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July 11, 2018, Adrian, Michigan – Adrian Dominican Sisters and Co-workers are all abuzz about new neighbors who have moved into the northeast corner of the Permaculture site on the Motherhouse Campus. The new neighbors are also abuzz – about their new home and the work that they do, day in and day out, to make a difference in sustaining Earth.
The new neighbors are two swarms of nucleus honeybees, local Michigan bees that inhabit two hives and now pollinate the wildflowers in the Permaculture garden.
Each hive is ruled, in a sense, by its queen bee, which lays the eggs that become female worker bees and the male drones, whose “sole purpose is to provide genetic diversity,” explained Elaine Johnson, Permaculture Specialist. “The female bees produce the wax from their bodies and they build the hive and maintain it and take care of the queen.”
Elaine brought in the local bees from Tecumseh, Michigan. Knowing the key role that bees and other pollinators play in sustaining the environment, Elaine started researching bees, took a bee class, and joined the local River Raisin Beekeepers Club. There, she met her mentor, Jessica Alcock, who provided her with a miniature hive and five frames, each filled with brood – their eggs and larvae – and honey. “I’m starting with miniature hives and queens that can handle the Michigan winter,” she said.
Bees swarm around the hive as Elaine Johnson pries out one of its honeycombs to examine.
As the beekeeper, Elaine spends about an hour every 10 days inspecting the frames for honey and watching for new queen cells, which indicate the worker bees are preparing for a new queen. Ideally, she said, beekeepers keep the current queens for two to four years, depending on how proficient the queen is in laying eggs.
She explained the distinction between honeybees and native bees, which are often solitary and die at the end of the season. The nucleus honeybees survive through the winter, remaining in their hive and forming a ball, or swarm. “[Some] bees will die and the swarm will shrink, but hopefully by the time it starts to heat up again, they’ll get working again,” she said.
“I have always been interested in beekeeping and finding ways we could offer reciprocity with different Earth beings,” Elaine said. “Working with bees is a great way to start a conversation that highlights the importance of habitat regeneration for the sake of all bees, and a great way to get people interested in and experienced with bees.”
Elaine has high hopes for her bees – and the influence they can have on local people and the environment. After this initial season with the bees, she hopes to invite people to learn about bees and experience them in a way that is safe. “I haven’t been stung yet,” she said. “I hear if you go slow and are gentle, and there’s a good source of nectar pollen … as long as they’re busy, they won’t have time to sting you.”
Feature photo at top: Elaine Johnson, Permaculture Specialist, examines a honeycomb frame from one of two hives at the Adrian Dominican Sisters' Permaculture site.
June 5, 2018, Adrian, Michigan – Rain gardens, berms and swales, Permaculture, eco-systems, zero waste, watersheds, bio-regions, planting guilds – this is the language of a two-week summer program for selected Barry University and Siena Heights University students as they explore and experience the environment and learn to work with and for nature.
Now in its second year, the Environmental Leadership Experience brought a disparate group of students to the Adrian Dominican Motherhouse May 13-27, 2018. Through team work, hands-on work, talks, meditation, and tours of local sustainability efforts, the students learn about eco-systems and the principles and practices of Permaculture, a system of learning from and working with the systems of nature in designing and implementing agriculture.
The program is coordinated by Sister Corinne Sanders, OP, Director of the Congregation’s Sustainability Office; Elaine Johnson, Permaculture Specialist for the Adrian Dominican Sisters; and Sister Carol Coston, OP, founding Director of Permaculture. Both Siena Heights and Barry Universities collaborate in the program. Speakers included Sister Patricia Siemen, OP, Prioress of the Congregation and former Director of the Center for Earth Jurisprudence; and staff members from local sustainability sites that students visited.
Participants spent much of their time outdoors, working in the permaculture area of the Motherhouse. Service projects included installing deer fencing around the community garden; conducting a waste audit of the Motherhouse; planting an edible forest garden; and building a vermiculture system, in which worms are used to compost organic waste. In a blog, students described their experience and what they’d learned.
A key experience for Pa Sheikh Ngom, a Barry University international business major from Gambia in West Africa, came toward the end of the experience. “We saw everything we talked about [earlier in the experience] come together.” After spending their time drawing sketches of a garden, the students had the opportunity to plant trees and shrubs.
But along with specific skills needed to work in agriculture and to be good stewards of the environment, the students learned to think in a new way about the environment and about life.
“As humans we impose so much on our surroundings – but nature was already there,” said Ashley Ferguson, a Master’s of Social Work candidate at Barry University. “Now I understand that you can look to nature to learn how to build.” She hopes to use some of what she learned in the program to enhance her own garden.
The daily practice of meditation and opportunities to speak to the Sisters also gave the students inspiration and a new perspective. Matthew Mohammed, a business and mathematics major at Barry, said the experience “motivated and inspired me to want to travel more. [The Sisters] showed me that there’s more to life than the simple problems we go through every day.” Matthew said he also learned to appreciate the beauty around him – whether the buildings in Miami or the natural surroundings in Michigan.
The students – most of whom had never met one another before the Environmental Leadership Experience – came to see themselves as part of a team.
“Through this experience, we have developed a deeper understanding of what the term ‘sustainability’ truly means, and learned that simple changes, big and small, can be quite effective at making a difference,” wrote Stephanie Bingham, Associate Professor of Marine Biology at Barry University, in her blog entry. “In the process, we have also built strong alliances in our quest for creating a more sustainable future for ourselves and those who come after us. … We leave this experience inspired to do our small parts in raising the level of consciousness surrounding more sustainable and ecologically responsible approaches.”