The faint smell of honey permeates the air around the buzzing beehive. A little girl sits at the small table in the library of Sullivan's Island Elementary School, her face inches from thousands of bees as she watches them in their six specific roles — the queen laying eggs, the housekeepers cleaning the tall double-sided glass hive, the nurses feeding the baby bees as they emerge from the golden honeycomb, the scouts tumbling out of a clear tube into the garden outside, exploring the neighborhood for undiscovered flowers, the guards protecting the hive from intruders, and the foragers on the hunt for nectar to feed the colony. Every bee has its role, and it's easy to get lulled into a calm fascination watching the hive hustle about.
Nearby, Principal Susan King whispers, "I've seen that girl in here many times looking at those bees. She's seen it many times and still keeps coming back. All the children do — nature's constantly changing the show. They're not just watching a cartoon or looking at a photo. They're observing what bees really do first hand."
As the pioneer school to first adopt a hive from Bee Cause, a nonprofit bee initiative, King saw it as a complement to the charter school's focus on the coastal environment. "It's about letting children observe nature and draw their own conclusions. It's discovery or inquiry-based learning. For us, it's about appreciation and exposure to nature, and it seemed to fit right in with what we're doing. But any school would benefit. It's important for kids to be exposed to nature."
Principal Deborah Smith of Mitchell Elementary School downtown agrees. "We're a science and math school and bringing anything in that builds curiosity in students is good to promote in our school. Having the ability to watch the life cycle of a bee, see its interaction with our garden; it was a simple decision. We're very pleased to see how it has engaged the students, to see life science that goes on around them at all times, to realize that science comes into play in all aspects of our life. We're very fortunate Bee Cause selected us for one of their hives."
Bee Cause is the reason more than 20 public, private, and charter schools have observational beehives. Interestingly enough, they're also found in a handful of public spots like the Center for Birds of Prey in Awendaw and Middleton Place, as well as private businesses such as Whole Foods in Mt. Pleasant and Fuzzco downtown.
Tami Enright, executive director of Bee Cause and bee champion extraordinaire, is hoping to raise a generation of bee lovers. "Our ultimate goal is educating folks and having them slow down to think about the connection between farmer and food. Children are the easiest route. We aim to have 1,000 hives in schools across the area."
She started with her own family. "I have four young children, and they love the honeybees. I was always surprised when their friends would come over and be scared of the bees. I listened quietly to my children convincing their friends of all the reasons honeybees were important to the planet and how they don't want to sting (because when they sting they die). They are 'gatherers' not 'hunters,' my 9-year-old son would say matter-of-factly.
"So many children are detached from nature. They never truly slow down to smell the roses, to think about where their food comes from, to think about why insects do what they do. It was an easy step for me to install an observation hive in one of my children's schools. We realized quickly that the children began to care for the bees, to name the queen, to track the weather and what food was available for them to forage on. They started connecting the dots. Once they saw how hard the bees worked day in and day out, the fear went away. They began to realize that the bees had a job to do — and couldn't be bothered by chasing kids or stinging innocent bystanders. The kids took these very simple lessons and insights home with them and 'enlightened' their parents at the dinner table. It dawned on me that we could make a huge difference through the children. They became ambassadors for our message. And they ultimately benefitted from having such a cool, new life experience."
Funded by the Savannah Bee Company, Bee Cause was started by that company's president and founder, Ted Dennard, who donated 20 hives and Enright's salary to get the project started. The eventual goal is for participating schools to pay it forward. For every purchase of Savannah Bee Company Bee-Cause Honey, 100 percent of the proceeds are donated to a school hive project. Ashley Hall raised $6,000 in one day selling honey and T-shirts and is helping fund three more schools.
The support and the education is needed. "Many folks believe that bees are the 'canary in the coal mines,'" says Enright. "They are dying off at rapid speed because we are not taking care of the Earth, as we should. We are poisoning ourselves slowly, through pesticide use, pollution, mono crop culture."
The impact of honeybees is vast, but the lesson children learn is put in simple terms. "One in three bites of our food supply are pollinated by honeybees," says Enright. "Food and flowers are easy concepts for [children] to embrace. There are so many school projects around eating and growing healthy foods, and honeybees fit into that messaging nicely."
She then goes into fascinating detail about swarming — a terrifying word that actually has positive connotations. "Each observation hive has between 5,000-10,000 honeybees with one queen bee. They only have so much room in this glass observation hive, so when they reach the hive capacity, they will "swarm" or split in half and leave the hive. The original queen will take half of the bees and find another home in the wild. We currently have 30 installations, and they've all given back to the natural world at least once."
Think Winnie the Pooh and a swarm of black bumblebees flying in a small mass. As it turns out, they are least aggressive during this stage. In fact, bumblebees sound like the lovers, not fighters, of the bee world. While wasps (including hornets and yellow jackets) all pack a mean punch and sting repeatedly, honeybees are more like Martin Luther King Jr., preaching non-violence. If you leave them alone, they most certainly will leave you alone.
To ensure that children and bees are safe, the Sullivan's Island Elementary School beehive is connected to the garden outside. All the hives have portals to the outdoors so the bees can freely forage for pollen and nectar and bring it back to the colony to feed the nursery of baby bees (sounds much cuter than larvae). Stored, unused nectar and pollen become honey, but at these observation hives, this doesn't happen. All the nectar and pollen is used. The tube to the garden at Sullivan's opens into a small grass area of about five feet before a small fence and a ring of trees stop any overly curious children soccer balls from disrupting the exit area. The bees simply scoot out and up into the air.
If Bee Cause continues on its flight toward community education, then there should be an increase of happy little bees tumbling and bumbling about.
Avoid Neonicotineoids in your lawn and plant treatment. These kill bees. Sad face. Google the first five ingredients to avoid them. Xerces.org is a great resource.
Eat raw, unpasteurized honey, otherwise it's basically just sugar. Raw honey is full of minerals, vitamins, enzymes, and powerful antioxidants. It has anti-bacterial, anti-viral, and anti-fungal properties.
Local raw honey is even better. Local raw honey contains pollen that is specific to your area and therefore can really help those local seasonal allergies.
Ask for a hive at your school through thebeecause.org (also a good source for honey).
Beekeepers, organic farmers, and citizens with chemical sensitivities, should contact Charleston County Mosquito Control at (843) 202-7880 to be added to the County's spray notification list.