Zayne Maddock takes a close look inside the hive. LYNN MADDOCK
From the shady Wainscott garden of George Biercuk and Robert Luckey. COURTESY GEORGE BIERCUK
Colin Heaney makes sure the girls have enough water. LISA DAFFY
Colin Heaney holds a frame the bees have just started building comb on. LISA DAFFY
Because I’m not crazy, I was a little nervous when two kids recently asked if they could come see my bees. As a beekeeper, the last thing you want is to turn a curious kid into one of those loony adults who calls the exterminator every time they see a bug in the yard, and I could see where being stung at a tender age might just do that.
On the other hand, getting the next generation interested in the welfare of honeybees is wildly important if we’re going to save the bees, not to mention ourselves.
So when my friend Khristin Heaney’s 8-year-old son, Colin, asked to see the bees, my plan was simply to stand with him to the side of the hive and watch the girls coming and going on their morning chores.
And that was fine, until I decided to pull the bottom board out just to take a quick reading on how things were going in the hive, and found a couple of hive beetles scurrying around on it.
Hive beetles are evil creatures. We have been battling them since we started keeping bees, and last year lost an entire hive that was too weakened by them to make it through the winter. I’ve had colonies abscond, or just up and leave, to get away from a hive beetle infestation. The only good thing about them is the satisfying crunch they make under my fingernail. I loathe them.
Spotting the nasty little flying terrorists set off my bee-mom alarms big-time, displacing my common sense about kids and beehives. I pulled the lid off the hive to get a better look at what was going on in there. This has been an extraordinarily gentle hive, so I haven’t been using the hazmat suit. Haven’t even been keeping the veil close by unless I’m doing a deep-dive inspection. And I wasn’t focused on the excited little kid standing close by.
The excited little kid, however, was a rock. While Khristin urged, “step back, Colin, not so close,” he was too busy exploring the world inside the hive to step back.
I was careful not to accidentally squish anyone while I inspected the hive, and the girls in turn were quite polite about inspecting us. Colin stood very still while the girls, as curious as he was, landed on his arms and flew around him to have a better look. He remained unrattled, although I thought I might have to administer CPR to Khristin.
The thing about bees is they can smell fear, sort of like a dog. Their whole lives are driven by pheromones of one kind or another, and fear smells the same as alarm, so if you’re afraid, they read that as alarm, which can quickly translate into, “We’re under attack—go sting someone!”
But Colin wasn’t afraid, so the bees weren’t alarmed. And a bee-lover was born!
Taking an 8-year-old into a hive with no protection wasn’t a great idea, I’ll admit. We were lucky, and I would never do that later in the summer when even gentle bees get protective about their honey. But Colin was proud and excited and eager to learn more about the bees, and I’m so glad we had that experience.
The next time he came over to give me a hand with the bees, I did put him in my beekeeper’s hat, which I have to say looked way cuter on him than it does on me.
Then 11-year-old Zayne Maddock asked if he could come see my bees. Zayne’s a regular helper at the school garden and maybe the smartest 11-year-old I’ve ever met. Again, nervous mother, calm kid. She is a self-professed bug-phobic. Zayne’s never met a bug he didn’t like:
“I have always loved nature and I think it is really cool to be able to get up close and learn about something you wouldn’t usually get to see,” he said. “And I also love honey so I get to learn how it’s made and what it does to help the bees. I used to not like bees that much because they sting, but being so close and having them crawling on me made me lose all fear of them. As long as you respect them they will respect you.”
Like Colin, Zayne was perfectly calm about the bees landing on him while he helped me inspect the hive. He liked using the smoker (we had to dial that back a little so the bees didn’t keel over from smoke inhalation) and paid close attention while I pulled out frames and pointed out eggs, larvae, pollen and honey. He learned how to tell a drone from a worker bee, and we even spotted the queen.
This all got me wondering about kids and beekeeping in general, and it turns out that teaching children about beekeeping can help improve behavior and focus.
An elementary school in Greenwich, England, had a swarm of bees descend on school grounds a few years ago. A beekeeper was called to catch the swarm, and teachers’ initial alarm turned to intrigue when they noticed how calm and fascinated the students were. A year later, after three staff members completed a beekeeping course, the school got its own hive, and the bees are now fully integrated into the curriculum, with kids even learning the bees’ waggle dance in PE.
For kids who have trouble staying calm, beekeeping can be therapeutic. It’s just not something you can do when you’re angry or you’ll have a passel of angry bees flying around, so kids who want to learn beekeeping are motivated to control their emotions—and rewarded by getting bragging rights to a set of skills few of their peers can claim.
An article in The Guardian newspaper about the Greenwich school bees quotes head teacher Tim Baker on the unexpected benefits the hive has had on student behavior. One pupil who regularly struggled with schoolwork and discipline told The Guardian, “The bees made me peaceful and calm.”
The next time he came to visit, Colin proudly filled up my bees’ water bowls without being asked. There’s not a whole lot you can do when you’re 8 years old that grownup people can’t. Being comfortable working with a busy beehive definitely makes the short list.
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One fine body…