For more than 20 years John Ambrose taught an introductory class on the honeybee and beekeeping at North Carolina State.
Perhaps the course’s most memorable aspect was a swarm demonstration, during which the professor picked up a large stick with a horde of bees attached and flung it around in the air.
It was easy for Ambrose to be so comfortable with a species often feared. As one of the country’s foremost bee experts, Ambrose spent his career teaching apiculture to everyone from curious college undergrads to seasoned honey farmers.
Colleagues say Ambrose helped foster a bee culture in the state that has made North Carolina one of the most active in the country, a veritable hive buzzing with bee and honey enthusiasts.
Ambrose, 70, died this month from complications following a short battle with brain cancer. Shortly before his death he was sworn in as president of the N.C. State Beekeepers Association (NCSBA), an organization many say he helped build into the largest of its kind in the country.
Born in New York, Ambrose was raised in Johnstown, Pa. His working-class family questioned the value in paying for a college degree. He earned an undergraduate degree in zoology, during which he took a course on social insects. His son, Zach Ambrose, said that class stuck with him. When he finished a three-year stint in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War, Ambrose returned to his studies and earned a doctorate in entomology, making bees his life’s work.
Part of his responsibilities at N.C. State included working with the Cooperative Extension program as its apiculture expert. Ambrose successfully lobbied the legislature to increase the number of state bee instructors from four to six, the most of any state in the country, said longtime friend and beekeeper Paul Madren.
In 1982, Ambrose created the N.C. Master Beekeeper program, an infrastructure for continuous learning within the bee community. It was formally adopted by the state beekeepers group as a way to certify beekeepers at four levels of mastery. Friends and colleagues say it is the most stringent and thorough of its kind in the country, and it has been adopted by many other states. Some 10,000 beekeepers have participated in the program to date.
Ambrose was also able to persuade the NCSBA to provide a free beehive to the top-scoring half of his intro bee students who take the ENT 203 course at NCSU. He was particularly proud of the association’s efforts at raising more than $275,000 to install a bee exhibit at the N.C. Zoo.
“It is the only live apiary of any zoo in the world,” Madren said.
Still, for all the lobbying and organizing he did on behalf of bees, friends say teaching was probably his favorite way to further bee culture. More than 5,000 students took his courses at NCSU.
To make his lessons more memorable, he often dressed in character, sometimes as Lorenzo Langstroth, the 19th-century pastor responsible for the design of the modern hive, or perhaps as Aristotle, an early entomologist in his own right.
Ambrose refrained from costumes, however, when testifying before Congress on the dangers of commercial pesticides on bee colonies, or when lobbying the legislature for stricter labeling requirements on honey jars.
Steve Forrest, founder of Brushy Mountain Bee Farm, met Ambrose in the 1970s.
“He had a worldwide impact,” Forrest said. “Saint Ambrose is the patron saint of beekeepers.”