Busy beehives provide up-close learning experience in Leominster

By George Barnes
Telegram & Gazette
April 27, 2016

AR-160429350LEOMINSTER – Dressed in a full protective suit, Monica Cayenne-Robinson stood back a little as beehives behind the Boys and Girls Club of Fitchburg and Leominster were opened for inspection Monday afternoon.

The 14-year-old Leominster High School student didn’t run away as the hive was opened and honeycombs taken out, but she was a little wary of having stinging insects buzzing around her.

“I’m still afraid of them, but I am starting to get to know them better,” she said.

Monica was one of six youths from Fitchburg and Leominster participating in the beekeeping program at the Boys and Girls Club. The program was created three years ago by Jon Blodgett, teen center director at the club and Leominster Police Officer Patrick Aubuchon at the suggestion of Donata Martin, director of the club. It is a work in progress.

Last fall the hives produced a little honey. This year for the first time a hive survived through the winter. All three hives are now swarming with honeybees. With things so far along this spring, Mr. Blodgett said they are hoping to get honey by sometime in the summer, and triple the 25 pounds they got last year.

The program, which is held at the club on Lindell Avenue¬†gives high school and middle school-age youths from Fitchburg and Leominster a chance to experience something they may not have considered growing up and also to learn about the honeybee, one of nature’s most essential and endangered insects.

An earlier science project got Laura Jenny, 17, interested in the beekeeping program. Working with local farms, she said, she learned how pesticides were affecting crops and the bees that pollinate them.

“When I did the science project I realized how important bees were to everything we do because they are a main source of pollination for our crops,” she said. “Obviously if we don’t have bees we lose that source and we lose our food sources, too.”

What really sparked Laura’s interest was a chance to see a hive close up this summer with a professor who worked with her on her science project. She said she knew the club had a beekeeping program, but she never thought about joining it until she learned more about bees.

“Before that I wasn’t interested in them,” she said, “I thought, ‘They’re bees. Like, they sting.’ When I got to see them up close and saw how neat the hive was, that’s really when I got really interested in them.”EP-160429350

After seeing the hive, she went to Mr. Blodgett and said she wanted to sign up.

The students came to the program for a variety of reasons. Brett Houck, 16, a student at Leominster High School, said he joined the beekeeping program because it looked interesting, but also because it was a chance to challenge himself.

“I used to be afraid of bees,” he said. “I faced my fears and now I am not scared anymore.”

Brett said he was stung once and is careful around the bees, but is not afraid of them. On Monday, he volunteered to be the one to smoke the bees. It required him to stand next to the hive and pump smoke onto the bees to calm them down. Ignoring them buzzing around him, he kept pumping the puffs of smoke as Mr. Blodgett took the boxes apart to inspect the bee-coated combs.

The program offers the students insight into the life cycle of the bees, the roles of the queen drones and worker bees, their ability to make honey and reasons for the honey and the challenges facing bees.EP-160429350 (2)

Honeybee populations have suffered significant losses since 2007, from various causes, including colony collapse syndrome. From 2007 to 2013 almost 6 million beehives were lost. Because of concern over the health of the hives, Mr. Blodgett said, they regularly check the hives to ensure that the queen and the other bees appear healthy.

Mr. Blodgett and the students care for the bees throughout the year, feeding them sugar packets and sugar water in the winter and spring until they make enough honey to sustain the queen and new drones and workers. He said this week the bees were eating less of their sugared water, an indication they were bringing in nectar from plants.

Mr. Blodgett said he and Officer Aubuchon were not trained beekeepers before they started the program. They learned on the job and from local beekeepers. They also attended a beekeepers school last year run by the Worcester County Beekeepers Association. He said they had hoped to attend again this year but there is so much interest now in beekeeping the classes were filled.

The program is open to students from Fitchburg and Leominster taking part in the Boys and Girls Club programs, but limited by the number of suits. Some of the equipment for the program, including the suits, was purchased in part with a $1,000 grant from Burt’s Bees Co., which offers grants to student science programs.