As one of the newest clubs on campus, JMU’s Beekeeping Club stands out as an organization that brings together a unique group of people who all have a passion for bees and beekeeping.
Senior geography major Claire Sherwood, president of the Beekeeping Club, began working toward making the group official on BeInvolved, JMU’s website for recognized clubs and organizations, in spring 2022 with fellow seniors Eva Heller, also a geography major, and Taylor Mountjoy, a political science major. Heller is currently the secretary for the Beekeeping Club and Mountjoy is the vice president.
The club began when Sherwood, Heller and Mountjoy all took a class with Professor Wayne Teel, who teaches geography and ISAT classes at JMU. Mountjoy described the initial meetings as “an unofficial thing,” with Teel informing the trio of visits from beekeeper Allison Wickham (’12) through the Siller Pollinator Company located in Harrisonburg.
Wickham acts as a liaison to JMU for the Siller Pollinator Company and assists the club members in taking care of the bees, maintaining the hives and extracting honey in a safe way that ensures the bees are unharmed. Mountjoy recalled the meetings at the beehives on campus near the retention ponds in East Campus, where Teel would say, “Allison’s coming out, do you all want to come down and put on a bee suit?” For the rest of that semester, the group volunteered to visit the hives whenever Wickham came to campus.
Although she started out as just a resource for teaching the group how to keep bees, Wickham quickly became a staple of the Beekeeping Club. Wickham houses the bees from JMU’s hives over the summer at Siller Pollinator Company and continues to teach the group members how to keep bees, keep them healthy and make sure they’re doing okay, Sherwood said.
The seeds for the Beekeeping Club had been sown back in 2018, when Teel took another group of students who showed interest in beekeeping down to the hives. However, Sherwood said, during the COVID-19 pandemic, most of the bees died. Despite this setback in membership and livestock of bees, Teel continued to bring his students to the hives and encouraged them to revive the club years later.
When the time came for Sherwood, Heller and Mountjoy to make the beekeeping club official, they had to go through JMU BeInvolved and write a constitution. This constitution includes the purpose of the group, which is to “educate students on the benefits and importance of pollinators, especially the honeybee.” While the club has been in the works since 2018, 2022 marked its first year as an official organization on campus.
In addition to being an environmentally driven club primarily focused on beekeeping, the club hosts social events like a potluck this past Friday with JMU Give, another volunteer organization on campus. The club also participates in Harvestfest, which is a volunteer opportunity through the arboretum, Heller said.
The Beekeeping Club also harvests honey from their hives and does honey fundraisers. Heller said she felt a distinct feeling of pride after harvesting honey for the first time, that, “it was the best honey we’d ever had.” This past fall, the club sold 90 jars of honey.
When asked about the process of honey harvesting, Sherwood said the club extracts all the honey itself, filters it, bottles it, packages and labels it. For next year, the club is expecting to have two more hives, so the amount of honey extracted will double.
Holly Wageley, sophomore geology major, joined the club after it became official in 2022 and currently serves as its treasurer. Wageley said she found the Beekeeping Club on Instagram and took interest almost immediately.
“I thought JMU would be a perfect place for hives,” Wagelely said. “I do have experiences in the past as a beekeeper — I’ve been doing it since I was a child.” Wageley has been elected as the president of the Beekeeping Club for the 2023-24 school year.
The club members show they gained knowledge about bees by going out to the hives and actively interacting with nature. Heller said the biggest thing that sets the club members apart from other people is this “undeniable” hands-on experience in the outdoors that “you can’t really get anywhere else.”
“You’re literally holding bees in your hand,” Sherwood said. “It’s like a nature documentary in front of your eyes.”
The Beekeeping Club aims to reduce negative stereotypes about bees. Heller said there’s a “really bad” stigma around bees and pollinators because they can sting people and people are scared of them, but added that once someone’s in a bee suit and actually holding them, “they’re really cool animals.”
Mountjoy said he was surprised how “chill” the bees were during his first time pulling the bees from their pallets in the hive. Helping people have the same realizations as Mountjoy about bees remains a primary goal of the club.
The group still has aspirations for the club and JMU as a whole for becoming a more pollinator-friendly campus.
“There’s so much stuff that relies on bees,” Wageley said. “Half the stuff in your grocery store wouldn’t be there if we didn’t have bees and pollinators and butterflies.”
The beekeeping club also hopes to have more hives in the fall, and it’s working with Siller Pollinator Company to install a wildflower meadow on campus. Heller said the club places importance on being able to pass down the knowledge and skills to future members, and overall wants to educate people about bees, do more outreach and reduce the stigma about pollinators. The group aims to promote pollination all across campus, Sherwood said, including reducing the use of pesticides and mowing.
Sherwood said Wickham informed the club that one hive alone is home to 100,000 bees at their last meeting— a number that could easily grow in the coming years. Sherwood said the members learn something new about bees each time they meet and hope that more people find interest in their pollinators to keep them safe on and off campus.
Heller said she wants members of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities to know that “you don’t have to have any prior experience to join the club whatsoever, even if you are remotely interested in bees, or even like honey."