Creating Interdisciplinary Platforms to Address the SDGs – The Honey Bee Initiative

Like most complex challenges, the problem of declining honeybee populations and its effects on economies, food security, and the environment will require an interdisciplinary effort to solve. Through the Honey Bee Initiative, George Mason University’s Business for a Better World Center has brought together the diverse fields of art, business, education, and science to do just that. I spoke to Lisa M. Gring-Pemble, the Initiative’s Co-Founder and Director of Strategy and Germán Perilla, Co-Founder and Director, to learn more, and discover what business schools around the world can learn from their approach.

What is the Honey Bee Initiative, and why is it important?

The Honey Bee Initiative (HBI) is a university-wide effort supported by George Mason University’s School of Business to empower communities through sustainable beekeeping.  Students from across campus, regardless of major, have a way to further explore their interests in a very hands-on manner.  We offer opportunities to engage in scientific research, design art projects, connect with the community, and even study abroad. Partnerships with government, for-profit businesses, non-profit organizations, and community members are vital to the success of the initiative.

As to your second question, well, there are at least three reasons.  First, it allows us to tackle a number of the 17 UN global goals such as no hunger, no poverty, gender equity, reduced inequalities, and life on land to name a few.  Second, the Honey Bee Initiative provides us with a model for how to solve global goals.  It is an apt illustration of what institutions of higher education can do to address global goals through multidisciplinary and innovative teaching and research, and meaningful partnerships across sectors.  Third, honey bees are threatened and bee health is critical to human survival.  If bees don’t thrive, neither do we.

Can you give us a brief history of bees at Mason?

In practical terms, our engagement with honey bees began in 2012 when an internal seed grant enabled placement of four hives on our main campus in Fairfax, Virginia to educate the university community about the benefits of sustainable hive management in an urban setting. Soon thereafter, a beekeeping class, which filled immediately, was started, and it caused us to think about ways to expand.

Our efforts truly began in earnest in 2013, however. It was at this time that we formally launched HBI. Those four starter hives quickly expanded to 16 with funds received from a successful crowdfunding campaign. We also launched the international initiatives and in 2017, HBI moved to its present home in the School of Business to focus on impact, business for good, and program scale. In total, what was once a small start-up has developed into an operation of over 800 hives, an established teaching and research program, thriving international programs, and dynamic public-private partnerships that we will continue to grow to increase the impact of our Initiative.

Has this work been incorporated into the curriculum?

It has – both through specific courses and as a basis for class projects and experiential learning opportunities. It begins with the Sustainable Beekeeping course I mentioned previously, but also includes The Importance of the Amazon in the Modern World, and In Search of the Perfect Queen. These courses focus on how human communities interact with their environment, cover topics such as beekeeping, ecotourism and community driven development, and are offered to students across the university. Courses offered in the College of Education and Human Development (CEHD), such as “Science Methods for Diverse Young Learners,” provide guest lectures on conservation/environmental education issues. In the Business School, our students learn about creating a sustainable business model through the sale of bee-related products like mead and the candles and honey you see displayed on the slides.

We also use the hives so that our aspiring elementary educators are able to learn how to teach pollination in our local schools. The College of Health and Human Services uses HBI honey during its annual sustainability cook-off, the College of Visual and Performing Arts has partnered on a number of art projects (including a “Living Hive” exhibit that toured up and down the East Coast educating people about the importance of pollinators), and the Volgenau School of Engineering has participated in “smart hive hackathons.” Over 1000 unique visitors explore the hive every year.

And the list goes on. But the point remains the same. The honey bee initiative underscores the importance of all disciplines working together to address challenges.

Can you tell us a bit about the kinds of partnerships the Honey Bee Initiative is involved in and its innovative approach to using partnerships?

Our approach to all partnerships is community driven and the community members are full partners with us in designing and implementing any program. For example, we were engaged by Fairfax County to rehabilitate a landfill by creating pollinator friendly habitat. 24 hives have been established on site and we are using the opportunity to research how honey bees are impacted by their local environment. In this case specifically, we are interested in how contaminants in the pollen resources they access might be introduced to, and accumulate in their hives.

Another great example is our work with the Beltway Brewing Company. With them we are launching Patriots 57, a honey ale that will be sold at campus events. Perhaps more importantly, the beer label highlights the plight of the honey bee and includes a link to the program’s website (bees.gmu.edu) so consumers can learn more. A portion of the royalties is given back to HBI to fund future education, research, and programs.  We also partner with MVLE, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing employment opportunities to individuals with disabilities and other barriers. Clients of MVLE now make our rolled candles and the sales generate revenue.

What about internationally?

We operate in both Perú and Colombia, with a the goal in mind of using sustainable beekeeping to empower local communities and drive economic development.  In Perú, we’ve worked with community beekeepers to establish vertical hives work, reproduce colonies from the ones they have to create more colonies, create a market for honey and bee-related products, and integrate forest conservation into the community culture. In Colombia, the bee program supports sustainable, entrepreneurial beekeeping programs to foster economic self-sufficiency for indigenous women and their families.

What kind of an impact has the Initiative had?

I am especially proud of the results we have seen in Colombia. In just under two years, the HBI project there has grown from 20 participating families to over 200 families, from 3 participating municipalities to 12, from 65% required female participation to 75% required female participation, and from 75 hives to over 500 hives.

Just last month, we learned that HBI’s work in Colombia was selected as the 15th best overall social and environmental project in Latin America and the Caribbean by the Latinoamérica Verde awards. The project was selected due to the results it has achieved in promoting sustainable development and the conservation of bee biodiversity. This, and similar publicity, has been essential in gaining program awareness and raising funding that allows us to expand.  We’ve also had overwhelming positive feedback from program partners and participants.

Moving forward we intend to be much detailed in our tracking of qualitative and quantitative measures so that we can better understand and promote our success.

What have been some of the challenges with this initiative?

Fundraising support primarily, but communicating our message through media coverage as well. Other challenges involve those that come when you’re working across cultures, communities, power structures, inequities and disparities, and with multiple sectors, each with its own set of internal processes and procedures.  Any work we do with communities must be reciprocal and ongoing and so there are ethical obligations involved when we commit to a project.

Any advice for other Signatories interested in doing something similar? 

Please reach out to us. We’d love nothing more than to partner with you and establish a global network of Honey Bee Initiatives. When we connect, we’ll let you know what works, where we hit pitfalls, and just enjoy a great brainstorm session.

Practically speaking, we made some tactical decisions at the outset that helped smooth the way for our success.

The name “George Mason University Honey Bee Initiative” was a strategic choice. We realized that in order to be successful, everyone at Mason needed to have buy in and therefore we chose a name that all members of or Mason community could embrace.  Further, we enlisted the support of faculty, staff, and students from around the University so that many people could see the benefits of the honey bee initiative as a multidisciplinary program. We also looked for on-campus relationships that would generate positive “buzz” for the initiative. For example, we partnered with Sodexo on our campus to create a salad dressing made from our honey during Earth Month and we engaged in a student cook-off in the nutrition department using honey as the secret ingredient.

We also sought buy in from senior leadership at the University early, meeting with our president and establishing hives on his property.  When and where we could, we drummed up  media coverage to gain increased exposure. To prevent stretching ourselves too thin, we established our mission –  empowering communities through sustainable beekeeping – and then evaluated potential projects on the extent to which they aligned. Finally, we established a mechanism where people could buy candles, honey, and other bee-related products to create energy for the initiative around campus.

What’s next?

We’d like to scale existing programs in Colombia and Perú and establish and even broader global network of programs.  We’d also like to introduce new programs.  One project on the horizon includes AR/VR technology using bees as a vehicle to get students interested in STEM careers, entrepreneurship, and innovation. ​ We recognize that the quality of the world future generations will inherit depends on the active participation of young people as scientists and citizens in how we manage our natural resources.  And we’re continually seeking out new partnerships to promote sustainable beekeeping and food security.

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