Sharing the wonders of beekeeping

Honey bees colonies at the Easter Bush Campus Apiary have delighted young visitors thanks to an alumni-funded grant.

The Easter Bush Campus Apiary and its seven colonies of honey bees have brought a wealth of benefits to the University community and the wider public since its creation in 2015. The Apiary supports research activities at the Roslin Institute, increases pollination in the local area as well as enhances staff and student wellbeing.

The apiary is fully maintained by staff and student volunteers, who all attend a “Beekeeping for Beginners” course taught by the Edinburgh and Midlothian Beekeepers Association in May each year.

A man in a bee suit shows visitors in bee suits some honey bees
The Easter Bush Campus Apiary enables research activities, increases pollination and supports wellbeing initiatives.

One of the 20 volunteers actively engaged with the bees on a regular basis is apiary manager Dr Mark Barnett, an enthusiastic beekeeper since 2010. Working in Professor Tom Freeman’s laboratory at the Roslin Institute, he and his colleague Dr Tim Regan have helped to map the genetic make-up of honey bees in the UK by using whole genome sequencing. When you sequence all the DNA in a small sample of honey bees, not only do you sequence the DNA in the honey bees’ genomes, you also sequence all of the microorganisms living within the bees. This knowledge can be used to identify new and existing threats to honey bee health.

Welcoming schools and families

Thanks to an alumni-funded grant, Mark and the apiary team have been able to welcome school and family groups to see the honey bees since summer 2018. The award of £1705.47 enabled Mark to undergo necessary checks and buy a selection of protective bee suits, gloves and wellingtons suitable for children aged 9 to 14 to keep them safe while visiting the bee hives. Previously, the apiary was only equipped for staff and student visitors.

In August 2018 the apiary was able to host a series of public “Meet the Bees” events as part of the Midlothian Outdoor Festival. Running in parallel with activities on the theme of honey bee health in the Easter Bush Science Outreach Centre, over four sessions the apiary welcomed several families with children to see a live demonstration of beekeeping.

Many children are fascinated by bees and the value of directly experiencing the wonders of a bee colony cannot be understated.

Developing skills in public engagement

The “Meet the Bees” demonstration team included two students, who gained valuable experience in public engagement while developing skills in organisation and communication.

Undergraduate veterinary medicine student Abigail Blanton said:

"As a volunteer for 'Meet the Bees' I was able to interact with members of the public who came to learn more about bees and the role of the beekeeper. Each group had a mix of people with varying experience, from none at all to keeping hives of their own.

Students Abigail and Ani, wearing bee suits, stand outside a shed at the Easter Bush Campus Apiary.
Students Abigail and Anirudh gained experience of engaging the public in science as part of the "Meet the Bees" team.

It provided me the opportunity to learn from those with more experience and share my own knowledge with those who have never had a chance to interact so closely with a hive. As I am going into the veterinary profession, it’s a useful skill to both learn from someone and be able to teach them, so it was great experience being able to do both during this event. My favourite part of each group’s session was their return from the hives because of their excitement and enthusiasm to share how happy they were to work so closely with the bees. I think this is a great programme to educate the public on the importance of bees and where their honey comes from, and I hope to see it continue in the years to come."

Anirudh Patir, PhD candidate in Genetics and Genomics, added:

"Since I have been working with Mark on a bee-related project, this opportunity was a nice continuation of reinforcing my novice understanding of bees and beekeeping by sharing it with the public. It was a nice change to directly converse with the public, which demanded simplifying and reducing various aspects of bees, much of which I have learnt about under Mark's supervision. This public engagement event was one of the more active events, making it quite enjoyable, as we were interacting with the bees and the group. The event shared a nice balance of theory and hands-on experience, which I find is an important part of such public engagements. (Being outdoors on a sunny day also added to the experience!)"

Expanding outreach

The “Meet the Bees” events will run again this summer on Monday 12 August, but the specialist equipment funded by the alumni grant has opened up further possibilities for engaging children with bee science.

Schools in Scotland have started to offer pupils the chance to undertake an NPA (National Progression Award) in Beekeeping and Mark hopes to secure external funding to partner with two such schools. The proposed project would involve pupils testing for two honey bee diseases using a technique called polymerase chain reaction (PCR) at the Easter Bush Science Outreach Centre.

Members of the public wearing bee suits visit the Easter Bush Campus Apiary
Protective bee suits, gloves and wellingtons like the ones worn in this picture, but suitably sized for children, are opening up more outreach opportunities.