The Butler County Beekeeper’s Association (BCBA), a group populated by local farmers and beekeepers from the 31 honey-selling farms around the county, recently gained two new members — members who do not fit the typical demographic of the group.
Jack Fetick and Luke Elfreich, juniors at Miami University, joined the BCBA after deciding to found the Miami Apiculture Society, a club devoted to keeping bees and learning about the species.
The pair first decided to found the club a year and a half ago when they came across a story in a magazine about the work of Alex Zomchek, the president of the BCBA and a faculty member at Miami’s Ecology Research Center. Neither Fetick nor Elfreich had kept bees before, but they were intrigued by the concept and wanted to learn more about the practice.
“It’s the perfect mix of all these things. I think it’s a great platform for environmental awareness here. It’s a good way for kids to get involved,” Elfreich said.
Additionally, the pair was inspired by beekeeping’s close ties to Oxford. Known as the “Mecca of beekeeping” by those familiar with the history of apiculture, Oxford was the location of the first modern beehive, invented by Lorenzo Langstroth.
Langstroth, a clergyman from Philadelphia, moved with his family to Oxford in the late 1850’s, where he built and patented the first hive with movable frames. He imported Italian queen bees and planted thousands of flowers on his 10 acre property in an effort to cultivate more honey.
His successful hive design became the norm for most beekeepers in the country, both in the 1850’s and today. His former home, Langstroth Cottage, resides on Patterson Avenue and was inducted as a National Historic Landmark in 1982.
For Fetick, with this historic connection, it only made sense to begin keeping bees on the campus where the industry first began.
“I’d walk past the Langstroth Cottage and see the historical marker out there talking about how important it is and how a whole industry, a whole world, was revolutionized here in Oxford, Ohio,” Fetick said. “So I was like ‘wow, that’s pretty cool. That’s something Miami has that nobody else really has.’”
It has been a year and half in the making, but the club is finally getting off the ground this spring, with Zomchek offering all the advice and support he can give to the club. For him, the founding of the club has come as a somewhat welcome surprise. In the 23 years he has been at Miami, he has had the occasional student interested in learning more about bees or the research he does on them, but has never had anyone approach him and ask to learn how to keep them.
While he has always wanted something like Fetick and Elfreich’s club to come along, he has refused to start a club on his own, worried that there would not be enough interest or enough members that could sustain even one hive. He was even concerned when Fetick and Elfreich first asked to start the club, worried that even they could not generate enough interest to make the club viable.
“I was skeptical. I said to them upfront ‘I will give you as much time as you need, but if you’re going to do this, do it seriously. Create a club that’s sustainable, like the bees themselves. Don’t let it die with you.’ I didn’t want to give them several hundred of my hours only to watch them graduate and wait another 23 years for somebody else to come along,” Zomchek said.
Zomchek was surprised not only when Fetick and Elfreich came back each and every time they faced an obstacle starting the club — such as trying to obtain permission from the university to keep hives on campus or realizing they needed to build a fence to put around their hives — but also when he realized they had at least 20 or 30 other students willing to dedicate their time to the Apiculture Society.
“They just kept coming back. Every time we ran into an obstacle I thought, ‘They’re done.’ But they kept pushing and pushing and pushing. And with every meeting, there have been more and more people,” Zomchek said. “Every time there has been a sit down meeting or an obstacle, challenge or call to work, I keep getting jazzed and excited, because they’re not only coming, but they’re coming with enthusiasm and excitement, and they’re getting the work done.”
Fetick and Elfreich obtained permission from the university to keep their hives behind Boyd Hall and hope to keep two and a half beehives this year, with hopes of expanding to more in the future. The club recently finished building all of the hives and inserted the bees into them, beginning their colonies for the summer.
“We just want a club that people can keep bees and continue to realize the legacy of beekeeping on campus and how important it is, and how much fun it can be,” Fetick said.
While Fetick and Elfreich try to make the club as much fun as possible for the members, there are some serious undertones to their efforts.
Honeybees have faced a growing mortality rate over the course of the last 25 years. A survey from the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that nearly 44 percent of bee colonies died between the summer of 2015 and the spring of 2016. However, their survey relies on self-reporting from only a small percentage of beekeepers around the country, making many experts guess that the figure is actually higher, especially in eastern states like Ohio.
Zomchek estimates that nearly 60 percent of bees in Ohio die each year, which poses a challenge when it comes to making up the loss. He says back in the 1970’s, when he first kept bees, the loss rate over the course of a year was only about 3 percent, making this a significant difference.
“I don’t care who you are, you can’t stay in business if you lose 60 percent of your product every year,” Zomchek said.
This yearly loss, as well as the threat of extinction overall can have serious consequences for humans.
About one-third of all food consumed by people needs to be pollinated by bees. However, as most of these foods are fruits and vegetables, this one-third contains about 80 percent of all vitamins and minerals humans need to survive. Without bees, these foods will not necessarily disappear, but they will become significantly more expensive to buy.
As Zomchek explains, this can cause a chain reaction of negative consequences for people. With fruits and vegetables more expensive to buy, many families will opt to buy cheaper foods that are often processed and loaded with unhealthy fats and sugars.
It’s difficult to tell how the future of the honeybee will go, but at least for the future of the Miami Apiculture Society, Fetick and Elfreich have plans. Though they only have two and a half hives this year, they plan to do everything they can to keep them healthy and hope to expand in the future.
Over the summer, members of the BCBA and Zomchek himself will come to the Oxford campus to care for the hives, and, in the fall, the club will take over again and harvest and sell their honey to people on campus. Fetick, who lives in Cincinnati, also plans to drive in over the summer when possible to monitor the hives.
The plan is also to expand the club in the future to include more hives in more locations on campus. Elfreich even has tentative plans to turn Lorenzo Langstroth’s cottage into an on-campus farmer’s market; however, as the cottage currently houses the Butler County Regional Transit Authority, this plan is still just a dream for the founders.
For Zomchek though, the club itself is a testament to how long he has been passionate about beekeeping. As a boy who fell in love at his first taste of honey, he now gets to teach and share his passion with a new generation of young people.
“A childhood passion turned into a lifelong interest turned into a professional problem and solution,” Zomchek said. “I was always hoping something like this was going to come on campus.”