By Max Eberts

A college abroad experience of a lifetime

What comes to mind when you think of students studying abroad? Discovering another country and language, sampling unfamiliar culture and food, learning about history and people?

How about beekeeping?

Thanks to scholarship support from generous donors, five adventurous Cougs will have the opportunity to do all the above this May through the Washington State University’s Global Leadership and Beekeeping program in Kenya.

From May 7-23, students and faculty from the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences (CAHNRS) will have the chance to participate in community development in villages across the Maasai Mara in southwest Kenya. The Maasai Mara and the Serengeti National Park, just to the south in Tanzania, form one of the most spectacular reserves of wild animals in the world.

Four faculty members from CAHNRS set the groundwork for the upcoming trip this past October, when they traveled to Nairobi, Kenya, and met with John Bowen, beekeeping coordinator for The Maa Trust, a nonprofit organization supporting the traditional villages of the Maasai Mara, while working to find economic platforms that benefit the villagers.

With Bowen, WSU faculty developed a collaborative program with beekeepers in several villages in the Maasai community. Steve Sheppard, the WSU Pomeroy “Roy” Thurber distinguished professor of honey bee ecology, and one of the world’s leading beekeeping experts; Laura Lavine, professor and entomology department chair; Joe Hewa, associate professor and director of WSU’s Center for Transformational Learning and Leadership (CTLL); and Colleen Taugher, a consultant and retired WSU faculty member who has worked for years coordinating international experiences for CAHNRS students, visited several Maasai villages to learn about the challenges Maasai beekeepers face.

The same faculty, except for Taugher, and one additional faculty member, Anna Whitehall, associate professor and associate director of the CTLL, will accompany the five students.

The idea for the Kenya program originated from conversations Lavine and Hewa had with Ken ’74 and Sue ’76 Christianson, fourth-generation farmers in Skagit Valley, devoted Cougars, and past recipients of the Weldon B. Gibson Distinguished Volunteer Award.

The Christiansons established the Ken and Sue Christianson Endowment for International Experiences through the Center for Transformational Learning and Leadership in 2011, which has allowed dozens of CAHNRS students the opportunity to encounter cultures in developing countries and to be a part of an experience collaborating with faculty and locals on a project that positively impacts the locals.

When the Christiansons learned about the idea of a beekeeping program in Kenya, they were immediately on board. In fact, they were so excited about the program that they will join students and faculty members on the trip to see the Maasai Mara and beekeeping projects firsthand.

In addition to the Christiansons, support for the program comes from the Jonathan and Kathleen Altman Foundation, which also supports the WSU Honey Bee and Pollinator, Research, Extension, and Education Facility, the CHS Learning and Leadership Endowment, and the CoBank Learning and Leadership Endowment.


Helping Villagers overcome the unique challenges of beekeeping in the Maasai Mara

With the groundwork set, the WSU contingent will expand partnerships and community development through beekeeping with the Maasai villagers, who are primarily goat and cattle herders.

“We’re there to learn what challenges the beekeepers are facing, which are many and very different from those of American beekeepers—such as keeping incredibly clever honey badgers, troops of baboons, and even elephants out of their hives—for them any loss of hives are costly,” said Lavine.

Perhaps the biggest difference is that African honey bees are wild, whereas European honey bees have been domesticated for centuries. But because African honey bees are so well adapted to their environment, the WSU team seeks to learn from what the Maasai have learned and perhaps gain insights into better leveraging the behavior of African bees in a way that benefits the bees and the Maasai.

This is important as beekeeping is becoming an important activity for Maasai villagers as a result of the additional income it provides through such hive products as beeswax, candles, lip balm, and honey.

The Maasai people are acting as stewards of the land—a community-owned wildlife conservancy. “In synergy with the ecosystem where they live,” according to Hewa, “beekeeping is an activity through which we can build partnerships to help them grow economically in sustainable ways.”

Bringing Maasai villagers together for World Bee Day

The WSU team will also help the Maasai build partnerships with other villagers, bringing many of them together in one location by supporting the coordination of the activities of World Bee Day on May 20, 2024, an internationally observed day established by the United Nations to raise awareness of the importance of bees.

Holding this event on World Bee Day will raise awareness of the villagers’ relationships between bees, hive health, and biodiversity, as well as promote economic possibilities and provide information and guidance for Maasai beekeepers.

“World Bee Day will also provide a means for villagers to make connections, share ideas, and forge partnerships with each other that will lead to their working together on beekeeping and other projects in the future,” said Hewa.

This is all part of the global leadership mission that the WSU team will work toward implementing. “The Maa Trust and the Maasai community have been finding creative solutions to difficult challenges. Our program is about helping students learn how to support these local efforts and build on the work of the Maasai to address the challenges they face,” Hewa said.

In preparation for their Kenya trip, the students have taken a two-credit course about global leadership and beekeeping—including six virtual sessions with existing partners in Kenya—as well as lectures on bee biology and beekeeping practices, Kenyan history and culture, basic Swahili, and course discussions on global leadership principles and practices.

Students will receive three hours of credit for their work in support of the villagers, as well as the development of a paper and poster to present at conferences highlighting the impact of their efforts.

But it won’t all be work. Students will learn about the culture and traditions of Maasai villagers while taking in one of the most remarkable landscapes with some of the most amazing animals on earth when they travel between villages across the vast savannah. The team will also visit the Brackenhurst Indigenous Forest 12 miles northwest of Nairobi, a restored forest retreat of 1,500 species of indigenous trees, climbers, ferns, orchids, and other plants with a thriving population of monkeys and 180 species of birds.

Leanna Darner, a CAHNRS sophomore majoring in agriculture technology and production management has never traveled outside the U.S.

“I’ve always wanted to see the African savannah,” said Darner. “But I’m really interested in the beekeeping aspect of the trip—I love bees—and it will also be fascinating to learn about the Maasai people and the beekeeping challenges they face.”

Natalie Valdez, a junior double majoring in environmental science and in landscape, nursery, and greenhouse management, shares Darner’s enthusiasm for beekeeping and working with the Maasai.

“I want to learn about the Maasai’s culture and way of life to better understand the challenges they face,” said Valdez. “The idea of learning from and working with the Maasai to hopefully solve problems that are good for them and the environment makes this trip so important to me.”

Ken and Sue Christianson are also excited about the trip. “We are thrilled to contribute to this effort so that CAHNRS students can be exposed to the real-life challenges of global food systems faced by people in other countries,” said Ken Christianson, “so that our WSU students can become part of the solutions the world so urgently needs.”

If you would like to make a gift to the Global Learning Kenya programs or other transformational experiences like this one, please visit or contact Kelly Newlon, the director of Global Learning, at or (509) 335-2541. You may also contact Joe Hewa at the Center for Transformational Learning and Leadership (joseph.hewa@edu) or Laura Lavine at the department of Entomology (