We know that things are bad with bees right now. In the past decade, they have been disappearing at an alarming rate – a combination of pests, pesticides and the destruction of habitats has seen the UK population decrease by about a third over that period. In September, the US added seven types of bees to its list of endangered species for the first time. The consequences of losing them would be huge: Albert Einstein once said that humans “would not survive the honeybees’ disappearance for more than five years”.
Help is taking all kinds of forms: from fundraising gigs to experimental robotic pollinators and Tesco donating waste sugar to keep Cornish hives going through the winter.
When it comes to schools, it would be understandable for the approach to be theoretical rather than practical (anyone who has ever shared a classroom with a bee and a set of panicking students will understand why). But there are schools across the country taking a practical approach and getting involved in beekeeping, rather than just reading about it.
Dr Julia Hoggard has kept bees for 30 years and runs a 20-acre, bee-orientated nature reserve in Cumbria. For the past year, she has been working with a local primary school, helping the students to create their own hives.
“I remember lots and lots of bees being in hay meadows when I was a child,” she says. “Whereas we will have summers now where we don’t see that many, even on the bee reserve. The change is painfully obvious.
“The advantage of having them in schools is that they are neat little communities; you can look at every single aspect of what is going on and link it into the curriculum at all key stages.”
There are the obvious subject links with biology and environmental science – studying mini beasts, pollination and sustainability, for example – but a hive can also be used to explore elements of history, art, maths and music, as well as providing opportunities for developing practical skills: using woodwork lessons to construct the hive, or making dishes using honey in food technology.
Hoggard is quick to address the major concern that comes to most people’s minds when considering keeping bees. “The biggest issue, obviously, is that bees sting,” she says. “That has to be top of the list of considerations. In the modern world of health and safety, schools have to know how they are going to manage that with insurance and things.”
Luckily, the school she is working with had a high-profile victim who modelled a calm response. “It was actually the headmaster who got stung first,” she laughs. “The staff and students have to learn how they’re going to cope with that. Keeping it low-key is important.”
In Northumberland, amateur beekeeper Jilly Halliday has worked with the volunteer-led Broomley Bee Project for five years. After seeing the benefits that young people gained from the project, she decided to speak to the headteacher at her son’s primary school about setting up their own hive. The school was supportive and now has its own apiary at a nearby National Trust site.
The kids are so inspired: they can open up a beehive and they’ve got the smell of the wax, the propolis, the sound
“Bringing bees to a school takes a gutsy teacher, but we follow strict guidelines,” she explains. “We usually do workshops splitting a class into groups of four. We do the risk assessment and we always have a teacher with us.
“We do 15-minute sessions and it’s fast and the students love it – they might be dressed up in bee suits, they might be looking through a microscope. We’re also sponsoring teachers to become beekeepers on a 10-week course at the local horticultural college.”
The key to making such projects work, she says, is for staff to be on board. “What we’ve learned is that as long as we’ve got supportive teachers and headteachers, we can roll with it. The poor teachers are so stretched – I act as a broker and talk to them about what subject they’re studying and work in partnership. It’s not always easy but it works.”
And the benefits, she says, are completely worth the effort. “The kids are so inspired: they can open up a beehive and they’ve got the smell of the wax, the propolis, the sound. It feels dangerous and exciting.”
For schools that are considering beekeeping, there several things to bear in mind, as Martin Smith, public affairs spokesman for the British Beekeeping Association, explains.
Above all, the choice of location for the apiary is key. The area needs to be secure, easily accessed and provide a suitable flight path for the bees. For Halliday, it was agreed that the nearby National Trust site would be the best option, while the school Hoggard works with has a field with sheep and ducks and hens where it was able house the hive.
“A good way of pupils being able to view the bees is to have a shed or greenhouse adjacent to the apiary. This means the children can see the bees and the activity of the beekeeper relatively closely without the need to all wear beekeeping suits,” Smith says.
Then there is – of course – the question of money. Schools will need to budget for beekeeping suits, hives and consumable items, as well as the bees themselves. Hoggard estimates that this can be about £1,000, although there are cost-saving measures that can be taken: polystyrene hives are cheaper than wooden ones (and just as effective). Her project also managed to get its bees for free – by putting out a hive and waiting.
“There are swarms out there looking for places to live ... If you put out something of the right size and the right place that smells of beeswax, you’ve got a pretty good chance of getting bees,” she explains.
There is also funding available to help establish projects – local beekeeping associations should be able to advise on this, as well as helping schools get set up safely.
Ultimately, Halliday says, beekeeping can open pupils’ eyes to a new world – and make them think differently about the one they live in. “I love bees and I think everyone should. There’s just so much to learn, it just doesn’t stop. It’s an old art but it’s about looking at things from a different perspective – we’re bringing an old art up to date.”