William Byrd bees take up residence in Vinton – an update

The Beekeeping Club at William Byrd Middle School installed about 20,000 bees in their new home on April 25.
Members of the Beekeeper Club at William Byrd Middle School who helped install the new beehive on April 25 (from left): back, Jason Cox, Latriva Pierce, teacher/librarian Heather Balsley, and McKenna Paradis; front, Emily Cook and Cindel Camper.

The William Byrd Middle School Beekeepers Club installed the new beehive near the main entrance to the WBMS/WBHS campus on April 25 and introduced thousands of bees to their new home.

The bees arrived from Georgia the day before, a little too “fired up” to instantly move in to their new hive. Actually, it is a recycled and refurbished hive— due to the efforts of the beekeeping club. The bees were sprayed with a sugar water mixture to calm them down shortly before they made the transition to their WBMS hive.

Teacher/librarian Heather Balsley, who sponsors the club, said the shipment included about 20,000 European honeybees (the most common type of bee)— one queen bee, 500-1,000 male drones, and the rest female worker bees.

The queen is the only female in the hive 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 host of exhausting roles 24 hours a day, which leaves them with a lifespan of only about 23 days. They are nurses, housekeepers, caretakers of the queen, HVAC specialists who flap their wings continually to cool or warm the queen (up to 11,000 times per minute which causes the buzzing sound), security guards, graveyard bees who remove dead bees from the hive, and foragers and pollinators who go out and bring back pollen.

Balsley, several student members of the club, and beekeeper Bill Dwyer from the Blue Ridge Beekeeping Association (BRBA), who has been advising the club since its inception last fall, carefully carried the bees, the base of the hive, and one “super” (layer) containing frames, down the hill to a spot near the retaining ponds for placement. For now, there is just one super in the hive. More will be added as the beehive grows and they need more space to build cells for eggs and honey.

Dwyer explains that pollination is the primary function of the bee. Honey is the by-product of beekeeping. Bees pollinate more than 100 crops in the United States.

Balsley noted that there are 10 frames per super including some new student-built frames. Some of the frames were reused from hives bees left so that the WBMS bees would have a head start and not have to build from scratch. The frames are where the bees will build the honeycomb and store pollen and honey to feed their young during the winter.

The beekeeping club was launched last fall after Balsley became enamored of bees after attending a meeting at the Roanoke Co-op. She got in touch with Dwyer and now the club has from 10-15 members and meets on the first and third Monday each month after school from 3:30 until 4:30.

Balsley says she became enthusiastic about involving students with beekeeping because it is a “real life project which incorporates solving problems that the world is facing— the ultimate STEM activity.” She finds the social structure of a beehive fascinating as well.

About six weeks ago club members began renovating a donated hive, adding some beautiful and distinctive artwork.

The student beekeepers and their leaders are busy preparing to become certified apprentice beekeepers once they pass the Virginia State Beekeepers Association test in June. Dwyer has been teaching them everything there is to know about bees and the inner workings of a beehive since the club was formed— their constant support as well as their instructor. The club has received enormous support from the BRBA both educationally and financially. The WBMS students have become its youngest members.

The motto of the WBMS club is “Save the Bees, Please,” and that’s the main purpose of the beehive project.

Bees across Virginia and around the world are in decline. Balsley says that 50 percent of the hives in Virginia died in recent months due to a combination of the extended severely cold weather this winter and spring and Colony Collapse Disorder thought to be caused by pesticides.

The club is assisted by WBMS science teachers Erin O’Donnell and Kayla Dawson who are incorporating the study of bees into their own curriculums.

Barbara McGrath, who teaches science and ecology at William Byrd High School, has a Sowing Club there. The two clubs plan to work together to plant some favorite flowers for the bees.

The club is open to students in 6th-8th grades. When asked why they joined, most expressed an interest in helping bees face the challenges of the environment.

Club members have prepared 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 in the vicinity.

There will be no honey to harvest the first year. It takes quite a while for the hive to become established. Hives this size eventually produce 90 pounds of honey—at least 60 of those are needed to survive the winter.

Balsley wrote and received a grant to purchase beekeeping suits for the students to use when working near the hive. Once the beehive was installed last week, Dwyer carefully inspected the students to make sure no stealthy bees had hidden themselves in the folds of their suits before they returned to class.

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