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George Mason UniversitySchool of Business

The Honey Bee Initiative: What’s All the Buzz About?

Written by Jennifer Braun Anzaldi on .

German landfillFor many years the search for the bottom line was the most important goal of business owners and large companies. But today’s business owners are looking to do more than make a profit. And the Honey Bee Initiative at George Mason University is one example of students learning and implementing social entrepreneurship to make a difference in our local community and worldwide.

A collaboration between the School of Business and the College of Science, George Mason University’s Honey Bee Initiative works on honey bee sustainability by providing an innovative education, conducting collaborative research, and establishing community partnerships in Northern Virginia and abroad.

Supporters of the initiative include the Fairfax County Department of Public Works and Environmental Services, Covanta, BBVA, Mini Museum, Bayer Feed a Bee Program, Sioux Honey Association Co-Op, Sweet Virginia Foundation, Community Foundation for Northern Virginia, Restore Nature—the Morton and Spapperi Family Foundation, José Andrés, Merrifield Garden Center, Wardensville Garden Market, Universidad Industrial de Santander, and MET.

The Honey Bee Initiative includes nearly 75 hives in Northern Virginia that help the team research and combat colony collapse disorder and educate students and the local community on sustainable beekeeping practices.

Why Bees?

Most people don’t fully appreciate the essential role that honey bees play in food production. Seventy percent of crops worldwide are pollinated by bees, and yet the reduction in bee hives has been drastic over the last half century, with 2/3 of hives lost since 1970. The bee population is dwindling due to challenges facing bees such as managing practices, colony collapse disorder and reduced floral diversity. By protecting honey bees, we are protecting food security around the world.

The Queen Bees: Meet the Founders

Spearheading the initiative are co-founders Germán Perilla, MAIS’12, and Lisa Gring-Pemble. Perilla, who shares responsibilities with both the School of Business and the College of Science, is the director of the program. His passion for honey bees is evident in all he does for sustainability, teaching and research. He champions local programs that support bee health, and spearheads the honey bee global programs, working with indigenous communities in South America.

Gring-Pemble is an associate professor for Business Foundations and the director of global impact and engagement in the School of Business. Gring-Pemble focuses on enhancing the initiative’s curricular, co-curricular and public-private partnerships.

In addition to Perilla and Gring-Pemble, the Honey Bee Initiative has a multidisciplinary team that includes faculty, staff, and students from the fields of business, social entrepreneurship, engineering, natural sciences, community health, and humanities.

Creating a Buzz: Where it all Started

The program began in 2012 with a Mason Patriot Green Fund seed grant that enabled the placement of four hives on the Fairfax campus. The program’s objective, according to Gring-Pemble, was to educate the Mason community about the benefits of sustainable hive management in an urban setting. “The initial beekeeping class filled immediately with a 99-student waitlist, an extraordinary waitlist, which combined with Mason’s 300-student pollination lab, prompted thoughts of program expansion,” says Gring-Pemble.

“We consulted potential faculty and staff partners from a variety of areas across Mason, and in 2013 we launched the Honey Bee Initiative, establishing a second apiary on campus, and others in the area, including one at the home of George Mason President Ángel Cabrera.” And from there, the initiative continued to grow, launching an international component.

Bees Fly Overseas: Expanding Internationally

Capitalizing on Perilla’s extensive international work, the Honey Bee Initiative launched internationalbees landfill initiatives in Colombia and Peru in 2014. Just this year, thanks to the financial support of the Women in Business Initiative, the School of Business and a Mason Global Discovery Grant, Perilla and Gring-Pemble travelled to Colombia during spring break with 15 Mason students representing various disciplines, including visual and performing arts, community and global health, management, marketing, and conflict analysis and resolution.

Gring-Pemble says, “Our course work came alive as we tested, challenged and experienced theories and ideas.” She says students received invaluable insight into a number of industries including trapiche operations manufacturing panela, a raw form of brown sugar, cocoa, coffee, paper, and of course beekeeping. “The students were extraordinary and actively participated in presentations and interviews, cultural exchanges, and meetings with business leaders.”

Gring-Pemble says the initiative serves as an exemplar of tri-sector partnership efforts on behalf of sustainable business. “In Colombia we partner with mayors from three jurisdictions, a bank (BBVA), an institute of higher education (University Industrial of Santander) and community members, beekeepers, and coffee growers to achieve social, environmental, and business impacts.”

The spring break experience exceeded accounting major Francis Fuller’s expectations. “My expectations prior to the trip were to know the region and see how we could connect with the University Industrial of Santander, the community and locally with the BBVA to create a relationship. I did not imagine that we would see and learn so much. The program has exceeded our expectations.”

Perilla says, “Bees and hive products, with their unique characteristics, are part of the solution to create wealth and empower rural communities by the implementation of social entrepreneur programs. Healthy bee populations translate into healthy, well-balanced, and sustainable environments.”

Students Get Hands-On

Establishing the initiative and expanding internationally is tremendous, and yet there is more. The initiative is working with student startup teams to form viable business models to create products to sell. This allows students to put into practice what they learn in the classroom, giving them an opportunity to learn about new venture creation, sales, branding, and marketing. Profits from sales go back into the initiative. Recently, students began working with alumnus Chris Savage, BS Electrical Engineering ’10, to sell tea infused with Mason honey as part of an effort to create a business model that the business students can run.

In addition to new product creation, students have also participated in helping to develop new scientific methods for studying bees. The initiative held a Smart Hive Hackathon, designed to harness the brain power of students, faculty, and alumni to create “smart hives”—bee hives with remote monitoring technologies used to collect data in real-time and not disturb the bees with visual inspection.

The Bee Hive: Community Benefits

The Honey Bee Initiative has been beneficial to the university in many ways. The multidisciplinary approach has enabled students and faculty from all areas of the university to work together. In addition to business students creating sustainable business models and science and engineering students working on smart hive prototypes, even art students are getting in the mix. Artist Elsabe Dixon, a Mason alumna and Mason School of Art adjunct instructor, placed sections of a 12-part sculpture prototype made of plaster form and a drywall compound inside the hives of George Mason’s Honeybee Initiative to track the activities of the honeybees.

In addition, at Mason, food services provider, Sodexo, recently purchased honey from the Initiative to use in the dining halls on campus. On Earth Day (April 22), the Honey Bee Initiative opened its newly renovated campus apiaries to the public.

Bee a Part of the Solution: Join the Hive

The Honey Bee Initiative offers opportunities for engaging in scientific research, art projects, innovative teaching and research (e.g. artificial insemination, pollen research, bee genetics, beekeeping), community outreach, and study abroad.

When alumni and businesses support the Honey Bee Initiative, they are supporting sustainable food, environmental health, economic progress and food security. None of this is possible without the time volunteers have given.

“The integration of our programs across campus, the region, and world provides a unique multidisciplinary, challenge-driven approach to learning that offers all Mason students and community members the opportunity to see the role of business in creating a sustainable world,” says Gring-Pemble.

“Today, with thriving international programs in Peru and Colombia, dynamic public-private partnerships and an established multidisciplinary educational program, we aim to continue our upward “blue-sky” trajectory, enhancing lasting impact at Mason and beyond.”