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Milwaukee County Zoo ~ Beepods Project Overview

beehive at zoo milwaukee countyGoing to the zoo is a fun and educational trip that millions of families take every year. Zoos are filled with exhibits that allow people to see and learn about animals from all over the world – and from their own backyards. At the Milwaukee County Zoo, there is now an exhibit of an animal that we can see in our everyday lives, but often don’t think about – the honey bee.

The idea to install a beehive at the zoo came about when Stephanie Harpt, one of the zookeepers at the Milwaukee County Zoo, attended the Beesentations class put on by the Milwaukee Recreation Department. Harpt said that she had been considering getting a hive at the zoo as an educational tool to teach zoo visitors more about conservation, and attended the class in order to learn more about bees and beekeeping.

The zoo installed a Beepod on the premises in May of 2017, and several Zoo employees and volunteers signed on to help look after the hive. Before this, many of the volunteers had little to no experience caring for bees. Just a few short months later, though, they are well on their way to becoming full-fledged beekeepers.

milwaukee county zoo bee hive

“This beekeeping experience is truly one of the best things I have ever done! I think that beekeeping is completely misunderstood. Bees are incredible in their behavior, social structure, abilities to take natural resources and turn those into the purest honey I have ever tasted. I am looking forward to continue learning and growing as a beekeeper.”
– Terese Dick, Longtime Zoo Volunteer, Milwaukee County Zoo

“I thought it would be sting after sting after sting, but to my surprise I have yet to be stung. I am gaining more confidence as a beekeeper every time I inspect the hive. I have gained a new perspective and greater appreciation for the honey bee.”
– Don Caithamer, Aquatic Reptile Center, Volunteer Co-chair, Milwaukee County Zoo

“I had very limited knowledge about beekeeping until the zoo decided to get a beehive. I didn’t really know what to expect, but I anticipated that it would be challenging to manage the bee colony and not get stung frequently. I was impressed to see how well the bees did on their own. Bees are good at doing their thing. Having a hive has made me appreciate and respect them so much more. It’s been an enjoyable experience so far and a great learning opportunity.”
– Stephanie Harpt, Zookeeper, Milwaukee County Zoo

These attitudes are promising to the bee community. It’s no secret that a large percentage of the population harbors a fear of bees, whether it be the result of a childhood sting or the common confusion between bees and wasps. By having an exhibit dedicated to educating its visitors about bees, the Milwaukee County Zoo has a great opportunity to help people to understand bees and the crucial role that they play in maintaining a healthy ecosystem, and what that means for us.

selah milwaukee zoo beepod hive    national honey bee day milwaukee county zoo a la carte

Stephanie said that she chose to go with a Beepod system because she “liked the idea that the Beepod mimics what honeybees do in the wild. I think the bees know best so it’s important to let them do their thing in the most natural setting possible. I also like the idea of not treating the hive with potentially harmful chemicals.”

This is exactly what we strive to teach at Beepods, where we practice “beekeeping for the bees.” This includes, as Stephanie said, not using harmful chemicals on the hive (read Scott Offord’s article about why you should practice chemical-free beekeeping here). We at Beepods also agree that the bees know best. These amazing little creatures have a complex and delicate system in place for everything from how to communicate with one another to how to keep warm in the winter, and we don’t want to disrupt that.

The great thing about bees having such systems in place is that they are

fairly self-sufficient. A lot of potential beekeepers worry that it will be difficult and that the bees will need to be checked on and cared for all the time. With the Beepods system, they really only need to be looked in on every week or so if everything is going well, so the beekeepers at the zoo can care for the bees without having to take too much time away from their other duties.

Because all of the volunteers were brand new to beekeeping, the Beepods team took the zoo’s new beekeepers through Bee Bootcamp, where they began with an information session in a classroom setting. During this session they were taught about bees’ biology and behavior. After that they graduated to hive-side training, where they learned the setup of the Beepod and how to properly care for the bees.

“The service and assistance that Beepods has provided the Milwaukee County Zoo has been wonderful. We call when we are unsure of what is going on in our new hive and they always help us out and even come to our site to instruct us on how to take care of it..”
– Becky Danes, Visitor Services Assistant Manager, Milwaukee County Zoo

While the bee exhibit won’t be open to the public until next year, the zoo presented a sneak peek on August 19th, which was National Honey Bee Day. The event allowed children to listen to informational presentations about bees, get a look at how bees interact, watch bees being born – the kids were even given the opportunity to hold a bee if they wanted to! Presentations were given by the Beepods team, who brought special displays for the event-goers to see what goes on inside the hive firsthand. The zoo beekeepers also talked to attendees and were able to show off all that they have learned since becoming beekeepers.

Events such as this one held at the zoo help to prevent the fear of bees that many of us develop in our early years. By teaching children (and adults!) about how bees go about their daily lives and how they play a role in our lives, we can instill in them the importance of bees and why we need to protect them.

Go back the Beehives for Zoos & Botanical Gardens page now.