Honeybees and the Classroom
Reading Time: 4 minutes
Of all the creative applications for bees, one of the most exciting is bringing bees into the classroom — or rather, bringing the classroom out to the bees. This is the approach taken by a Montessori teacher named Nine Dodge.
Nine Dodge is the lead teacher for the Coulee Montessori Adolescent Program in La Crosse, Wisconsin. She works with young people ages 11 to 14 (grades 6 through 8). “I completed my AMI (American Montessori International) training at the Hershey Montessori School in Ohio in 2012,” she says. “I’ve been teaching in public schools since 2007. I’m proud of the La Crosse Public Schools for making a public Montessori school possible.”
The teaching method is based on the work of Dr. Maria Montessori, who taught the importance and effectiveness of “hands-to-head” learning, emphasizing real-world experience instead of solely book or lecture-based knowledge. The teaching method also stresses opportunities to engage in child-centered learning outdoors and connect with nature and the land. And what better way to do this than to keep bees?
Dodge is not a beekeeper by profession, but she works with professionals and keeps a few hives at a local community farm (“One, two, or three hives, depending on the year,” she notes). She’s had groups ranging in size from 20 to 40 students each year, but on average, five students are interested in “the bee work.”
“This year, I bought an extractor,” she says, “which brought the “bee work” into the classroom. This allowed more students to participate and learn. We extracted and jarred up over 50 pounds of honey. Students engaged with designing labels and decided on pricing (which incorporated marketing lessons). Ultimately, we sold almost all of it to parents and families, so our advertising didn’t reach far.”
This holistic approach to learning incorporates many aspects of real-world opportunities. “The work was meaningful and gave us some petty cash for paying bus fare for local trips,” she says. “And we could purchase more beeswax because the other endeavor that came of this was an interest in making candles.”
The students take periodic trips to the farm where the hives are kept. Here they engage in various farm-related projects, such as installing cow scratching posts and building bat boxes. “We went to the farm twice this spring,” she says. “Sadly, on our second visit, we found one of the hives had lost its queen and was infested with what we believe was deformed wing virus.”
That loss became another learning opportunity. “We’ll build on the learning of this year’s failed hive in the upcoming year when we focus on U.S. history, agriculture, pollinators — land stewardship,” explains Dodge. “But always it comes back to “follow the child.” I steer them and provide learning opportunities, observing what interests them and where to guide learning next. We’ll see where they take us!”
The child-centered approach to the Montessori method means students are not required to participate. “Many students are cautious about working with bees,” says Dodge. “I never force young people to approach the hives. If they’re not interested, the contact won’t benefit that adolescent, other humans, or the bees. I provide various protective gear options and insist everyone wear a head covering and gloves when working with an active hive. Some just want to stand nearby and watch. I teach explicitly how to approach a hive and discuss what we plan to do ahead of time. I try to keep our inspections under an hour. While some students would like to look at every frame in detail, we balance looking closely with not disturbing too much. I always insist they focus and are relatively quiet — no screaming or sudden movements. Once they’re done with the work, they should communicate and leave gracefully, rather than staying and being a distraction.”
The kids learn techniques for interacting with the insects, but Dodge never forces interactions with bees. “I had one student go out in a suit and begin an inspection, and he got freaked out and asked to leave. But almost always, once the students practice breathing and being calm, they can look closely at the hives. They really enjoy it, even when the hive gets loud and potentially scary.”
This teacher remains enthused about the learning opportunities in beekeeping. “It’s interesting and different every time. There are always questions and discussions to collaboratively understand what’s going on — different kinds of comb, stages of bees, comparing hive productivity, etc. Many students only experience with bees is at a picnic or park, chasing them away from soda or fruit. The common sentiment is we don’t want them around because we don’t want to get stung. After spending time with the hives, students begin to see these fascinating creatures differently.”
Colleagues are supportive of Dodge’s apiary endeavors. “One of my collaborating teachers keeps bees herself and has much expertise to share,” she observes. “Others are happy to take the students who aren’t interested, which allows time and space for the bee work.”
Parents are glad their children have farm opportunities and are enthusiastic about fresh, local, pesticide-free honey. “I had one student a few years back with a bee allergy, so his parents wanted to be sure we were safe,” Dodge remembers. “He carried his EpiPen all the time.”
Dodge adds that involving students in beekeeping is expensive. “I’ve put most of the money in myself,” she admits, “and consider it my project that I’m sharing with students. School budgets don’t allow for the purchase of hives or new queens/packages when hives don’t overwinter. Our PTO (Parent-Teacher Organization) funded my request for money to purchase additional hoods and gloves so I can take five students out at a time.”
Dodge is cultivating more than just honey with her classroom endeavors. She is potentially cultivating future beekeepers as well — or at least young people who understand the critical role bees play in agriculture and the natural world. Either way, it’s a win-win.
Originally published in the Winter 2022/2023 issue of Backyard Beekeeping and regularly vetted for accuracy.