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Alumni Find Sweet Spots as Beekeepers

November 2, 2016

RHIT Bastin Bee Farm 12763

Sweet Spots: Joe Bastin, a 2003 civil engineering alumnus, joined his family’s beekeeping supply store and honey production operation in Knightstown, Indiana, full time several years ago.

If you’ve ever been in the middle of rush-hour traffic in any major city throughout the world, you can appreciate the activity level of a honeybee colony that hits a feverish pitch each spring and summer.

Each day, up to 80,000 individual bees are making their forays to collect pollen and nectar from plants. From these two ingredients comes honey, which is harvested to provide a natural sweetener for health-conscious humans. And, in another parallel to the big city, a colony’s survival depends upon a diverse population of bees to perform specific tasks.

This activity has fascinated alumni beekeepers Rich Morris and Joe Bastin, taking their engineering interests to a new level.

“I have been absolutely intrigued by the ‘super-organism’ aspect [of beekeeping],” says Morris, a 1980 electrical engineering graduate who has four hives on his small farm near Madison, Wisconsin. “Beekeeping is the type of hobby that spreads. People love doing it and their friends see that. It takes very little equipment to get going.”

Providing those supplies and equipment is where Bastin comes in. After starting with one hive 10 years ago, Bastin’s family now operates the largest beekeeping supply store in Indiana (Bastin Honey Bee Farm in rural Knightstown). Meanwhile, nearly 400 colonies within the farm produce honey and honey-based products (soaps, lip balms, beeswax candles, and creamed honey) sold at retail locations throughout central Indiana, including their farm-based store.

“Seeing bees at work is awe-inspiring and mesmerizing,” says Bastin, a 2003 civil engineering alumnus who joined the operation full time several years ago. “It is easy to get caught up watching a hive work and seeing all of the intricacies of the species. It allows you to melt into a very small part of our world that is so very critical to our existence.”

Morris and Bastin are using technology and science to help uncover some of beekeeping’s greatest mysteries, and possibly impact other apiarists.

Becoming frustrated when two-third of his bees were killed by Wisconsin’s frigid winters, Morris created a national network of beekeepers, BroodMinder, in July 2015 to examine the problem. A series of temperature and humidity sensors embedded into hives are providing data about trends and patterns within a national network of hives. The goal is to gather information from 10,000 devices during 2017.

“We can’t fix or affect what we can’t measure,” remarks the former medical systems engineer. “We believe that through the social interaction of our national client base, we will discover great things.”

Meanwhile, Bastin is working with the Indiana Queen Breeders Association to track the genetic trait management of honeybees. This work aims to breed a healthier and more adaptable bee that can withstand  varroa mites, diseases, and other natural and human disturbances.

“Engineering has found its way into most of my endeavors over the years, and beekeeping is no different,” Bastin says. “Beekeeping practices are constantly adapting to changing environmental factors. The skills I learned as an engineer allow me to keep on the leading edge and transfer that information to other beekeepers from all walks of life in a timely and clearly understandable method.”