George Mason’s Honey Bee Initiative promotes sustainability, teaches future entrepreneurs
George Mason University has a vision for itself. That vision? To be “the best university for the world.” It’s a bold goal—the kind of thinking that makes a great Sullivan school.
Sometimes, achieving big things means encountering small ones. Small creatures, in this case: bees. Since 2012, the GMU campus in Fairfax, Virginia, has been host to an apiary as part of its Honey Bee Initiative.
Since the ribbon cutting on that first apiary, the initiative has expanded to 50 apiaries across Northern Virginia. It has three primary goals: conducting applied research to combat colony collapse, providing hands-on teaching about sustainable beekeeping practices and social entrepreneurship, and establishing collaborative partnerships to improve the security and sustainability of the Northern Virginia ecosystem.
The decline of honey bee populations is an ecological crisis that affects not only the United States, however, but much of the world.
That led Germán Perilla, who is the director of the initiative, and Lisa Gring-Pemble, Director of Social Entrepreneurship and Global Impact at GMU’s Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship, to think about taking their project global. Thus, a new course was born: Social Impact and Entrepreneurship. The immersive course takes students to South America for 10 days during spring break to get a granular look at local businesses that not only make a profit, but also help people and the environment.
Francis Fuller, a senior accounting major, took the course this spring along with 14 other students. Once she arrived, she found herself in a very unusual, and at least a little uncomfortable, position: she had never been around so many bees.
But there she was, in a beekeeper’s suit, in the Santander region of Colombia, hearing the insects buzzing around her head.
“To be around that many bees and not running from them was an experience,” says Fuller.
The Honey Bee Initiative has provided about 180 beehives to the Santander region through its social entrepreneurship outreach, making it a natural fit for the course.
An immersive ten days
In addition to touring some of those hives and speaking with the beekeepers—mostly women looking to create a sustainable livelihood that meshes with family and household obligations, according to Gring-Pemble—students visited businesses that produce honey, chocolate, brown sugar, and coffee, and explored their business models.
They also met with bankers and mayors, and administrators from the Universidad Industrial de Santander, all of whom are helping to finance and advance these initiatives.
“We’re reading about these abstract concepts about social entrepreneurship, using business to create a better world, and it all sounds really wonderful,” says Gring-Pemble. “But when [students] meet a business owner who says I’m willing to pay above what the market sets as a wage because it’s the right thing to do, and I’m making a profit and doing it in a way that’s sustainable, then they take notice.”
“They were able to see the whole picture of what social entrepreneurship is,” says Perilla, who also teaches beekeeping classes at Mason. “It’s one thing to create case studies. It’s another thing if you can go see the complexity of it.”
A personal experience
Seeing how beehives have been incorporated into the lives of locals was especially impactful for Fuller, who came to the United States from Cartagena, Colombia, in 2010.
“The trip allowed me to understand the importance of learning about problems and the communities before attempting to generate a solution, which is necessary to create sustainable change,” says Fuller. “That was a key concept throughout the class before going on the trip, and was also very much present through our time in Colombia.”
“Beyond that,” she says, “I have a much deeper appreciation for bees.”
This article was adapted from a piece by Damian Cristodero of George Mason University.