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Olivia Ciraulo, DrOT ’24, Is Buzzing About the Therapeutic Benefits of Beekeeping

Through research for her doctor of occupational therapy capstone, she’s demonstrating that time around a hive can reduce stress and improve well-being.

Four students in white beekeeper suits; one is holding a frame with bees and honeycomb Olivia Ciraulo, DrOT ’24, teaching fellow Saint Joseph's students about the inner workings of a hive.

Written by: Ben Seal

Published: April 17, 2024

Total reading time: 4 minutes

The first time she approached a beehive, Olivia Ciraulo, DrOT ’24, learned an important lesson. She had forgotten to check the ankle zipper on her beekeeping suit, and within moments she was stung. She ran away from the hive, her arms flailing as she tried to ward off any further attackers. Despite the surprise and the accompanying pain, she quickly found herself laughing at her mistake.

Student-participants captivated by close-up encounters with a honey bee frame.
Student-participants captivated by close-up encounters with a honey bee frame.

“That was my first experience,” Ciraulo says. “It didn’t start great.”

Three years later, Ciraulo is much more comfortable around a beehive. There’s something about the sensory experience of being around tens of thousands of bees that relaxes her — the warmth of the hive, the steady thrum of all that buzzing, the sweet smell of honey lifting off the comb, the visual textures that compel close observation. As she prepares to graduate as a doctor of occupational therapy this spring, she’s studying the potential of beekeeping as a therapeutic tool to improve mental well-being among college students and contemplating where the practice can fit into her professional future.

“Beekeeping makes me feel like I’m doing something bigger than myself,” Ciraulo says.

Ciraulo’s grandfather kept bees on a family farm in Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania, so the practice is in her blood, but she didn’t actually know that until she got into it herself during the pandemic. She had begun spending more time outside, admiring the insects and wildlife she encountered, particularly the bees that are fundamental to nature’s pollination network. When she was tasked with designing a novel business idea as part of the occupational therapy program, she began to wonder what it might look like to use beekeeping as a modality for working with clients. In developing a business plan, she explored potential competitors and learned about Half Mad Honey, an apiary in Philadelphia’s Navy yard that aims to bring the therapeutic experience out of clinical settings and into nature. Taking a cue from the bees she’d grown to appreciate, she wanted to join forces.

Beekeeping makes me feel like I’m doing something bigger than myself.

Olivia Ciraulo, DrOT ’24

Over the course of three years volunteering at Half Mad Honey, Ciraulo has found that the hives have a powerful calming effect, washing away some of the stress that accompanies graduate school. She’s seen plenty of anecdotal evidence that other people experience something similar, but limited research to prove it. So for her capstone project, she’s filling that gap. 

Using a hive of some 50,000 bees that was moved from Half Mad Honey to the Barnes Arboretum on campus, Ciraulo has given 14 undergraduates a three-session beekeeping experience, including bee education, meditation and hands-on practice. By analyzing their answers to questions about stress levels, connectedness with nature and well-being, she and Half Mad Honey co-founder Amelia Mraz are developing some of the first evidence that beekeeping can have a tangible effect on undergraduate students’ health. They are submitting their findings to the journal Occupational Therapy in Mental Health

Mraz, who has a master’s in public health from Temple University, says the connection people feel around a hive can serve as an antidote to feelings of fragmentation and isolation that are common, especially among college students. The lessons learned with the bees can carry over into other aspects of life, she says, making beekeeping a compelling therapeutic practice. 

“If you can get yourself calm in the midst of thousands of venomous insects, the idea is you can take that into other settings,” Mraz says.

Saint Joseph's new bee hive, painted by the student-participants in Ciraulo's study
Saint Joseph's new bee hive, painted by the student-participants in Ciraulo's study

Carlos E. Moreno, DrOT, MS, OTR/L, FCPP, clinical assistant professor of occupational therapy, has been advising Ciraulo’s capstone and recently participated in one of her sessions in the arboretum for the first time. Despite the brevity of the intervention — just three 90-minute sessions with each participant — the impact it’s had on students is “remarkable,” he says, “not just in terms of stress but also the connectivity they’re making to nature, to themselves, and the reflection that it’s engendered.” 

The hive will live on after Ciraulo graduates, under the attention of Clint Springer, PhD, the arboretum’s director. It will become an interdisciplinary source of hands-on education that could reach students not just in occupational therapy, but food marketing, business, sociology and biology as well, Moreno says.

For Ciraulo, the beekeeping study is a complement to meaningful fieldwork opportunities that have given her a glimpse of a future in occupational therapy. At the pediatric clinic Greco’s World, she focused on sensory integration with children who needed support developing their proprioceptive and vestibular senses. And with Good Shepherd Penn Partners, an inpatient rehabilitation facility, she treated adults with brain injuries, learning about challenging cognitive impairments that require the attention of skilled therapists. She wants to gain more experience working with both children and adults once she graduates — and bees, too. In the meantime, she says, the response from her fellow Hawks has been overwhelmingly positive — with no forgotten zippers.

“Everyone’s really excited to do this thing they’ve never done before,” she says. “And there haven’t been any stings yet.”