Kids and the Life of Bees

We need to hear good news from schools, like this story published recently in Oregon Episcopal School’s Aardvark newsletter:

“First-graders in Ms. Kucera’s class presented a play about the life of bees this morning for other classes. It included interesting facts about how bees live and also featured a climactic battle between two queens vying to lead the hive.”

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We Can Do It! Discovering Optimism through Beekeeping

By Katie Boehnlein

Like most teachers, I have come to my profession with a healthy dose of optimism. I hope that, provided opportunities to get their hands dirty, ask important questions, and gain new skills, our students can enter the “real world” more equipped to solve real-world problems. The only problem is, the “real world” is disheartening. Increased world hunger. Increased chemicals in our food. Widespread monocropping. Diminishing species diversity. The list goes on. It is a stretch to be optimistic with headlines blaring so much violence and pessimism. However, I am lucky to work at a school that values optimism and innovation.

Catlin Gabel School, located in Portland, OR, sits on 60 acres of school buildings nestled amongst forestland and 2,100 square feet of organic gardens and orchards. The school has an active garden club, growing food year-round for the campus cafeteria, and continually promotes experiential learning opportunities.

Last April, I got an email from my colleague Carter, who is the School Garden Coordinator and a mover and shaker on campus. He was inviting me and other staff members to register for a beekeeping class, as he hoped to install a hive on our school grounds to enhance our garden and orchards, and to provide more opportunities for students to learn real-world skills. I was intrigued by the idea. I didn’t know much about the organism apis mellifera (aka honeybee) but I knew this would be an opportunity to learn new skills and new information about a species I knew little to nothing about.

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A few weeks later, I found myself sitting in a windowless classroom, contemplating slides projected on a darkened wall. Images of magnified hexagons, wriggling grubs, enlarged insect eyes, a slew of unpronounceable tools, and humans in strange outfits flashed across the screen. And despite the discomfort that is inevitable when introduced to a foreign world, I was hooked. And the more I learned, the more fascinated I became. I wanted to know everything about this tiny creature!

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As an educator, I have seen firsthand the educational benefits of learning about honeybees in the classroom, with connections to science, history, and critical inquiry thinking. Installing a honeybee hive on a school campus allows for endless hands-on opportunities for learning. Bees have an innate sense of mission and communalism. They are not selfish, and biologically cannot survive outside of their community. In a world that is constantly connected and plugged-in, what wonderful qualities to emulate and impart to our students.

Trained in the philosophies of place-based, environmental education, I always try to model a sense of wonder when teaching about the natural world. Nature is much wiser than we are. But I have also seen students become teachers when exploring a beehive. Small children come to school equipped with an innate sense of wonder and curiosity. I visited our school’s first grade classroom to talk to the students about the beehive before I took them out to see it in person.

When I arrived dressed in the beekeeping suit, I heard a collective intake of breath and saw 21 little bodies wriggling with excitement. Hands started popping up during my presentation; the questions were endless. I told them that when we were standing next to the hive, it was important to remain quiet and still, so as to not disturb the hive’s energy. A few minutes later, the students stood inside a mesh tent and pressed themselves against the screen walls, eager to get as close as they could. I was taken aback by their quietness and awe. Our students can teach us the quiet and respect so necessary in beekeeping. Through them, I have learned to approach my time at the hive as a slow, methodical, almost meditative experience. It is all about respect.

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I have become fascinated with the idea of stewarding apiaries on school grounds. This summer, I researched school apiaries for CLEARING magazine, curious to learn who else was attempting this activity at their school. I ended up interviewing five inspiring educators teaching in the Northwest who are leaders in the field.

Ryan King has just written his graduate thesis on apiary-based education and is clearly a leader in establishing apiaries as a new place for pedagogical research. Through Ryan, I found Sarah Red-Laird, also known as BeeGirl, who is a champion of honeybee education in Ashland, OR and throughout the United States. I also interviewed Eric Engman at Mt. Vernon High School in Washington, my colleague Carter Latendresse at Catlin Gabel School, and Brian Lacy, a beekeeper in Portland, OR.

From Brian, I learned that our approach in talking to people new to honeybees is so important. I know from experience that kids are naturally more open to the world of bees than adults. Adults are working against years of fear and distrust against bees, sometimes even traumatic events. I visited Brian at his home apiary and worked in his hives without wearing a suit. At first, I stepped back, hesitant, fearful. Would I get stung? But soon enough, I was able to step in without any protection to look in. I held one worker bee on my finger for a couple of seconds. Bees were flitting about all around me, attuned to their roles in the hive and unconcerned with us in their midst. The adult in me was nervous. The child in me was in awe.

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From honeybees, I have learned the value of community. I have learned to slow down. And I have learned optimism. Though our sacred honeybee is struggling in a world filled with pesticides and monocrop fields, as an educator I am optimistic. I hope that our schools and community centers can be places for students of all ages to learn more about stewarding the honeybee, a creature that is completely necessary for our wellbeing as a society. There are lots of ways to participate in creating positive change. We can learn about honeybees with our children, we can plant foraging habitat for them, we can buy local honey, and we can even host our own beehives. Together, we can help save the honeybee.

About the author
Katie Boehnlein is a teacher and writer living in Portland, OR, where you can find her discovering the beautiful natural areas of the Rose City by foot and by bike. She grew up exploring the parks and staircases of Southwest Portland, which fueled her passion for ecology and urban exploration. Follow Katie’s adventures on her blog “In the Midst.” Here, you can read her musings on travel, excursions in nature, and, of course, bees!

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