I was invited to come and talk to the Year 6 children at Western Road Primary School in Lewes, East Sussex, about honey bees, as they have a feral colony living in the roof of their school building. They have been there at least a few years, and are not normally particularly noticeable, but since being obliged to use the fire escape to facilitate social distancing within the school the bees have become more of a feature, and I was so pleased that the response to this proximity was to learn about them to understand and reassure, rather than call pest control to get the colony removed.
I cannot stress how important I feel it is to educate children (and adults!) on the impact of our increasing encroachment of wildlife habitat. And by wildlife habitat, I mean houses and schools, and gardens and public spaces, as these are often in places which formerly have been safe havens, either because of a lack of disturbance, or because they are spaces which were once rural or wild areas, and have now been built up. If the immediate response is to eradicate any species with whom – out of fear or lack of knowledge – we do not feel that we want to share our homes, it is no wonder that the natural world is struggling to the extent it is.
We met outside, and the children were in their respective pods (hats off to all teachers navigating this challenging time…) and I focussed mainly on the honey bees’ lifecycle rather than beekeeping as I wanted to inform the children and teachers about what the bees would be doing across the year, as they will be working alongside them. I had a photo of a colony I removed from a National Trust property as it showed how the combs could be situated in the wall of their school. I spoke about swarming; colony size; the caste system and relatedness of worker, drone, and queen; and how the nest expands to produce more foragers who go and gather provisions to help the colony survive over winter, living on the summer nectar and pollen: bees make honey for themselves, not us. I mentioned about defence, and how to remove the barbed sting. I also took a hands-up poll of who hated wasps, and did my best to encourage some generosity of spirit for the bees’ yellowjacket cousins and ancestors, explaining how we only hate wasps because they interact with us to a far greater extent: we would no doubt hate bees if they ate jam and drank lemonade…
After some genuinely excellent questions, we crossed over the playing field to gather round the fire escape to watch the bees. I always find it best to visit bees after the talk, as then hopefully the inner workings can be envisaged more easily. The bees were busy, and there was a worker standing on the tarmac, so I lifted her up on to my finger to show the children there was no need to be scared. Respectful, yes; scared, no. Off flew the bee, and I explained that the reason they had seen lots of dead bees around the area under the nest was because bees try not to die inside as it is more work for their sisters, so they usually expire outside. Given the queen is laying 1000 eggs a day potentially through the spring and summer, and with foragers only living a matter of weeks, that’s a high turnover of workers and the few they see each day would be perfectly normal. Sluggish bees are likely to be nectar-laden workers stopping for a rest on the ground or the surrounding foliage, and could be left to carry on their journey.
I spoke to the staff regarding possible improvements to the protective screens, but as this is a [hopefully] temporary solution to the Covid-19 regulations, these stairs would not normally be used so the bees will be undisturbed.
It was fantastic to have the chance to speak about the bees within such a supportive and positive environment. I am hoping to keep in touch with the school and perhaps repeat the talk to different year groups so they all get the chance to learn about the School Bees, as well as use them as a resource to learn about geography and maths, as well as more obvious biology and botany. I would like to applaud the school for taking such a progressive approach and treating the colony as a benefit and learning aid rather than a nuisance: so encouraging.
To me, this is the real ambassadorial value of honey bees: they are known and familiar and loved, and they provide a conduit for further conversation and conservation with absolutely no requirement for removal of honey, or lifting out of combs, or donning of beesuits. It is a powerful message that their presence alone is enough to spark interest and engagement, and I hope other people and places can take this as a precedent for living more effectively with nature.