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Being with the bees: Davis Wertheimer ’16 and Stanford Beekeepers discover joys of apiculture

Davis Wertheimer once saved a queen bee and her colony from the middle of the road (Courtesy of Davis Wertheimer).
Davis Wertheimer once saved a queen bee and her colony from the middle of the road (Courtesy of Davis Wertheimer).

For most people, the instinctive thing to do upon seeing a giant black swarm of bees is to get as far away as possible. But not for Davis Wertheimer ’16.

In fact, this past spring, when Wertheimer realized a wild hive of bees living near Suites was reproducing — in other words, that a new queen and half of the bees from the old hive had struck out on their own, looking for a place to live — he decided he wanted to capture the new swarm.

The founder and president of the newly created Stanford Beekeepers, Wertheimer kept an eye on the bees with friends. The swarm clustered together in a tree and didn’t move, so Wertheimer gave up and went home for the night.

The next day, biking back to his dorm, he spotted the bees on a different branch and knew they were on the move. He and his friends needed a stepladder to reach the branch, so they went to seven different places on campus looking for one — a dining hall, a housing front desk, even the Theater and Performance Studies department — but no one would lend them one.

Finally, the swarm decided to move again — but a car came along and struck it as it flew across the road. As some of the bees dispersed after the collision, others clustered around a certain spot in the road. Wertheimer knew that must be where the queen was.

“The queen survived, but was just stunned,” Wertheimer said. “She was lying in the road, so we actually stopped traffic and scooped her off the road into the box. Then we put the box on the hill across the road, and all of the bees followed the scent of the queen into the box.”

Wertheimer, a junior at the time, had never dreamed he’d find himself stopping traffic to rescue a queen bee in distress. But the months he’s spent as president of the Stanford Beekeepers have been full of surprises.

Actually, becoming a beekeeper was itself a surprise: Before last spring, Wertheimer had never seriously thought of trying his hand at beekeeping, much less starting a club about it. He’d never even been a part of any student group at Stanford.

The summer after freshman year, though, he had gone on a summer research trip to the Alps with a group of Stanford students and archeologist Dr. Patrick Hunt. He remembers striking up a conversation with Hunt about colony collapse disorder, a phenomenon that was shrinking (and continues to shrink) the world’s bee population.

The Stanford campus would be a good place to raise bees, Hunt and Wertheimer agreed. People on campus were conscious of pesticides, there were flowers to be pollinated year-round and the winter here was mild.

Wertheimer didn’t think much of it, though, and nothing came of the conversation until a year and a half later, when he received an e-mail from Hunt telling him about a grant program he could apply to if he was interested in raising bees.

Hunt’s e-mail prompted Wertheimer to talk with fellow students about the prospect of beekeeping. There was a genuine interest in the activity, he discovered. Although the grant Hunt had suggested didn’t work out, Wertheimer decided to start the club anyway and seek funding elsewhere.

“I realized there were a whole bunch of reasons to try it,” Wertheimer said. “I knew students were interested and it would be a great way to meet new people and learn something interesting, help the campus, and help the environment. There was no reason not to.”

Working with a group of other students and Dr. Patrick Archie, the director of the O’Donohue Family Stanford Educational Farm, Wertheimer managed to get hives for the new club part way through spring quarter last year. Archie’s support was instrumental, Wertheimer said — he had kept bees before, and had some beekeeping equipment on hand. He used Educational Farm funds to purchase the rest, as well as the bees themselves.

Now, in the Stanford Beekeepers’ second quarter, there are 20 to 30 active Stanford Beekeepers, although any students can show up when they feel like doing some beekeeping.

“As long as you don’t have a deathly allergy to bee stings, anyone can appreciate bees,” Wertheimer said. “They’re really cool creatures.”

Wertheimer handles scheduling and budget issues for the club, while David Cross ’18, who had kept bees before joining, plays the “teacher” role.

For now, the club is focusing on short-term goals: keeping the bees alive over winter quarter while they hibernate. In the future, Wertheimer and other Beekeepers hope to have beehives in other on-campus locations, organize workshops and host speaker events for the benefit of club members and the campus community.

Currently, the Stanford Beekeepers take care of four beehives in an enclosure on the Educational Farm, which is located to the west of Sterling Quad. Each hive consists of a stack of approximately 2 x 2 x 1 ft wooden boxes, each of which contains eight frames, or plastic sheets that hang inside the box and give the bees something to build honeycomb on.

Each hive has tens of thousands of individual bees in it, Wertheimer said.

At the Stanford Beekeepers’ weekly meetings, members open up half of the hives, remove the frames and check to see if everything is in order: whether there are any signs of disease, whether the queen is laying eggs and whether the bees are depositing honey.

“You have to make sure you move kind of fast, because you don’t want to leave the hive open for too long,” Wertheimer said. “It can get a little intense, but it’s fun.”

The club has full beekeeping suits, but they’re hot and stuffy inside and most members don’t use them anymore. The hives (a type of “collective organisms”) aren’t normally aggressive, and using common sense, it’s easy to avoid being stung.

The club has only had two stings so far, Wertheimer said, and both of those were due to people “ignoring basic bee safety.”

Recently, club members harvested honey from the hives for the first time, in a process that involved scraping the honeycomb off the frames into a large pot, then heating it so the wax melted and floated to the top, where it could be skimmed off, leaving the honey behind. The beekeepers will sample the honey at their meeting this week.

But while the honey is a sweet perk, harvesting it isn’t necessarily the beekeepers’ main purpose.

The bees also benefit the Educational Farm, where they pollinate various plants. Plus, keeping healthy bees helps fight colony collapse disorder. And at least for Wertheimer, the activity of caring for the beehives is itself its own reward.

A Symbolic Systems major, Wertheimer doesn’t consider himself a biologist — he just likes the bees. He enjoys simply sitting and watching them fly in and out of the hives, and said he’s “awestruck” every time he opens a hive and sees them going about their business.

“The hardest part was just deciding to [start the club],” Wertheimer said. “Everything else just fell into place.”
Contact Emma Johanningsmeier at ejmeier ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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