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Bees from organic garden offer sweet learning opportunity [video]

September 23, 2009

Middlebury, Vt. - It's a classic late summer day at the Middlebury College organic garden - bright blue skies, a hint of breeze and earthy harvest-season smells. Cooler mornings mean the two hives of honeybees are slower to get moving on their work. But by 11 a.m. the east-facing sides of the hives are bathed in sunlight and the bees are flying in every direction.

VIDEO: Honey Harvest (2:25)

Today is the long-awaited honey harvest at the garden. For several years, the garden crew has been harvesting and selling honey to alumni, families and visitors through the college's box office in McCullough Student Center. The bees are also important for pollinating the garden crops. Adjoining most of the vegetable beds are thick rows of insectary plants -- brightly colored flowers, designed to attract the bees.

Professional beekeeper Ross Conrad pulls up in his pick-up truck to meet Middlebury student David Dolginow, a senior religion major from Leawood, Kan., who is coordinating this year's honey harvest. The two chat for a minute about the harvest outlook - it looks like a lean year since cold wet weather kept the bees inside during much of the summer.

Dolginow, who worked as a summer intern in the garden, has coordinated a special event that evening at Weybridge House, a special interest academic house for environmental studies majors. The students will gather to extract and taste the honey, then have dinner together and learn more about the bees from Conrad.

"I've always been particularly fascinated with bees," says Dolginow. "The way they create their comb is absolutely mind boggling to me." He describes the amazing change that takes place when the bees transform a nearly weightless frame of flat wax into a fully developed honeycomb capable of holding several pounds of honey.

Dolginow has worked his interest in bees into his senior thesis, which looks at the 10th century group of Muslim scholars called the Brethren of Purity. The Brethren wrote a fable in which animals put humans on trial for treating them like slaves. One of the most important parts of the fable, notes Dolginow, is when the king of the bees speaks about the importance of a just and wise king with loyal and devoted subjects. "My thesis is exploring why the Brethren chose bees, as opposed to any other animal or insect, as the ideal social organization," says Dolginow.

As evening arrives, a small crowd has gathered at Weybridge house for the extraction party. Ross Conrad has set up his honey extractor, which is a small manually operated centrifuge that spins the honey out of the comb. Because production has been so light this year, some of the honeycombs are not capped. Conrad says the honey in those combs has probably not "ripened" and, though it will still taste great, it will have a shorter shelf life.

Students take turns spinning the extractor and after several minutes the golden honey starts to flow. This year's take, as expected, is lighter than usual; perhaps eight or ten jars in total. It's a bit disappointing because honey sales are a great revenue source for garden operations. But no one seems troubled when it's time to taste the honey. "The honey is delicious!" says one student, "very sweet with a little more raw taste than normal pasteurized honey." "It tastes more pure, more organic than what you can buy in the store," says another.

Conrad is careful to emphasize an appreciation for the bees and the seemingly miraculous work they do. He says that beekeepers estimate bees make a million flower visits to produce one pound of honey. "Bees make the world a better place through their pollination," he says. "So it's a great lesson, which I try to work into my life - how to take what I need from the world around me in such a way that it makes the world better. I think that's one lesson from the bees that if all of us took to heart, we could solve a lot of the world's problems pretty quickly."

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