On a recent dreary January afternoon, just a few bees braved the cold to buzz around IUPUI’s urban garden on the southwest edge of campus.

“They don’t like overcast weather,” said Amanda Keene, the university’s sustainability manager and campus beekeeper. “They’re like me!”

Keene helps oversee Urban Beekeepers at IU Indianapolis, a club where students learn about the importance of pollinators. The campus garden currently contains two beehives that are home to as many as 160,000 bees in the warmer months.

In the wintertime, honeybees huddle inside their hives in a semi-hibernative state. But as the weather warms, the honeybees will start to fly around and pollinate plants and flowers on campus and beyond to the Indianapolis Zoo, White River State Park and across downtown. 

That’s the sweetest part of urban beekeeping, Keene said — that she helps raise bees that are having an impact on the city surrounding the campus apiary, or beehive yard.

“They’re not only benefiting our hyperlocal campus ecosystem but also our city’s ecosystem as well,” she said.

The ABCs of beekeeping

Beekeeping boils down to one essential duty in the mind of IUPUI ecology professor and campus beekeeper Xianzhong Wang.

“The most important task is to keep the bees alive,” said Wang, an aspiring master beekeeper who has several beehives in his own backyard. “If the bees die, then we cannot continue.”

With that responsibility comes routine hive inspections. In the spring and summer, Keene and Wang suit up in full beekeepers outfits to open the two hives to check for mites or disease. They also ensure that the queen bee is still laying eggs. 

Amanda Keene, sustainability manager and beekeeper, works with the beehives at IUPUI on Friday, Jan. 26, 2024. Credit: Claire Rafford / Mirror Indy

In the winter, they’ll add a “candy board” with sugar and pollen for extra nutrients so the bees possess enough energy to stay warm if they’re low on honey. Keene and Wang also weatherproofed the hive with tar paper to insulate the bees from the Indiana cold.

Bees are vital to the food supply — more than a third of crops rely on pollinators like bees to grow, according to the United States Department of Agriculture

But it’s not all sunshine and honey. In April, U.S. beekeepers lost nearly half of their colonies from causes like starvation and varroa mites — which is a parasite that feeds on honeybees — compared to the prior year, according to nonprofit Bee Informed.

For Keene and Wang, these factors make their mission — keeping the bees alive, as Wang would say — even more crucial.

“It’s very important that we keep a certain number of colonies or the ecological services that honeybees provide,” said Wang.

The bee impact

Urban Beekeepers at IU Indianapolis, which runs an email listserv of more than 160 people, helps students learn more about honeybees through the campus apiary. 

Ainsley Wright, 21, is club president. A senior studying sustainable management and policy, she’s passionate both about the environmental impact of honeybees, especially in a city like Indianapolis. 

“It’s so important to me that students such as myself understand that you can grow your own food in an urban environment and you can have bees that pollinate and produce honey,” Wright said.

Honeybees peek out through the side of a hive at IU Indianapolis. Credit: Amanda Keene

The club, under Wright’s leadership, organizes events and in-person meetings. Along with Keene and Wang, they also harvested wildflower honey and held a sale in the fall, where they sold out of the hive-to-table honey. They had to turn away customers. 

Keene and Wang have lots of plans for the campus apiary, including the addition of two more hives this summer. The club also is hoping to have another honey sale next year. 

In the meantime, as the weather warms and the bees start to emerge, the beekeepers will keep doing the work of keeping the bees alive so they can help  make downtown Indianapolis colorful and full of life again.

Wright’s passionate about beekeeping because of her major in sustainability and future career revolving around climate action. But she wants students of all majors to get involved and learn about bees.

The apiary is open to all students, faculty and staff who want to learn about the environmental role of honeybees and how to create a world where bees can thrive.

“I want dental students to be involved,” Wright said. “I want the medical students. I want people outside of my major to come in and be able to learn from square one about how important these bees are.”

Claire Rafford covers higher ed for Mirror Indy in partnership with Open Campus.