Students learn hands-on science – and more – in beekeeping

Scott Swanson

Tyler Becker, swathed in a white shirt and elbow-length gloves, and wearing a white hood under a straw hat, holds a frame swarming with about 1,000 bees as dozens of others buzz busily around him and several other nearby classmates.

Standing on the other side of an open beehive, Kenzie Adams scrutinizes the bees.

“This one is full,” she says, with heavy emphasis on the “full,” indicating the globs of beeswax and egg cells, and embryos that fill and even spill out of the approximately 12-by-18-inch frame.

“Boy, she is really going to town,” comments teacher Dave McNeil, standing a few away, referring to the queen bee, for which they were searching. “There’s a lot of brood here. This is a really packed hive.

“It’s probably ready for another super (box).”

Welcome to Beekeeping 1 class at Sweet Home High School.

It’s a sunny spring afternoon on the shoulder of the Sweet Home Junior High hill above the district bus barn, and McNeil has brought seven of his students to check hives located inside a chain-link fenced apiary.

McNeil teaches science and coaches girls basketball at the high school, but it’s clear that bees are also a passion, dating back to when he was a boy growing up on a family farm in Cave Junction.

“My dad has always been into bees,” he said. “He taught me the art of beekeeping.”

When McNeil got married, his father gave him a hive as a wedding present. By the time McNeil and his wife moved to Sweet Home at the beginning of the summer of 2014, he had eight hives.

“But then, a lot of them swarmed and I did swarm retrieval. By the end of the summer we had a rental house over here on Strawberry Loop and I had 13 hives behind the house. Nobody could tell, because they were behind the house. I had two hives on the roof because I ran out of room.”

That first year, he approached district administrators about starting a beekeeping class at the high school. They gave him approval in the spring of 2015, so with some “donations” via woodshop instructor Dustin Nichol from natural resources funds, and some money he made from selling some of his own hives, McNeil was able to build the apiary over the summer, move in eight hives of his own that he had left, and teach his first class that fall.

“I wanted to start a program for the kids,” he said. “Beekeeping is where they could learn about science and get some credit for the discipline.”

McNeil’s science classroom looks like Beekeeping Central. Equipment lines the walls – hoods and clothing hang on hooks; piles of gloves, hive tools stand in corners and on countertops. In the hallway outside, beehives built by the students await paint or buyers.

Some, McNeil said, will be sold to raise funds for the program.

“This is a very expensive discipline, or it can be. And it can be very time-consuming. But if you can cover the cost on your own through honey sales and various other things, kids learn to build the wooden ware.”

Class members suit up and hike about a quarter mile out to the apiary.

Students carry tools – racks on which to hang frames until they’re ready to be re-inserted into the hives, tools to cut and scrape propolis, a sticky wax-like substance used by bees to build hives, so frames can be lifted out, and a smoker.

Senior Nick Parton is responsible for the latter.

“Make sure you get some wood chips,” McNeil reminds him. “Does anybody have a lighter?”

Soon aromatic cedar smoke rises from the nozzle of the coffee pot-like smoker.

When they reach the first hive, Parton bathes the opening in smoke to calm the bees. Then the inspections begin.

The winter was hard on the program’s hives, McNeil said. Several colonies did not survive, though he’s not sure if it was due to weather or stress. There are now two, though the class will split more swarms off in the near future.

One of the hives had at least three baby queens in the process of developing.

McNeil said he has offered the course in both the fall and spring trimesters over the past two years, but is planning to skip this fall because he’s down to two hives. He needs more, he said, to reduce stress levels for the bees.

The two hives that remain, he said, are his oldest hives, and the queens are more used to human contact, the opening of their hives every week or two.

The bees, who are an Italian-Carnolian hybrid that, McNeil said, carry the Italian bees’ mellow personalities along with the Carnolians’ ability to produce stronger hives that better survive winters and remain active on overcast days.

During nearly an hour of work with the hives, McNeil did not wear gloves, though all the students were encased in white shirts, hoods and gloves.

“Pros and cons to both breeds, but when you mix them together you get a lot more of the pros from both,” he said. “You get great honey production of the Italians, real docile nature, you get a hive that will not winter as many bees over – Carnolians tend to not winter as big of a nucleus, so stores last longer. Less chance they’re going to starve by eating their reserves. Carnolians tend to be cleaner, more hygenic bees. So they’re better at resisting parasites.

“Great honey production, easy to work with, clean, fairly hardy.”

He reminded students to organize the frames for re-insertion so they would be able to find the queens quickly for a hive split. That’s when beekeepers create a new hive by removing frames full of eggs and workers, along with a queen bee, which can either be purchased or developed within the hive.

Students scraped extra wax structures created by the bees, which were crowding the hive, off the trays before slipping them back into the hive. The wax will be used to make candles, sold in the high school’s main office, which the class sells to raise funds.

McNeil said he’s learned that the environment in the Willamette Valley presents challenges, different from where he grew up.

“Anywhere you go, the environment offers different variables. In Southern Oregon, the weather’s different; it’s drier. Keeping bees down there is different than keeping bees here. There’s a higher degree of humidity so there’s a lot more mold and water build-up from cellular respiration in the hives. It rains down on the bees and that creates a toxic environment.”

But, after two years of “self-educating,” he said, “I’ve got it pretty much nailed down what works well in this environment. Now we just need to build up the numbers.”

He said if people will report swarms to him, the club, which is named Bee Country Beekeeping, will remove them for free – or even pay a small sum for a healthy swarm.

“A lot of exterminators will come and charge you money to extract bee colonies,” McNeil said. “You’re paying and you’re destroying an ecosystem partner.”

Class sizes in the first two years have ranged between 10 and 16, he said, which is about the right size.

“Having a lot of adolescents with bees all over could be a little chaotic,” he said. His goal is to have one hive for every two students.

The class, McNeil said, teaches students natural science and other skills. This year students have built hives in all three of the major styles most popular in the United States: Langstroth hives, which are commonly seen in local fields; Top Bar, a simpler design that is growing among popularity with beekeepers; and the Warre hive, which combines some of the features of the Langstroth and Top Bar.

“We will put some swarms in so this next year the kids can look at the three different types of hives we have here in the continental U.S.,” McNeil said. “They’ll get to compare each one and figure out which one works best for them. We’ll do some tests with each one – which ones allow for better honey production, which ones allow for cleaner, more hygienic hives, culling, all these tests that we can do.

“That’s the real nature of science. It should be scientific inquiry-driven, whatever you’re doing. I want to pose questions, have them confirm or dispute and be able to test it.”

And sometimes it results in students having a go at beekeeping on their own. He said he has class alums who have started their own hives.

Current students seemed mixed in their enthusiasm for the art.

Adams, a senior, said she took the class because she needed a credit, but it’s helped her lose her fear of bees.

“I’ve learned a lot,” she said. “I knew bees were important, but I didn’t understand why they were important aside from nectaring and pollinating flowers. It’s made me realize how important they are for food and stuff.”

Parton said he might also have some hives of his own.

“I can have fresh honey,” he said. “I could make a little money on the side.”

Classmate Crystal Ashby, a senior as well, wasn’t enthusiastic about going it on her own.

“It’s too much work,” she said. “I’ll buy my honey at the store.”

Becker, also a senior, said he finds the bees “really cool to mess with.”

This is his second year in the class. His previous experience with bees consisted of getting stung, he said.

“I used to be scared of bees. I didn’t want to be around them. I’d swing at them if they came around me. Now I’m like, ‘Wow, bees are really cool.’ I’m not scared to go in without my veil or my gloves or mess with the hive without them.

“I’ve learned how to do everything. You just have to support them by cleaning up their hives so they don’t get too messy, but basically, you leave them alone and they would do everything.”

“I really enjoy bees.”