The waggle says it all. When a honeybee returns to the hive, she communicates where she found a good pollen or nectar source, not through audible or visual cues, but through what is known as the "waggle dance," a circuitous movement the other bees feel with their antennae. This dance conveys how far away the flowers are and where they are in relation to the sun. For Maria Alvarez, '21, the waggle dance is one of the most captivating displays of bee communication.
"I'm constantly fascinated by the intelligence, logic and willpower bees have," she says. "They use the position of the sun to navigate and find their way home, they construct their hive using hexagons as the most efficient shape to conserve space, and they can fly a radius of about 3 miles away from their hive."
Alvarez is an 18-year-old certified beekeeper who chartered the Whitworth Association of Pollinating Insect Supporters Club, or APIS (apis is part of the scientific name for the honeybee). She launched the club last fall, shortly after beginning her freshman year as an Act Six Scholar. Like the resourceful bees that share intelligence with their colonies, Alvarez is sharing her knowledge about one of nature's most important insects with a swarm of interested students.
"Becoming a beekeeper has made me respect bees on a whole new level," she says. "Most people will hear or see a bee and be terrified of getting stung, but they don't take the time to learn about all the things bees selflessly do for us and how incredible they really are."
Alvarez's father has held a lifelong interest in the positive impact small beekeepers could make on the environment; his interest grew in the mid-2000s as bee colonies disappeared in alarming numbers as a result of colony collapse disorder. Beekeeping became a family enterprise in 2009, when Alvarez was just 9 years old. Her parents work in robotics, and their jobs led the family of four to move from their home in Argentina and to eventually settle in Spokane, where they began taking classes together to work toward various levels of beekeeping certification.
At age 11, Maria ran for a secretary position with the Inland Empire Beekeepers Association and won the election against two adults. By 2013, all four Alvarezes had earned journeyman-level certification in beekeeping, a status attained after apprentice-level certification, an exam, and two to three additional years of teaching, volunteering and journaling.