George Mason University
George Mason University Mason
George Mason University

New program gives more honey bees a home

May 9, 2017   /   by Damian Cristodero

The School of Business and College of Science are partnering with Fairfax County for the Honey Bee Initiative, installing an apiary and planting wildflowers to rehabilitate part of the I-95 landfill. Photo by Evan Cantwell.

About two years from now, German Perilla hopes about four acres of the I-95 Landfill Complex in Lorton, Va., will be transformed into green meadows with grasses, wildflowers and bees—lots of bees.

Perilla, director and co-founder of George Mason University’s Honey Bee Initiative, let out a soft “woo-hoo” when asked about the project, and added, “I feel fantastic.”

The ambitious endeavor—a partnership among George Mason, Fairfax County and Covanta, a private waste energy company that runs the landfill’s incinerator—is the latest example of the Honey Bee Initiative’s broadening profile on campus and its outreach into the community.

It also is part of the initiative’s joint partnership between the School of Business and College of Science. The relationship allows the initiative to engage in even more robust research while providing a platform for business students to stretch their imaginations by developing sustainable business models.

At a “Smart Hive Hackathon” in February, sponsored by the Sioux Honey Association Co-Op, students began using technology to brainstorm about developing devices and apps to monitor hive health and battle colony collapse disorder, which is devastating bee populations worldwide.

The Honey Bee Initiative’s multidisciplinary courses on sustainability and beekeeping will be unaffected, as will its collaboration with indigenous communities in Colombia, Peru and El Salvador to establish hives that provide environmentally sustainable sources of nutrition and income.

“I’m thrilled by the multidisciplinary teaching and research potential,” said Lisa Gring-Pemble, an associate professor in the School of Business and co-founder of the Honey Bee Initiative. “Our Honey Bee Initiative has brought together students, alumni, faculty, and community partners with backgrounds in the sciences, liberal arts, engineering, and business. Our shared commitment to sustainability, social impact, and bee and pollinator health is what drives our collaboration."

“It’s an opportunity to demonstrate how science and business can work together, how science can help communities and do better for the environment,” said Peggy Agouris, dean of the College of Science. “I feel very strongly that this is a perfect combination of factors that can create something in the students’ academic experience they will not forget.”

In claiming portions of the 500-acre I-95 Landfill Complex that have been closed and capped by soil and turf, seeds for rye grass and wildflowers such as black-eyed Susan were planted on two acres in October and two acres this spring. Twelve hives, constructed of pine, each with 15,000 bees, will create an education site open to students and school groups. The sites will take about two years to mature.

“The main goal of the Honey Bee Initiative is to educate students, professors and the general public on the importance of pollinators. This is the platform to do it,” Perilla said. “This country depends on pollinators for its food security, and honey bees are the most versatile pollinators you can find.”

Claiming of the I-95 landfill actually began with Mason alumnus Eric Forbes, the complex manager who graduated from Mason in 2002 with an integrative studies degree and a specialization in environmental management and ecology.

A classmate of Perilla’s while at Mason, Forbes thought bee apiaries on closed areas of the property would be a win-win, and gave his old friend a call. Forbes said he wants to eventually turn 25 acres of landfill into meadows. That will not only provide habitat for native wildlife and pollinators, it will lower maintenance costs for the landfill through reduced mowing. New root systems will also reduce storm water runoff and erosion.

Officials from Fairfax County’s Solid Waste Management Program backed the strategy and donated $5,000, as did Covanta. The money went to buy seeds, the bees, hives and a pollen substitute to help feed the hives as they become established.

“I’m ecstatic about it,” Forbes said. “These partnerships between a state university and local government can lead to bigger and better things for education and the community.”

“It’s support that we never had,” Perilla said. “It’s an opportunity we never had. The fact that we’re working with Covanta, that we’re working with Fairfax County, that we’re working with the community… it really opens some doors.”