Every Tuesday afternoon Claire Tocher and ten students from her Year 8 primary school class put on white head-to-toe overalls and cross the playground at Te Aro School to check on their bees.
The school has two hives, which are home to about a hundred thousand bees depending on the time of the year.
The hives are a learning resource, a source of great fascination for kids and parents alike, and increasingly a tidy earner for the school as well.
“We got two swarms of bees in October 2013, and the experience has been fantastic,” Claire enthuses.
“The kids involved with the bees can see purpose in the learning.” The environmental benefits are also strong.
“Pesticides and the varroa mite are devastating bee populations,” said Claire, and she wanted to do something about it.
“We talked about it and the students decided we should write to the Mayor and our local MP.
“The kids are driving this so it’s not about taking the most effective action based on adult judgement.”
The team also planted bee-friendly flowers like borage and sprinkled about wild flower mix from the local garden centre – which helps to attract bees.
“At one point we lost a hive to disease. We talked about it and about what we could do. The kids made the connection to other losses that they had experienced in their lives … relatives and neighbours and so on. They saw the loss of the bees as their responsibility.”
Martin Tolman, an active beekeeper in Karori, and also a teacher, helps out with expert advice. A member of the local Beekeepers Association, he has been involved at Te Aro School from the beginning, and is also now helping other Wellington schools with an interest in beekeeping.
The association lent the school ten kid-sized bee suits with gloves, and, looking like mini spacepeople, they gather around the hive for the weekly inspection.
This week they couldn’t find the Queen Bee but the kids were absorbed. They take turns using the smoker – a coffeepot-like device which is stuffed with pine needles and then lit.
The kids love pressing the bellows, which puff out smoke. Puffing at the entrance to the hive encourages airborne bees to go inside. When the hive is open, and the trays are lifted to check on their development, puffing smoke at them will drive the bees deeper into the hive itself. The kids get that.
Martin explains that the smoke calms the bees and makes them easier to work with.
Today’s examination is about seeing when the honey will be ready to harvest. And each vertical tray is carefully examined. The students pick out the drones and the worker bees and comment on how full the cells are with honey.
Another couple of weeks before the full harvest is Martin’s verdict.
Several kilos of honey have already been taken, and processed. One of the students, Sam, explains that the honey combs are put into a large spinning machine, and “the honey flows out.”
It’s sieved to remove wax particles and then bottled as is. Typically honey sold in supermarkets is pasteurised, which “kills all the good stuff in honey,” Martin explains.
The hexagonal jars of honey – about 250gsm each – are sitting in boxes in the classroom. “We market these to the school community; says Claire,” for a koha of $5.
Last year the hives produced 16kg of honey, and this year Claire and Martin expect to get more than 25kg. So far they have 150 jars of honey.
Claire says the bee project has extended the students’ learning into many other dimensions.
“Right now the students in lCT are designing labels for the jars.
The kids made one of the hives in their woodwork classes, and have produced videos, poetry, blogs and posters and pictographs to explain and document their work and that of the bees themselves.
Claire made a video which won a competition run by Genesis Energy, and won the school a pile of solar panels.
“The bee project has many benefits; the students learn to work together and to collaborate on a project with common goals and to work as a team.
“The learning is cross-curricular and involves problem solving and communications skills.”
“Right now we are in the process of forming a company which will sell the honey and earn some money for the school as well as making Wellington a bee-friendly city.”.