Students have been flocking to a new student society committed to making a positive environmental impact through an unconventional pastime: beekeeping.
Less than a year later after it was founded, the St Andrews Bee Society has gained over 200 members, secured two environmental grants, a sponsor, and £500 in prizes awarded from the Student Union.
With the support of a local mentor and bee-keeper, it has rallied students around protecting the eco-critical critters' contributions to local ecosystems, while expanding its offerings to social members through events like pub crawls and mead-making sessions.
This has attracted a dedicated following. The society’s co-founder, fourth-year Zak Gainey, even spent his entire summer doing bee checks.
But while the society might have a serious buzz, Gainey admits that it started out on a more light-hearted note.
“If I’m honest, I don’t know how we got here,” Gainey said. He originally came up with the idea for Bee Society while talking to his friend Fiona Lock, who has since graduated. Inspired by their respective environmentally-based internship programs, Lock and Gainey brainstormed ways that they could continue protecting the environment back at school. “She jokingly said, ‘well, what about bees’?”
To test the waters, the duo took a trip to Bristol that August, where Lock’s uncle keeps bees of his own.
“We went and did beekeeping for the first time, and when they opened that lid… I was just sold,” he said.
That inspired him to make his friend’s playful suggestion a reality. He founded the club and made it a university-affiliated society in December 2022, starting out with about thirteen members.
But that wasn’t all. At the Freshers’ Fayre, the tent caught the attention of its benefactor and mentor: University Honorary Pagan Chaplain, and St Andrews alumna, Kitty Macintyre.
When Macintyre, a long-time beekeeper who began taking classes with the Fife Beekeepers Association, stumbled by the club’s tent, she was immediately impressed by its environmental aims.
“Engaging with environmentally conscious students, of which St Andrews has an enormous number, is very reassuring for the future,” Mcintyre said. “All these bright young things are really interested in the environment and ways in which they can make a difference.”
That compelled her to make an offer that the club’s members have to thank for their first hand-on experiences with bees.
“I said, you know, when you’re ready to roll, I’ll provide you with the bees," Mcintyre said. “When they got themselves organised, I had a hive set aside for them.”
But Mcintyre didn’t just give the group any hive — it was one she caught herself. She said she found it outside her home, in the neighbouring town of Crail, after she heard a swarm of bees and captured them.
When the bees are looking for a new home — as they were when she found the colony — the queen will leave the old hive with about half of the bees, swarming to a new location. When Mcintyre heard the hive, she waited until she found an opportune moment to slip a pillowcase over the hive’s temporary abode to contain them. Then, she transferred them to the society’s Flow Hive — a high-tech, synthetic hive provided directly by the company.
“We put the swarm into their hive, and they got stuck in,” she said.
Soon after receiving Mcintyre’s gift, the club gained ownership of a second hive — one purchased from a well-researched online seller. Gainey recalled picking up the boxed hive from the very disgruntled post office. Both hives reside in the garden behind the St Andrews Heritage Museum.
Throughout bee season (between May and August) the members began participating in hive inspections, ensuring that the colonies were supported and healthy and refraining from harvesting honey until the summer when its production is excessive enough to go unnoticed by the hive.
Ahead of the winter months, members work to insulate the hive and make sure they’re set to survive the summer, feeding them a clear, sugar solution, and then cake fondant in the winter.
By the end of the last academic year, the club boasted about 60 members. It won second prize in the University’s Society Subcommittee annual award ceremony, secured grant funding from two environmental organisations, and a sponsorship from the Australian company Flow Hive, which sells hives, bee suits and other beekeeping accessories.
Atop of sponsoring the clubs’ hives, Mcintrye has also welcomed BeeSociety members to inspect her own bees. Plus, the School of English, which sponsors hives in St Andrews’ Botanical Gardens, has coordinated with Bee Society for inspections.
But inspections aren’t all fun and games. Gainey himself admits that he was afraid during his first inspection, as bees began to rush at him in swarms.
“I don’t know what it is, but when they started to rush, I wasn’t particularly scared after that,” he said.” It felt quite comforting to have them all around you — and to know that they couldn’t get you.”
While the bees are usually docile if handled carefully and respectfully, there is always the risk of getting stung. A small hazard easily remedied, according to Mcintyre, by talking to the hive — a tradition followed by many beekeepers.
“Treating them as though they were sentient doesn’t do any harm, and it builds a relationship if you’re calm and relaxed, and not stressed when you’re dealing with them,” Mcintyre said. “You're less likely to get stung, and if you are, it hurts them more than it hurts you.”
The critters are also more than just their stingers, Bee Society social media manager, second-year Josh Feldman, said.
“[Bees] have a complex society in their hive,” Feldman said. “They have a language. They have multiple languages. They have dialects. They are a matriarchal society. They have developed the same way that humans have evolved. To deprive them of that right by saying like, oh, they sting—that’s stupid and that’s closed-minded.”
While the mantra of “save the bees” has become synonymous with the environmental movement, the number of registered hives and beekeepers within the United Kingdom has steadily increased every year, as per the Scottish Government.
That increase comes as a welcome statistic for the club, especially considering that the practice of personal beekeeping, or ‘apiculture’, has been popular for centuries. In fact, a manuscript record published in 1086, collected on behalf of William the Conqueror, found that three out of every ten landholdings in Essex had bees.
But in recent years, the declining number of pollinators has become a cause for concern.
“Since corporate honey production has become such a big thing, and like, you can buy honey for like a pound fifty at Tesco, people don’t keep bees in their backyards,” said Feldman. “Whereas, you know, for the better part of the millenia people did keep bees in St Andrews up until the 1500s. Even until the 1700 and 1800s there were beehives in the back gardens of this town. And there now are again.”
Photo: Hannah Shiblaq