Plans to put a beehive in every Berkeley middle school

Beekeepers Anthony Fontaine (L) and Eric Rocher inspect their new hives at King Middle School’s Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley on Dec. 5, 2012. Fontaine built the hive out of recycled woods. They will manage the hive for the school garden. Photo: Mary Flaherty

A new initiative, spearheaded by Berkeley’s Edible Schoolyard Project, aims to put beehives in the city’s three middle schools by next spring.

King Middle School’s one-acre garden, home to the Edible Schoolyard, has already jumped in having acquired a hive of Russian bees six weeks ago, under a program the organizers named Bee Experimental Education in Schools (BEES).

The idea, said Edible Schoolyard Director Kyle Cornforth, is to extend King’s existing hands-on gardening and cooking education to include learning about pollination.

“It’s so important for the kids to understand how many of the foods we eat and enjoy could not be possible without bees and other pollinators,” said Cornforth. Bees play an important role in producing more than 100 crops grown in the United States, according to the BEES literature, as well as pollinating plants that animals graze on. The recent problem of Colony Collapse Disorder has made understanding pollination all the more important.

Edible Schoolyard Bees in the Garden from The Edible Schoolyard Project on Vimeo.

The Edible Schoolyard has hosted both native bees and those from other local hives in the past, said Cornforth, who’s worked with the garden on and off for 12 years. So King students have already had lessons on bees, catching them with nets and observing them (watch the short video above for a taste). In one lesson, shown on the Schoolyard’s website, seventh graders take a history walk through the garden  when they study American civilizations. They learn about New World crops, such as chocolate, and about how Mayans cultivated bees and used the honey to sweeten a cocoa drink.

Next week, Cornforth said, seventh-grade students will study dead bees under microscopes, observing pollen on their legs and learning about reproduction.

Mixing thousands of bees with hundreds of kids naturally raises safety concerns.

“We thought about every possible problem,” Cornforth said. “And we feel really prepared.”

Catching bees with nets at the Edible Schoolyard

The district’s nurse, Rikki Moreno, trained garden staff on severe allergic reactions. They learned how to use an EpiPen, a shot of adrenaline, in case of such a reaction. Several EpiPens are stored in safety kits throughout  the garden. The kits include instructions on handling both serious and mild allergic reactions.

There is only one student on campus with a known serious allergy to bees. The student’s mother, Pam Gray, said her son, Will’s, allergy, was discovered only last summer, when he went into extreme anaphylactic shock after a bee sting in Oregon.

“The garden staff were highly responsive in terms of dealing with a (safety) plan for Will, and initiating training for all the garden staff,” Gray said.

Despite her son’s lethal allergy, Gray, supports the new BEES program. She has volunteered with the Edible Schoolyard over the seven years her three children have attended King.

“The garden and the kitchen have been an important piece of what’s made middle school good for my kids,” Gray said.

“I was hearing from people that I should protest (the bee program), but I have to says that that was never something I considered doing,” she said.  “All of Berkeley is one gigantic garden. Beehives are kept throughout the city.”

“Hive collapse is a critical environmental issue, and I really support this (BEES program) being a part of the garden.”

The hive was no sudden decision.

“We’ve talked about getting bees for years,” Cornforth said. Then one day a school neighbor, and beekeeper, who had long admired the school’s garden, walked through the door, saying, “I really want to put a beehive in your garden.”

That was Anthony Fontaine, who calls his work with bees, “not a business, more a personal adventure.” Fontaine and his beekeeping partner, Eric Rocher (both French), met working in the kitchen of Chez Panisse. Rocher, a former apiarist, taught Fontaine about bees, Fontaine builds the hives, and together they manage several in Berkeley yards, three on the roof of Chez Panisse, and now the one in the Edible Schoolyard.

The hive at King Middle School is tucked away at the north end of the garden, halfway down the hillside toward the track. For the safety of both student-gardeners and bees, the hive is enclosed by a rustic wooden fence. Photo: Anthony Fontaine

Come spring, the students can gather around the new hive, which Fontaine made from recycled redwood, and watch the bees at work through a clear panel.

The hive is tucked away at the north end of the garden, halfway down the hillside toward the track. For the safety of both student-gardeners and bees, the hive is enclosed by a rustic wooden fence.  But for demonstrations, one side of the fence lifts away.

Cornforth said she hopes to extend BEES to Willard and Longfellow middle schools by spring, and is in talks with those principals now.

She said installation of the hive at King cost about $150, and paying the beekeepers for management costs another $100 per month.

To that end, the Berkeley Whole Foods Market is sponsoring a fundraiser to help fund and expand the program. The store will donate 5% of its sales on Wednesday, Dec. 12 to BEES.

“Given Colony Collapse Disorder, and the importance of pollination as an area of education, we are delighted to be able to support this initiative,” said Jim Hallock, Community Relations Team Leader at Whole Foods Market Berkeley. “It adds a whole new dimension to an already great program.”

Whole Foods estimates the event could bring in at least $5,000, which, Cornforth said, would cover the three schools’ costs for a little over a year.

Katrina Heron: New director of edible schoolyard project [10.26.12]
School edible programs get reprieve from the feds [06.14.12]
Berkeley district votes to fund at-risk edible programs [04.12.12]
After Berkeley, school lunches will never be the same [02.02.11]
Berkeley Bites: Kyle Cornforth [08.16.10]

Berkeleyside publishes many articles every day. To see all our stories in chronological order, and read ones you may have missed, check out our All the News grid.