Reprinted with permission from the Waconia Patriot
By Al Lohman
Waconia Middle School has been buzzing with more activity than normal the past few weeks.
That’s because there’s a colony of honey bees settled on the roof of the building.
It’s a new learning feature next to the geography wing of the middle school and it ties nicely to the “Edible Classroom,” the school garden outside the building below. That’s because bees are pollinators, moving pollen from one part of a plant to another, playing a crucial role in the production of most fruits and vegetables.
There’s growing awareness about the importance of pollinators and growing concern about their viability because of habitat loss, use of bee-killing pesticides, climate change, parasites and pathogens.
That’s one factor behind the grant application that social studies teacher Michele Melius made to the Whole Kids Foundation to acquire a honey bee colony for the school. She raises her own bees and applies them in her teaching.
“Everything about bee hives can be translated to geography (resources and land use) and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math),” Melius said. The school garden and beehive also are intended to spark curiosity and connect kids to the root of their food.
Like many natural phenomena, a hive of honey bees is incredibly complex. Each colony has its own social structure and roles: the queen, which populates and sustains the hive; drones, which fertilize the queens; and workers, the largest population, which forage for pollen and nectar, feed larvae, ventilate and warm the hive, and defend the nest.
Some scientists classify a beehive as a superorganism, an efficiently functioning insect society that yields significant benefits to human populations. Not only pollinating plants that make up a considerable portion of the foods we consume, but also producing honey, a sweetener with surprising health benefits; honeycomb, a wax that can be eaten, made into candles, and used in lip balm, moisturizers and cosmetics; and royal jelly, a substance secreted by honeybees that contains a variety of nutrients and can be applied to heal burns and wounds.
The bee colony at the middle school was acquired in April and the hive, or apiary, has been placed on a sheltered section of roof facing the southeast for the best chance of survival, according to Melius.
The colony was purchased from Nature’s Nectar, a bee supply dealer in Stillwater, Minn. Two varieties: Carniolan, a western honeybee, and Saskatraz, a Canadian variety that is northern hardy and Melius hopes will adapt well here.
The Waconia colony started out at about 3,000 bees. But during her peak, a queen bee can lay up to 2,000 eggs per day, so Melius estimates that during the active season the population could reach up to 50,000 before dropping off dramatically during the colder seasons. Bees live an active but short life – about 5-8 weeks.
During the first cold, welcoming spring days, Melius sustained the hive with sugar water and a pollen patty. But with warmer temperatures and sprouting trees and flowers, worker bees are now reaching out to neighborhoods and fields up to five miles away. And they should soon be lighting in the school garden to fertilize the fruits and vegetables that are planted there, which will end up in school cafeteria larders by next fall.
The hive could also yield more than 100 pounds of honey. Most of that will stay in the hive to enable to the bee population to survive, but possibly 40 pounds, or four gallons, could end up available for school use, according to Melius.
Meanwhile, middle school students have been studying the bees up close as they go about their business.
Not to fear though, parents. Students won’t get stung in their studies. The bees are outside. The students can observe and learn through an observation window in a bee resource corner on the second floor of the middle school.