivian to point out different characteristics of the bees and their hives. Some hives were much better prepared for the coming cold months, with masses of brood (the nurseries of the hives) surrounded by masses of honey.

Craig Vivian acknowledged that he does not like to handle the bees any more than absolutely necessary. Not because of any discomfort—Belschner said that she has seen him take as many as fourteen stings to the back of the neck without paying much attention to the attacks at all—but because he believes that the less they are messed with, the more docile they become; making them much easier to handle. The pair may take one more look inside the hives before the bitterest of winter hits, but they will not be extracting anymore honey. The campus hives are beneficial as teaching tools, as well as to give home to one of nature’s most stunning creatures.

Ryan Bronaugh
Contributing Writer

Professor Craig Vivian dimantling a bee hive as part of a routine check on the hive, as well as a final extraction of honey before winter.

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