WBMS students become Keepers of the Bees

William Byrd Middle School formed a beekeeping club this school year, led by teacher-librarian Heather Balsley (left), Bill Dwyer from the Blue Ridge Beekeeping Association (back row) and Kayla Dawson (far right). Student members include (from left): front, Emily Cook and Cindel Camper; and back row, Jason Cox, Hannah Hall, and Latriva Pierce.
Members of the WBMS Beekeeping Club assemble frames which will hold pollen and honey in the bee hive.

A group of students at William Byrd Middle School and their teachers have organized a club that has turned them into not just beekeepers, but “Keepers of the Bees.” Their slogan is “Save the Bees, Please.”

The club got started this past September after teacher-librarian Heather Balsley became intrigued with bees after attending a meeting at the Roanoke Co-op. She got in touch with beekeeper Bill Dwyer from the Blue Ridge Beekeeping Association (BRBA), which led to establishing the school club. They meet on the first and third Monday each month after school from 3:30 until 4:30.

Balsley says her enthusiasm for involving students with beekeeping is because it is a “real life project which incorporates solving problems that the world is facing— the ultimate STEM activity” She finds the society of a beehive fascinating as well.

The students spent the first few months learning everything possible about the lives of bees and the inner-workings of the hive.

About a month ago they began renovating a donated hive for the thousands of bees that will arrive in late April if all goes according to plan and the weather permits shipment of the bees.

The hive will be installed at the entrance to the William Byrd High School/William Byrd Middle School complex near the retaining ponds and away from human traffic for the most part.

Besides sprucing up the wooden hive and adding artwork, members have built frames where the bees will build the honeycomb and store pollen and honey to feed their young during the winter.

The club has received a great deal of support from the BRBA both educationally and financially. Dwyer has been their constant support and their instructor.

The club is open to students in 6th-8th grades, but currently most of the 10-15 students who attend are sixth and seventh graders. When asked why they joined, most expressed an interest in helping bees.

Seventh grader Hannah Hall said that she “likes food” and bees “make two thirds of the world’s food supply.”

Jason Cox, also a seventh grader, said that he just finds bees interesting and wanted to join the club to “learn how to help them.”

Latriva Pierce said she wants to help bees— whose population is on the decline— but also wanted to overcome her fear of bees. She is a seventh grader as well.

Cindel Camper, a sixth grader, joined with a friend, and wants to help the bees, which are disappearing at an alarming rate.

Emily Cook has an aunt who wants to become a beekeeper, so she wanted to learn more about bees.

Erin O’Donnell teaches seventh grade Life Science at WBMS; Kayla Dawson teaches 8eighth grade science— they both were fascinated with the topic. O’Donnell is incorporating beekeeping into her own curriculum with science labs where her students are germinating flower seeds of species popular with bees. (English classes at WBMS are doing research on bees to enable them to produce stop-motion videos on bee topics which will be posted on the school website.)

The three instructors and all the student members have been diligently studying bees and their keeping so that they can pass the test given in June by the Virginia State Beekeepers Association which will make them certified apprentice beekeepers.

What’s more they have all become vocal bee advocates, determined to rescue bees endangered by severe weather and negative human effects on the environment. Being a bee can be tough.

Balsley says that 50 percent of the hives in Virginia died in recent months due to both an extended period of severely cold weather and Colony Collapse Disorder, thought to be caused by pesticides commonly used in the United States and other parts of the world, but banned in much of Europe.

As for the life and times of bees— advisor Dwyer says pollination is the primary function of the bee. Honey is the by-product of beekeeping.

He is a retired nurse and Navy veteran, and has been a beekeeper for 30 years. He says he teaches beekeeping to other groups spanning all age ranges, such as the Girl Scouts, Headstart programs, and groups at the Salem Library and Roanoke College.

The most common bee is the European honeybee. Hives hold one queen bee, thousands of female worker bees, and male drones who pass on the genetics of the hive by mating— then they die.

The queen is the only female who can reproduce; she mates with drones from other hives and lays eggs— a couple of thousand a day, which mature into worker bees. That is her only function.

Worker bees fill a myriad of exhausting roles 24 hours a day, which leave them with a lifespan of only about 23 days. They are nurses, housekeepers, caretakers of the queen, HVAC specialists who flap their wings continually (up to 11,000 times per minute) to cool or warm the queen depending upon the season, security guards, graveyard bees who remove dead bees from the hive, and foragers and pollinators who go out and bring back pollen. Foragers travel for several miles searching for the pollen and navigate by the angle of the sun. Dwyer says that in a miracle of nature, individual flower petals have landing strips for the bees. Bees pollinate more than 100 crops in the U.S.

Individuals who try to eradicate dandelions from their yards should realize that dandelions and clover are two bee favorites. Dandelions are 36 percent sugar— the highest concentration in spring flowers.

Since the WBMS bee hive won’t arrive until after most of the spring flowers they use for pollinating will be gone, the hive will need to be fed with a mixture of water, cane sugar, vitamins, and proteins that stimulate growth, to be able to survive their first months at William Byrd.

Club members are preparing paint cans to serve as feeders for the new bees, punching holes in the lids to give the bees access. The cans will be placed outside the hive at a distance of about 30 feet— far enough to keep robber bees from other colonies from raiding the new hive for food. The WBMS beekeepers have been feeding the local bee population all winter with cans of bee food placed near the flagpole.

The instructors emphasize that there will be no honey to harvest and share in the first year. It takes quite a while for the hive to become established. Hives this size in time produce 90 pounds of honey— at least 60 of those are needed to survive the winter.

Once the bees are installed, the club will have maintenance chores to perform on a regular basis

The cost for starting up the hive is about $125. Much of the cost has been covered by Dwyer and the BRBA.

Balsley has written and received a grant for the purchase of beekeeping suits for the students to use when working near the hive. Parents are asked to certify that their child is not allergic to bees when joining the club.

The Blue Ridge Beekeeping Association meets on the third Thursday of each month somewhere in the library system— currently at Jackson Park Library. All the William Byrd students have become members. Dwyer says they are its youngest members.

The BRBA has Facebook page with a schedule of their meeting times and locations. Dwyer says their meetings are quite well attended as beekeeping is a trending topic due to interest in both saving the bees and in the production of honey.


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