Montana State University

Beekeeping hobby becomes base of research and classes

December 18, 2009 -- Melynda Harrison, MSU News Service

David Baumbauer, manger of Montana State University's Plant Growth Center, sits on bee colonies at MSU. He started raising bees as a hobby. Now those bees are used for research at MSU and as teaching tools for horticulture classes. (MSU photo by Kelly Gorham)   High-Res Available

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Tel: (406) 994-4571
In David Baumbauer's beekeeping class the participants take an oath: "I am a beekeeper and I will get stung."

Baumbauer, manager of Montana State University's Plant Growth Center, quickly follows with an explanation, "If you work the bees when the weather is nice and pay attention to what you are doing, you can usually avoid getting stung."

Although Baumbauer does feel the sting of an irritated bee once or twice a year--always his fault, he said--he hasn't let that stop his beekeeping hobby from morphing into research and classes.

In January, Baumbauer will be offering his fifth hobby beekeeping course. Open to the public and limited to 50 participants, the class fills up every year.

"It's a neat addition to the agricultural experience," Baumbauer said. "It's a fun hobby, kids seem to be naturals at it and gardeners reap wonderful benefits from having bees around (to pollinate their crops)."

His bees also make an appearance in Baumbauer's organic market gardening class, taught in the summer on MSU's horticulture farm. While learning about small-scale direct market enterprises, students get a primer on beekeeping.

"There are a lot of products that come out of beekeeping, such as honey, lip balms and candles, that can supplement a gardener or farmer's income," Baumbauer said.

Baumbauer got hooked on beekeeping after working bees with a friend. He currently has five bee colonies on MSU's Bozeman Area Research and Training Farm and his daughters have another five colonies in friends' yards. (Five colonies per hobbyist and two hobbyists per household are allowed by the Montana Department of Agriculture.) The honey and beeswax his family collects is used for Christmas presents, the MSU welcome picnic and a church fundraiser.

Researchers at MSU see the bees living on campus as more than honey and pollinators; they see them as research subjects and life savers.

Lee Spangler, faculty in chemistry and biochemistry, Joe Shaw, engineering faculty, and researchers from the National Energy Technology Lab use bees for carbon sequestration work. By analyzing the pollen a bee collects for tracers that have been added to carbon dioxide, he can tell whether buried carbon dioxide is staying stored underground or leaking out of the ground.

University of Montana professor Jerry Bromenshenk; Kevin Repasky, MSU engineering faculty; John Carlsten, MSU physics faculty; Shaw and Spangler have figured out a way to use bees to detect land mines.

Bromenshenk conditioned honeybees to be attracted to land mines by adding trace amounts of the chemicals used in explosives to their food. When honeybees are released into a minefield they will pause over the landmines in their search for food. To be able to detect the pausing of the bees, the MSU researchers developed lidar, a measuring system that detects and locates objects on the same principle as radar but uses light from a laser.

Bees can also help improve the lives of people around the world. In October, Baumbauer volunteered at a Heifer International beekeeping class in Perryville, Ark. Heifer International is a nonprofit development organization dedicated to improving communities through sustainable agriculture.

"Bees are good for international development because you don't need any land to raise them," Baumbauer said. "They are a great enterprise for women in developing countries because women do most of the chores and don't have a lot of extra time. Bees don't require a big time commitment."

He also talks bees with youth groups. He has read bee stories to children at the library, taught beekeeping and served honey to middle school students at their fall camp, and taught sixth graders the waggle dance, a dance bees use to communicate where nectar is.

"It's been interesting to see how this hobby has blossomed in the last six years," Baumbauer said. "From carbon sequestration to landmines to international development--it's taking on a life of its own."

David Baumbauer at 406-994-2231 or