The small, blonde sophomore leveled the foundation for her beehives, moving dirt from higher ground to lower ground until it was even.
A wooden box sat on top of landscaping paper. She turned it over and over, telling her mother she was measuring.
Her mother, an engineer, joked about her daughter’s unscientific measuring technique.
Under a pine tree in a corner of the Hilltop Garden that faces an open field, she shoveled gravel from the IU physical plant onto the paper and began building two small towers, stacking two wooden boxes on top of a cinder block base.
She stood back from her work.
“We’re thinking of enlisting some artists. Just some art students to paint them up,” she said.
In conjunction with Spring Into Gardening, an event at the Hilltop Garden that was a part of this year’s SustainIU week, sophomore environmental management major Ellie
Symes built the physical structure of her long-awaited beehives.
“It’s exciting, I feel like I’m known as the bee girl on campus,” she said.
Symes fell in love with beekeeping after a summer internship she found by typing “environmental volunteering” into Google, and has worked since September to bring it to campus. Her hives will support IU’s first beekeeping program for students.
Symes said she sees beekeeping as a necessary pursuit and a way to educate people around her about the importance of bees, especially given the recent decline in worldwide bee populations.
“I learn something every time I talk to her about these things,” said her father, Greg Symes.
Ellie Symes is a member of GardenCorp, a program through the IU Office of Sustainability that requires students to spend four to six hours a week at the campus garden and to complete an independent project.
Symes’ project has been the bees, which will arrive to their new home at the Hilltop Garden in mid-May.
“I’m really excited about the educational opportunities that come from it,” said Audrey Brinkers, IU senior and campus garden coordinator. “It brings so much more than just a hive.”
With bee populations falling as a combined result of pesticide use, a lack of biodiversity and increased susceptibility to disease and parasites, the insects now face dire prospects.
The massive die-off has become known as colony collapse disorder.
In a 2013 study published in the journal PLOS ONE, scientists reported that exposure to certain pesticides was increasing honeybees’ susceptibility to fungal infection.
Since the bee population plays a key role in the pollination of commercial crops, this could become an agricultural crisis.
According to the American Beekeeping Federation’s website, approximately one third of all food consumed by Americans is directly dependent on pollination by honeybees.
This concerns Symes.
“This bee passion comes from my passion for food security,” Symes said.
Symes said her biggest mission is creating a sustainable food system. She said her dream is to help with urban farming programs in inner cities to combat food deserts.
“Part of that will be beekeeping, because you know bees are important for the pollination of plants,” she said. “Honey’s just delicious, and it’s something I always want to do.”
Symes said a big part of her motivation to bring beekeeping to campus was to get more people her age aware of how important bees are.
Brinkers said Symes approached her in September with the idea of starting a beekeeping program at IU.
Garnering support for something like beekeeping can be challenging, Brinkers said.
Particularly, she was concerned about how to handle stings and how to maintain a hive in the long term. Symes already had answers to all of these questions prepared.
As part of her preparation, she wrote a 20-page manual detailing the importance of bees, such as where to place bees in the garden, beekeeping equipment, the method for smoking bees, which bees are good to get and what things to look for to maintain a healthy hive.
While Symes’ hives will be the first to provide a beekeeping program open to student participation, her hives are not the first on campus.
Retired IU biology professor George Hegeman’s surviving hive at the Hilltop has been relatively successful.
“The bees come and go, but the box in which they live has been here since the 1970s,” Hegeman said as he pried apart two of the 10 frames inside the wooden box, which the bees had glued together with resin from trees.
He worked carefully and calmly as countless bees, some with bright yellow pollen coating their legs, buzzed around the hive. In the middle of the summer, when the hive is at full strength, it can house as many as 60,000 bees, Hegeman said.
He explained that beekeeping is a tradition thousands of years old, and it’s really not that hard of a job once you know what you’re doing.
Hegeman, 75, keeps more than five hives himself.
“Oh, you’re getting a little nasty. Calm down, girls,” he said to the bees.
To make dealing with his hive safer, he pumps smoke through the entrance. European honeybees like the ones in Hegman’s hive evolved to live in hollow trees and are thus evolved to be sensitive to smoke. The bees, thinking their hive is on fire, fill their stomachs with honey, which makes them unable to sting.
Symes’ hive will rely on volunteers who will receive brief training before working with the bees. Symes said she has already seen some people express an interest in working with her hive. All gear and equipment will be provided, as Symes has purchased four veils and two full suits.
She also said there has been some discussion of including beekeeping in garden workdays.
The honey produced by the hive will be mostly given away to people who have helped get the hive going.
Symes said it will be spring 2015 before she can start collecting honey. Until then, the
bees will not be producing enough excess honey, and the bees will need what little they do have to sustain through the winter.
“There’s nothing better than sticking your finger in the hive and tasting the fresh honey,” she said.
Hegeman explained the products created in honeybee hives, beeswax and honey, are incredibly useful, and that a single hive can produce as much as 150 pounds of excess honey.
“It’s no small gift that they give,” he said.
Symes’ parents said they have been impressed and surprised by their daughter’s interest in beekeeping.
“It wasn’t what I expected a freshman college girl to get into, but I think it’s cool and it’s something she could do really all her life,” her mother said.
The City of Bloomington has been an outlet for Symes’ passion for bees, and she has been taking beekeeping classes with the city.
Symes said she believes bees are the building block to everything else, and keeping them is an absolute necessity.
She has never been stung, but she knows it will happen eventually once she has her own hives, Symes said.
All fear aside, Symes said there’s nothing better than feeling close to bees, which she said she feels are the most amazing creatures.
“There’s an adrenaline rush that comes to it,” she said. “There’s a zen-ness that comes to it. It’s amazing to have the bees crawling on your arms and not being stung.”