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UofL’s beekeeping intern practices Ky urban agriculture

UofL student Shelby Robinson carries tradition from Meade County to Louisville
UofL Sustainability’s beekeeping intern Shelby Robinson

LOUISVILLE — University of Louisville anthropology student Shelby Robinson has made her impact on campus through a unique practice – beekeeping. Robinson is UofL’s dedicated beekeeping intern and cares for the university’s beehives managed through UofL Sustainability.

Honeybees have always been a part of Robinson’s life as she first learned about beekeeping from family members who’ve cared for beehives through generations, starting with her grandfather, and then her father. Beehives bring nostalgic scents and sounds to Robinson, whose earliest memories include following her grandfather around their family hives in Meade County, Ky., harvesting honey for their “Bee Happy Farms” honey jars.

“My grandfather had this big garden and orchard with apple trees, so he had the bees to pollinate them,” Robinson said. “I just remember playing around the garden and being close to the bees. They weren’t ever interested in me because I wasn’t bothering them, so that fear kind of got eliminated when I was pretty young.”

After the death of Robinson’s grandfather, her family kept a hive on his property to support the orchard. She and her father now tend to the inherited bees. “It’s crazy that it’s a family tradition that can carry on, beyond someone like that,” Robinson reflected.

The UofL’s beekeeping internship, too, has brought Robinson closer to her father who she now asks for advice when dealing with new obstacles facing UofL’s beehives. His insights keep a heritage of beekeeping knowledge from disappearing.

Everything about beekeeping can be done in a variety of ways, from how the hive is built and how to handle the bees to the protective clothing worn by beekeepers.

Shelby Robinson carefully tends to the beehives.
Shelby Robinson carefully tends to the beehives.

“It’s like a dance to specifically move with the bees and see which frame they’re mostly on and which one I should touch and which one I shouldn’t,” Robinson said.

As a beekeeper, Robinson has developed her own style under the guidance of her father and the UofL Sustainability mentorship.

“I read somewhere that bees can remember their beekeeper’s face, so I always try to talk to them when I get in the hive and just see how they’re doing,” Robinson said. “There are old folktales about the ‘telling of the bees,’ so there’s a strong connection between beekeepers and their bees.”

A Spring Sting

Beekeeping isn’t always comfortable, even for a legacy beekeeper.

“I have gotten stung a few times, but after the second time it’s no big deal,” Robinson said. “And every time I do get stung, I never blame the bees. It’s not their fault that they’re stinging, they just think I’m like a bear trying to get their honey.”

Bees often face a fear from people, much like snakes or bats, and many believe that their presence always means potential danger. However, bees are defensive, not aggressive, so their sting is a last resort. Like other animals, bees fear humans more than people fear them and prefer keeping to themselves.

According to Robinson, even with wasps and hive beetles, honeybees defend the hive by surrounding the pests to block them from an area or to overheat them with their wing movements.

But keeping also bees comes with its rewards and pleasures. To extract honey from the hive, Robinson first determines how much honey needs to be left behind for the bees. The frames are then removed, and the bees are brushed into an empty super box/hive box. Finally, the beeswax on the frames is uncapped with a blade to release the honey and the frames are placed in a spinner to remove, filter and jar the honey. Beeswax is often collected during the filtering process and can also be used for various products like lip balm.

“One of my favorite things about beekeeping is just the smell of the beehives, it’s this really sweet aroma. I think it’s really special and really cool to introduce new people to that, and the sound of the buzzing from the hives,” Robinson said. “It can definitely be intimidating, but I’ve found it to be a little bit more soothing because I know bees are in there and that they’re happy.”

As UofL’s beekeeping intern, Robinson cares for the beehives year-round. Before the winter, Robinson adds entrance reducers and hay bales around the hive to reduce wind-chill. Throughout the early spring, she visits the hives a couple of times a month to monitor the bees’ behavior, add pollen patties, remove any pests and add more hive frames which are used by the bees to build honeycombs.

After the bees become more active in the spring, honey can start to be harvested through the summer. Robinson dresses in a beekeeping suit that covers her legs, arms and face in one sealed garment to protect her from her buzzing friends. She also burns natural wood shavings to calm the bees down if she’s in the hives for a longer amount of time than normal. Robinson uses a brush to gently guide the bees out from any tight spots or crevices to keep the bees safe as she carefully removes frames and places them on a rack to check the honeycomb’s structure and honey production.

“You really count on every bee to help your hive survive,” Robinson said. “So, it’s a very gentle process.”

Last year, one UofL hive produced about 12-pint jars of honey and grew enough to create a second hive.

Robinson says there’s no negative aspect in harvesting the bees’ honey when done properly.

Tending to the hives functions like a symbiotic relationship where the keeper protects the hives from pests, cold, moisture and hunger while harvesting honey for consumption. Seeing the hive thrive and overcome obstacles is as rewarding for Robinson as collecting honey.

“Seeing how much everybody likes the honey is really cool. Not that I made it, but it feels like I helped at least jar it,” Robinson said. “It’s cool to see the different tastes of what this honey is like compared to a different hive’s honey.”

Supporting the Hive

Caring for bees not only ties Robinson to her community and family, but it also fulfills a called duty to the environment and sustainability.

“The responsibility as UofL’s beekeeping intern to me is to show kindness and consideration toward ecology, urban agriculture and every little pollinator that comes my way,” Robinson said. “To help our bees is an honor because I’m also helping our local and community gardens, wildlife and student outreach on sustainable, eco-friendly practices.”

Honeybees are an important keystone species as pollinators and their success could be directly tied to the success of future generations. Keeping beehives helps secure a sustainable future and protects an important species from eradication. In trade, beekeepers can harvest honey and beeswax from hives to use for various purposes.

“It’s just important for everybody to know that you can absolutely be a beekeeper wherever as long as you have a yard and some plants nearby,” Robinson said. “You just have to know some pretty basic things about bees and how to use the equipment.”

Justin Mog, assistant to the provost for sustainability initiatives, created the beekeeping internship to help connect student learning with sustainable agriculture and nature stewardship. Mog works closely with Robinson to manage the hives and honey harvesting at UofL. The two also participate in programming on-and-off campus to better connect the Louisville community with honeybee conservation.

“Anyone who cares about sustainability needs an intimate understanding of how nature works, and I find there’s no better way to do that than to crack open a beehive and observe what’s going on,” Mog said. “I learn so much from my bees!”

After graduation, Robinson hopes to continue beekeeping either through volunteering or keeping her own hives. “I would love to have some beehives of my own one day as kind of a family tradition, help my dad still take care of his bees and hopefully get more involved with the Kentucky State Beekeepers Association (KSBA).”

KSBA offers resources, workshops and programs to help create new beekeepers and share knowledge.

Interested in becoming UofL’s next beekeeping intern? Contact UofL Sustainability.