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Bees in Schools

It seems forever since I have written a post and I guess that is so often the way of things, practice upstages reflection. This is a post that seems way overdue but also feels as if it has been sitting and maturing, ripening or maybe developing a bloom, like wild honey comb.

This post discusses the issues involved with having bees living on school grounds and describes the Berrycoombe Bee project and it's development this year, 2018.

It all begins with a friend of mine, Matt Somerville. He has a passion for wild bees and facilitates people to make and install wild bee hives as habitats for wild honey bees but not for honey harvesting. His business is called Bee Kind Hives and is concerned with sustainable bee keeping. A person with a log hive is not a bee keeper but provides a potential habitat for a bee colony to live should the bees choose it. Matt runs courses in log hive making and I went along to make one.

The making of the hive is a whole blog on its own. It's a specific process with particular wood of a particular dimension and specialised tools. It is hard work and its is great to have support if you are not used to working with wood on that scale. Matt has made enough log hives, that he is continually refining the design and knows what the bees require or prefer from observation and research.

Being on this course was instrumental to understanding how the wild honey bees behave and relating that directly to what we were all building and making.

Unfortunately for me, the site initially ear-marked for the log hive I had made, was not the appropriate site any longer. This was an important stage in the journey though, everything was ready to roll, the hive made and it's parts ready to install, the team ready to install it with the equipment to make that possible. What prevented the installation at that site in the end was fear and misunderstanding about the bees and bee behaviour. Many people have a cartoon, or worse, 1970's disaster movie-style vision of a swarm of bees chasing and attacking people. The truth is somewhat different, in a swarm state honey bees are calmer than usual as their energies and attention are focused on protecting the queen during their relocation. This was a sad and disappointing moment but our Waterland Bee Dream team had been assembled to install the hive and so it needed to go somewhere.

There was always going to be a log hive at school. We just didn't think it would be this one or this soon. The plan was to make a log hive with the children and then install that maybe the following year in time for the next swarm season. Well, Berrycoombe Primary School got their log hive early. The team assembled at the school field and got on with the job.

Thanks to a great bunch of friends with the passion for ecology and education, we selected the most appropriate site for the bees and set about getting it up into the tree and securing it.

This was a challenge but I knew it was only the beginning. I anticipated that another challenge was going to be the education, not just of the children at school but of the adults and staff involved, the community around the hive and even the on site Private Nursery.

With my outdoor groups I had been working with bees as a theme anyway in preparation for log hive making and so the children were ready. They knew why bees are important, that they are pollinators and that they needed our help as numbers are diminishing. And then without warning the Log Hive appeared over the weekend. We were on a mission then. I adapted games I knew and made up funny ways to teach the children as much as possible about the bees, their behaviour and particularly about why they swarm and move house. We tasted wild honey comb and propolis, smelled the wild bees wax and discovered as much as we could through experiential learning. Almost immediately there was Honey Bee action around our hive. Swarms were being reported in the Bodmin area generally and so I felt fairly confident that we might attract a swarm but nervous about how the children and staff would react if one arrived while we were there. I then just talked to everyone about what it might be like and even took the nursery children and staff over the the hive to discuss it. We talked about the bees scouting and the whole process they go through in looking for new digs. You know, they were all so great. With a little bit of information and understanding no one was in a bee panic after all.

For about a week I couldn't tell if a colony had moved in or if the bees were just scouts. We were all like expectant parents, all of us, kids, adults staff. I kept comparing it to Braxton Hicks contractions and saying it's like not knowing if labour was underway or not. I was annoying my bee midwife Matt quite a lot that week with messages, photos and videos, asking "Matt, do you think they're in yet?" Well as it happens I think they were in. Elanor,a fab outdoorsy T.A. in school had witnessed a swarm on the Camel Trail at the start of the week. It was so soon after the hive had gone up that no one believed it possible that they could have moved in straight away, but in hindsight, I think they probably had.

It was so quick that people from the community were asking me what I had done or what I must have put in there to attract them so quickly. I think there was suspicion that I had used some kind of Bee JuJu or strange scientific bee attracting chemical spray. In fact, there was a piece of old comb attached to the lid with wooden nails, some bee propolis dripped in, beeswax rubbed all around the inside and a tiny amount of lemon grass essential oil around the drilled entrance holes. The idea is that the hive smells of bee before the bees arrive. Clearly it worked.

We created Bee Ambassadors at School. The kids who had been most fascinated, asking the most questions, were desperate to observe them and keep an eye on them, became Ambassadors. They had a Bee Ambassador scroll given to them in assembly. These would be the kids who would be able to talk to anyone about the bees and correct misinformation, dismiss the urban myths and alleviate any bee fears. It was obvious to me that for the project to work, I couldn't be the only bee ambassador, so we had a whole crew of them.

I didn't write this blog straight away, even though I was bursting to, as I wanted to give the bees time to settle in and give the school and the community time to become comfortable with them. I wanted to shout it from the Beacon or Rough Tor that we had a colony of Wild Honey Bees in our school but I didn't, as I didn't want to cause alarm before we all had a chance, Berrycoombe bees and Bodmin humans to get to know each other.

A project like this is always going to be about Risk-Benefit. Like many activities I might encourage or get involved in outdoors, I ask does the benefit outweigh the risk? This is good outdoor educational practice. Instead of panicking and saying no, we stop and consider the balance between the possible benefits and the potential risks and then do as much as possible to lower the risk and up the benefit. Our hive is high in the tree. Not all log hives are that high but it's important that this one is. We have talked about how to behave around bees and that not all buzzy or stinging things in the school grounds will be one of our Honey bees. It makes no sense to me that some schools recently have reported closures due to False Widow spiders found on the grounds. All scratches, stings, bites, grazes, spikey things and even belly ache things are amazing learning opportunities.

And so here is the benefit AND the way you lower the risk-the learning and education! We observe the bees and their behaviour. When we think about the wind and the science behind it, we go and look at the bees to see how they cope with the wind. In major rainstorms we talk about the impact that rain has on the bees and their navigation while collecting pollen and nectar and we go and see if they are active. We observe them at different times of day and know when they are busy and when they calm down. We have observed where they are flying to as the year changes and different plants flower. We recently have been on hornet watch as we saw a hornet fly off with one of our bees across the school field. We then got to discuss the cycle of life and food webs, it turns out, hornets love a honey bee for breakfast. By having wild honey bees we have been able to discuss the differences between farming and wild foods. We know we don't harvest their honey as they need it to survive and that sometimes replacing the food we take from them with something else isn't always what is best for them. The kids love honey, but they like the bees more than honey. By having wild honey bees we have been able to see in a very real way that not all bees are the same. Now the children see a buff tailed bumble bee and know that it isn't the same bee as our honey bees. Rather than identifying all buzzy creatures as wasps or bees they can now tell the difference as we are able to observe the wild honey bees every day and start to differentiate between species. We know they collect pollen and how because we can see them doing it and can see pollen sacks on their legs when they enter the log hive.

Archie, a committed 7 year old bee ambassador has this to say:

"I like the bees, they are kind of like farm bees but different. We don't farm the bees they are free and they picked my school. Making the bee log was fun, and honey is nice too but you can't take it from free bees they need it for babies. I like to check the bees in the tree and if you are quiet for them they like you and don't sting us. Our Berrycoombe bees are important to study them, learn from them get experience about them. And we need more bees they help our food."

Lucky for us a good friend of mine Jacob Stroud came to school to help us construct another log hive. This was so that the children could experience the tools and the process involved in making it. Jacob is another passionate wild bee and log hive enthusiast who was happy to work with us at school to create a new hive. Even more special was that this particular hive was made from a log from one of our favourite school trees that had to come down as it was damaged after a storm. I think pretty much the whole school had a go at using the gouge to take some shaving off of the central hollow of the log hive, a bit like when everyone stirs a cake before it is baked. That log hive has gone on to house bees on another site as we operate a sort of pay it forward log hive system. No doubt we will make more hives that will need new bee ambassadors like Archie to keep an eye on them.

Earlier in the year I was fortunate enough to go on some training for a week in Berlin for Outdoor Educators concerned with Landscapes for Learning. We saw on several occasions, bees in communal spaces in the city.

At Prinzessinnengarten there were several hives of different types and honey bees kept in a more natural way in a community garden project in the centre of the city. In close quarters to people working and eating together they saw bees as an integral part of their growing processes and informal educational programme.

Also in the city was a school garden project called Gartenarbeitsschule where bees where also kept in a more natural way on site and not all of the honey was harvested from them.

This centre also used bees as an opportunity for very formal education, through science as well as experiential outdoor based learning. Our Berrycoombe Log Hive was up in the tree by this stage and it was so important for me to see bees being welcomed into community and educational spaces in very close quarters to people, with massive benefits and as far as those communities felt, with very little risk. This raised my confidence no end.

Back in the U.K. we are not the only school to welcome bees on site. The British Beekeepers association have some great educational and advice materials for those schools who are wishing to consider keeping bees. Some schools also work with bee keepers who will offer teaching sessions with the bees in exchange for allowing hives on school grounds. What an amazing educational opportunity for schools who are maybe quite far down the food producing on site route, to add bee keeping to their curriculum. It is a different thing though, we have a log hive on site, that has attracted a colony of wild honey bees. We observe them, we don't disturb them and we will only ever see honey from that hive if something happens to the colony, and none of us want that.

Over the Summer holiday we went on a tour of woodlands and Forest and people who work in them. We visited Matt Somerville and he took us to some sites near his home where bees have found hollow trees to live in and also where he has put some hives up. We learn so much from him every time we meet and we can then observe what he has told us in the natural world wherever we are. One of the natural hives was being ambushed by robber bees and was fascinating to see. The colony was obviously weak in some way and it wasn't long before survival instincts meant that other bees were taking advantage of this weakness.

We went from Matt and his awesome family to Sherwood Forest where, using new knowledge from Matt we spotted several ancient hollow oaks with healthy happy bee colonies inside. Helped by the books Matt keeps suggesting or giving me I probably am becoming a bee nerd. But that's o.k. with me, the more I understand or experience the more I can pass on and teach.

In school now, months on, the groups are still found using bees in their free and imaginative play, making hives out of sticks or collecting pine needles as pollen as well as watching them calmly and curiously. I wonder if there is such a thing as bee therapy as it certainly calms many children and gets them super focused. I still get bee based colouring in and pictures given to me as well as children telling me they are on "hornet watch". They give me updates on how the bees are behaving and what plants they are on and how many are inside or outside the hive and what jobs they seem to bee doing. I am convinced that our Berrycoombe Bees have taught us as much about socialising and communities working together as they have about science.

Bringing us up to date, I was recently tagged in a Facebook post by a mutual friend of a woman I didn't know who had obviously found our Berrycoombe Bees on her journey. She had posted an image of the Log Hive with the following:

"What a brilliant thing to see inside the fence of a primary school in Bodmin this morning. Bees were busy making most of Autumn days. Forward thinking from the staff at Berrycombe Primary School. Amazing!"

I can not tell you how much that made my day. The bees are in a good place where they are easily visible by the community as well as children, parents and staff within school. This Facebook post marked the point at which I thought, yes, this is great, I can write about this now. I am so grateful for all of the expertise and the energetic team that helped the hives to be made and allowed this one to go up in the tree in our School field. I finally get a minute to reflect on the experiences, people and places that have come together and taught me and many others, that we can live and learn closely with bees in our communities and in our schools. It's not just about those people with expertise, tools or even enthusiasm it is also about those who said yes to the project and all of those people who accepted the Berrycoombe Bees into their space.

If you would like to experience your own Wild Bee Log Hive Project, I know a whole colony of humans who would be very pleased about that!

Other cool bee stuff that might help you link to learning in a cool way:

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