Tutorial Studies Bees, Up Close

September 24, 2012

For several decades, Wabash College faculty members have delved into about every possible subject to develop Freshman Tutorial courses.

Tutorials are the first all-college course a Wabash student takes, and are designed to get them used to the teaching and learning that will be expected of them over their time at the College. In many ways, the topic ­— assuming it can hold up to a liberal arts examination — matters less than the professor’s (and students’) enthusiasm for the subject.

Political science professor Ethan Hollander expanded the range of tutorials even further this year by creating a course focused on bugs.

“The tutorial is, of course, about ‘bugs’ in the traditional sense (i.e., insects, arachnids, and other small arthropods); however, we also look at bugs from many other perspectives, including representations of bugs in art and literature, the impact of pesticides on the economy, the impact of disease on the course of human history, and the importance of bugs in the ecosystem,” Hollander said.

Last week his class took a field trip to art professor Doug Calisch’s home a few miles from campus. Calisch and his wife, Laura Conners, keep bees there, which gave Hollander and his students an up-close-and-personal look at the life of bees.

“Bees are important creatures, of course, because they produce honey – the primary sweetener for most of human history and a foodstuff rich in cultural, historic, and religious significance,” said Hollander. “But bees are even more crucial as pollinators of plants. In fact, the ongoing decline in bee populations around the country has reached crisis proportions, costing farmers thousands of dollars in unrealized revenue and prompting legislative action in a number of states.

“But in some ways, the most interesting facet of bee life is that they are social creatures – they live in societies, complete with castes and particular forms of communication. But of course, they are societies in only a peculiar way – they have no centralized governance and, even at the individual level, bees have only the most rudimentary instincts.”

Before traveling to study Calisch’s bees, Hollander’s students had done their homework. They read about swarming behavior and about how animals that can’t even really think somehow manage to live in huge, organized, and complex societies.

“We even investigated how we, as humans, can better organize our social infrastructure – from roads and traffic patterns to apartments and living units – all by watching swarming behavior of insects such as bees and ants,” said Hollander. “The true complexity of a bee hive, and the fascinating process by which honey is collected and processed, can only be fully appreciated first-hand. That's why we went on this trip.”

Hollander credited the Know Indiana Program and the Freshman Tutorial Program for making the trip possible.


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