The secret life of beekeepers

BEE GREEN 2 — the license plate on Dr. Wendy Schweigert’s blue van — reveals two of her passions: beekeeping and protecting the environment. Follow her to work, and you’ll see another of her passions: teaching psychology. These three interests merge in one of Dr. Schweigert’s latest research projects: studying the personalities and environmental attitudes and behaviors of beekeepers.

“Beekeepers think they’re unique and in some ways, they are,” says Dr. Schweigert, who oversees four hives at her property about 30 miles south of the Bradley campus. “You can’t force your way on bees. You have to be open to trying different approaches to keeping the bees. 

“You also have to be conscientious. Otherwise, the bees will be dead, or the hives will be a mess and you won’t be able to get honey.” 

Studying the personality, background, and practices of beekeepers is significant, Dr. Schweigert says, as they are a diverse group that represents a subset of the general population.

With a nationwide increase in environmental awareness, the question is whether that emphasis translates into a change in environmental behavior and attitudes. While everyone chooses whether to recycle or conserve energy, beekeepers also consider practices such as using harsh chemicals to control mites. 

It’s hard to know if a shift has occurred in such environmental practices, as no study has been done before. This study is a baseline for the future.

Also, with a declining honeybee population in recent years, beekeepers are increasingly important since more honeybees in the U.S. live in beekeepers’ hives than in the wild. Studies such as this may be helpful when encouraging others to take up beekeeping and expand the number of bees producing honey.

Dr. Schweigert’s findings show beekeepers tend to rank higher than the general public on four of five personality traits she surveyed: openness, agreeability, extroversion, and emotional stability. Both beekeepers and the general population score high on conscientiousness. Beekeepers also are well educated: about a third of the 1,332 beekeepers surveyed hold a graduate degree, three times more than in the general population.

The results were published in an article, “Who Are the Beekeepers,” co-authored with fellow beekeeper Larry Krengel, in the September 2010 issue of Bee Culture. Krengel is a former high school science teacher and part-time psychology professor at a community college in northern Illinois. 

The beekeepers’ survey is Dr. Schweigert’s first foray into environmental psychology, the study of humans and the spaces around them. For the first 20 years of her career, she studied cognitive psychology.

Environmental psychology was initiated about 40 years ago. Originally, research focused on the impact that architectural design has upon people. As people have become more interested in “green” lifestyles, research has evolved to include a greater emphasis on the natural environment.