Beekeeper Bijker

Written by  Femke Kools Wednesday, 04 January 2012 13:46

When his wife discovered that the name Bijker is Old Dutch for “beekeeper”, Professor Wiebe Bijker, PhD, decided to take a beekeeping course. At his inaugural lecture in 1995 he was presented with a small beehive, and the professor of Technology and Society at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences has been cultivating his hobby ever since. This year, his four beehives produced around 70 kilos of honey. Read on for the relationship between the “Dittrich colony” and the Delta Plan. 

One afternoon in June 2010, Bijker received a phone call from the former UM president, Karl Dittrich. “There was a large swarm of bees in a tree in his garden and he knew I was a beekeeper. I went over straight away armed with a wicker basket. You give the branch a hit and hope that the queen, which is surrounded by thousands of bees, falls into your basket. If you’re lucky, all the worker bees attach themselves to the queen and you have a whole colony to put into an empty hive. It worked, and the ‘Dittrich colony’ has lived in one of my four hives ever since. It’s an exceptionally strong colony, the biggest I have at the moment. It saved my Bijkerij, as I call it, because I’d just had a bad winter and almost all my bees had died.”

Four colonies

In the corner of Bijker’s garden in Eijsden, four beehives stand on a platform. Each hive harbours one queen with her colony, an average of 60,000 bees. Bee colonies are complicated and highly efficient; for instance, whenever the lid of their hive is open they keep the hive draught-free by tightly sealing the joins. In the mornings, the scouts look for plants that are in bloom and perform a dance that tells their fellow bees which direction to fly in and whether it is near or far. With their feet, their colleagues can then test whether they’ve got the right plant. The fact that they all fly at once at blooming clovers, for example, means they are able to pollinate the plants highly efficiently. “A clover gets nothing out of it if a single insect has just returned from an apple blossom. It’s precisely the fact that the bees all fly together at a single plant species that makes them so effective.”


And there’s no shortage of fun facts like these about bees and the practice of beekeeping, which has been around since 4000BC. “I find it really fascinating and enjoyable to be involved in a tradition like this”, says Bijker. “One of my ancestors must also have been a beekeeper, because of the name, but I’m not sure exactly what that’s about. I mainly do it because it gets me in touch with nature and it’s nice to do something completely different to my work.”
Bijker’s love and enthusiasm for his bee colonies is evident. He talks about the time he chased after a swarm to keep them for the Bijkerij, about the honey extractors and more. And about the emotional bond with his bees. “You can’t pet them. But a few years ago when my colonies were hit by American foulbrood – a bee disease similar to bird flu that sees your entire setup cleared out by men in white coats – I was miserable. I really missed them when they were gone and the garden was so quiet.”


On a larger scale, he has his concerns as well. “Over the last few years more bees than usual have been dying in the winter, and sometimes you find your hive completely empty, which is very strange. They can get sick, or have too little to eat in the winter, but that there’s sometimes no trace of a whole colony makes it very strange and worrying.” 
Einstein would have said that if the bees are dying out, four years later the same fate will befall man. 
“I think that’s a bit dramatic. Bees are crucial to our ecosystem, but not all plants depend on them. And beyond beekeeping there are also still wild bees.” 
Some beekeepers are calling for a Delta Plan to save the bee population. 
Bijker gets the hint and laughs: “That’s basically a Dutch metaphor for a big, comprehensive plan that offers an all-round solution. My father was indeed a professor of coastal engineering, and so was directly involved in the Delta Plan for the Dutch coast. But for a Delta Plan for bees far more research is needed, and while I admit that it sometimes tickles my research heart, I’ve no intentions of doing it. I like having a hobby and I don’t have the time to do something like that properly.”

Nothing better

Bijker’s professorship in Technology and Society represents the culmination of his studies in physics and philosophy as well as his passion for teaching. “There’s nothing better. My research ranges from nanotechnology and development cooperation to hydraulic engineering. In this latter field I come across many of my father’s former students, and I’m now supervising a PhD project together with his successor.” But as for a relationship between his beekeeping and his professorship, or his research field and a bee colony: “That’s a bit far-fetched.”
Perhaps technology will one day take over the work of bees?
“That I don’t believe at all. The scale of the work that bees do in agriculture is technologically irreplaceable.”
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