By Christine Smith
May 5, 2016
For the third year in a row, teens at the Boys & Girls Club of Fitchburg and Leominster are being taught the basic techniques of beekeeping and observation of these talented insects, and program directors are also bringing to light for students the disturbing facts around an overall dwindling bee population.
It is part of what prompted Laura Jenny, 17, of Leominster, to get involved in the program at the club. Jenny said a science project a couple of years ago for biology class focused on the pesticides farms currently use and how these impact the insects that may visit the fields.
Jenny said an entomologist from Boston’s Harvard University had helped her with her project research, even providing her an up-close encounter with beehives at one of that school’s field stations in Bedford.
“That really interested me because I found out how important bees and pollinators were for agriculture and allowing us to have food on our table,” she remarked.
She said that was when she originally learned that whole colonies of bees are collapsing — that they are just “dying off.”
This first encounter was only a “glimpse” into the world of bees and their hives, but Jenny wanted to know more. At the first chance she had, she signed up for the beehive class at the Boys & Girls Club and says she is learning more about this problem, as well as the intricate life of bees and how their colonies work.
On a recent Monday afternoon, six students and their instructor, Jon Blodgett, slipped into their white suits, netted “veils” and gloves that covered them from head to foot, and headed out to check on the three beehives near the rear of the club’s facilities. Brett Houck, 16, also of Leominster, volunteered to “smoke” the area to mask the pheromones of the participants and keep the bees calm and less aggressive should they become alarmed during this careful disturbance to their hives.
Blodgett said the weekly beekeeping classes teach the students about the bees’ roles in pollinating about one third of the world’s food supply and how modern farming techniques and the use of pesticides may be affecting the bee population. Blodgett noted that scientists are dumbfounded at this point because although there are many theories, there are no current answers.
He said scientists are also turning to research a method of artificial pollination that could be utilized, but in this, too, have been unsuccessful in effectively matching the ability displayed by the honeybee in its natural environment.
The program at the Boys & Girls Club resulted last year in a successful fall harvest of about 25 pounds of honey from only one of its three hives, shared in small amounts with the students in the class, volunteers and staff. Only the one thriving hive survived this past winter, but two new hives have again been established through donations of new queens and about 3,000 starter bees for each.
Honey harvests can occur at any time during the year, since how much is produced and how often all depends on the health of the colonies themselves.
For successful beekeeping, the kids are taught about the lifecycle of the bees, where the larvae are kept safe within the honeycomb, and the different roles in the colony and how to spot the male drones and female workers just by appearances. When they open up the bee boxes and pull out the frames each week, they check to make sure the queen is still laying, they learn about brood patterns, and find out how to identify mites that might be invading the hive or even potential diseases that might be affecting the colony.
They inspect for worker bee activity and the possibility that the queen might be preparing a place for another queen to hatch that could eventually swarm away with half the colony. Crowding causes this preparation, Blodgett tells the attentive kids, but can be avoided if they provide enough space with additional boxes added on so the hive activity can continue.
Some of the students admitted they had been scared of bees before participating in the class, but they had been curious enough about beekeeping and interested in insect-related sciences to join. None of the students flinched during the instruction on this particular day, even though the open hive had let loose a swirling buzz of activity and a number of bees were landing on, circling around, or zipping past the group.
According to Blodgett, the two newest hives together have approximately 8,000- 12,000 bees at this point. He described the third hive that survived the winter as containing a strong colony, and, although he could not guess an actual count, noted that healthy colonies can normally have around 50,000 bees.
Blodgett said these bees travel out from their hives each morning in a radius of about 3 or 4 miles and return each evening, bringing back the nectar. He said one of the future goals of the program is to eventually establish a pollinating garden right on the club’s property and also encourage enough organic honey production to be able to sell and raise some funds for the Boys & Girls Club programs.
Leominster Police Detective Pat Aubuchon, who had originally sought simply to help and volunteer some of his time at the club, took a beekeeping course alongside Blodgett so they both could begin working with the kids in this new program. Blodgett said that since then, Aubuchon has become very knowledgeable about beekeeping and has been a regular weekly aid in helping the kids care for the bees and the hives.
The beekeeping program originally started with donations of actual beekeeping boxes and related supplies, as well as a $1,000 grant from Bert’s Bees’ Greater Good Foundation used to purchase the protective clothing and other needed items. Bert’s Bees, a company noted for its lip moisturizers and skin products, was excited to donate the grant money to the Boys & Girls Club, said Blodgett, knowing that the youth would be inheriting and continuing the techniques of this ages-old science.