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Staniunas is Queen Bee of Bee Project in Uganda


ix years ago, Marianne Staniunas L’04, a lawyer-turned-honey buyer-turned-lawyer again, took a summer sabbatical in Uganda to prop up a new apiary in the heart of the rain forest in the western part of the country.

Little did she know that this would become, as she describes it, like a second job, from which she derives unending satisfaction and fulfillment. “I love every aspect of it … I fell in love with the community as soon as I visited. I love Uganda.”

As a volunteer for the Kasiisi Project, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to preserve Kibale National Park through the education of schoolchildren and other members of the community, Staniunas has been working with volunteers, staff and community partners to train staff, to raise money to support the purchase and upkeep of what is now 70 to 80 hives, and to monitor ongoing climate-change-related research on bees.

As the remote manager of the bee project, which entails daily contact with staff, she also coordinated the development of a bee curriculum for grade school children in Uganda that teaches young students, as part of conservation education, the role of bees as pollinators, the function of hives, and the medicinal qualities of honey.

Marianne Staniunas gets her hands  in the soil  during one of  her annual visits to Uganda
Arrow pointing left
Marianne Staniunas L’04 gets her hands in the soil during one of her annual visits to Uganda.
How did an American with modest beekeeping experience end up as the Queen Bee in a multifaceted project in Africa?

After college, Staniunas joined AmeriCorps as a volunteer coordinator for an after-school supplemental education program for working class immigrant children in San Francisco who faced similar issues to youths in Uganda; in law school, she served as the producer for the Law School Light Opera Company, which involved fundraising and scheduling; and as an attorney guided colleagues through the maze of immigrant visa processing — all of which revealed a skill for project management.

Several years ago, Staniunas decided to take a break from the daily grind of legal practice. Which led to something quite different: a period as a honey buyer for a food, wine and cheese specialty store in Boston named Formaggio Kitchen.

One day a co-worker — who happened to be the son of the founders of the Kasiisi Project — asked her if she had an interest in helping the organization expand its beekeeping program. She did.

“I find myself drawn to the overlap of conservation, education, international development, scientific research, and when he asked if I might be interested in getting involved with Kasiisi, I jumped at the opportunity,” Staniunas said.

In 1997, Richard Wrangham, a Professor of Biological Anthropology at Harvard University, and his wife, Elizabeth Ross, who raised their family in Uganda, gave birth to the Kasiisi Project as a vehicle to protect the park’s chimpanzee population.

Over the years the nonprofit, which runs educational programs in 16 local schools, has diversified, launching a range of conservation and health initiatives — everything from a mobile health clinic for the treatment of malaria, to the provision of HPV vaccinations, to the construction of more modern latrines with washing stations for girls and young women, to the instruction of students in the art of building fuel-efficient cook stoves that save the forest and improve the health of residents who suffer from the damaging effects of the smoke emitted from the traditional three-stone cook stoves.

“We’ve become a foundational force in the community,” Staniunas said.” We provide supplemental education that has enhanced kids’ learning that shows up on national test scores.”

Although Staniunas has returned to the practice of law — she’s a staff attorney at PAIR (Political Asylum Immigration Representation), where she sometimes represents asylum seekers who have fled Uganda – she still spends two to three weeks every summer in Uganda. She has been to the country six times.

The sale of honey from the Kasiisi Project Apiary provides a sustainable in-country source of income. More importantly, bees are critical pollinators of forest plants and crops and producers of honey for local farmers to consume and sell.

To that end, the Kasiisi Project received a grant from the National Geographic Society in 2019 for a Citizen Science Project to collect data on the impact of climate change on bee health.

Staniunas said Uganda used to have defined dry and rainy seasons. But the weather has changed dramatically in the last five years, with one season bleeding into another. The Kasiisi Project has been monitoring the temperature and humidity levels in nearly 50 hives.

She said she hopes the data helps local farmers better maintain bee colonies and provides useful information to researchers throughout the world who are studying climate change. This information, she said, will also protect both the farmers who strung beehives around their crops and the bee-averse elephants who were destroying those crops and becoming the target of poachers.

“The bees are very sensitive to changes in weather patterns…Honey and bees are really important both as a source of income and to the overall conservation of Kabali National Park,” Staniunas said. “Folks are always looking for sustainable sources of income.”