The New Bee Bubble

Photo Above: Sustainable Food Center Apiary with Brandon Fehrenkamp of Austin Bees and Tara Chapman of Two Hives Honey.

Move over schoolyard-bird wranglers. If nonprofits Whole Kids Foundation and The Bee Cause Project have their way, the beehive may just be the new chicken coop. The two organizations have partnered to offer schools and other community entities several types of grants to help save the bees through education, observation and hands-on care. Schools can apply to receive an indoor or outdoor observation hive, an outdoor top-bar hive or a monetary grant to start or enhance their own beekeeping program. Each school awarded the grant gets to work with a volunteer bee mentor—sourced locally from beekeeping associations—and receives training, curricula and equipment to ensure their program is sustainable.

Why all the buzz about bees? As you’ve most likely heard, bees are in trouble. The U.S. honeybee population is rapidly declining—at a 30 percent annual rate per some estimates—leading the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to place several species of bees on the endangered species list in early 2017. (Experts blame habitat loss, pesticides and parasites for the decline.) And because one in three bites of our food is reliant on pollinators such as honeybees, the bee-pocalypse is not just sad for the bees; it could affect food sources for future generations. 

And that’s where education comes in—the primary mission of the two apiophile (that’s a fancy word for bee-lover) organizations. “Our biggest focus is education, and making sure that kids, parents and staff all feel that level of comfort and understand how important pollinators are,” says Kim Herrington, school programs and finance director for Whole Kids Foundation.

But if the thought of stinging insects swarming around kids on the playground has you feeling squeamish, you’re not alone. Educating both kids and adults about bee care and safety is also paramount to the beekeeping initiative. “One of the things that we really focused on in the beginning was to get a better understanding about bees and safety; about how to implement hives in a school and how to share that information so that parents feel comfortable, and then, the staff and administration feel comfortable,” says Herrington. “We created a lot of information tools for that purpose, well before we could help put beehives in a school. Just to get the schools ready for it.”

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Photo Above: Katelyn Thompson with an observation hive at Ashley Hall in Charleston, S.C.. Photo by Beth McCarty.

The honeybee grant program began in 2013, when The Bee Cause Project was founded in Savannah, Georgia, to educate the next generation on the importance of honeybees and why they’re critical to sustaining us. “It’s scary to have ‘bees’ and ‘kids’ in the same sentence, much less the same campus,” says Tami Enright, The Bee Cause’s executive director. But that fear didn’t last long. After piloting the program with schools in Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Enright discovered the new nonprofit couldn’t keep up with the demand. “The principals were into it, the students were into it, the parents were into it. We were just basically completely open and honest and said, We think the best way to get approval is to go through your PTO board, tell them what you want to do and why you want to do it, and let’s see who’s open to the idea. And NO ONE SAID ‘NO,’” she recalls with disbelief.

These early adopters set the stage for positive reviews and word-of-mouth among teacher friends across the country, which created a need to formalize the process. Enter Whole Foods Market in Austin, who heard about the brand-new nonprofit and did a 5-percent community giving day in the stores to fund a hive for a school in the area.

So far, the two organizations have funded beehives in 46 states and four countries—50 in 2016 and 150 since the program’s inception. Three of those grants have been awarded in Austin: one to Austin Montessori School, one to Austin Discovery School and one to Sustainable Food Center. 

Feedback from students has been overwhelmingly positive. Enright says it’s amazing to witness kids develop caretaking skills and empathy for the bees. “The kids actually have this classroom pet that they’re taking care of,” she says. “The conversations just start naturally happening. If they aren’t seeing bees in the garden, they’re asking, Are the bees healthy? Are we spraying things on the garden that’s killing the bees? Do we have year-round bloom for the bees? Do we have a water source? So the kids start giving the bees TLC, and when you start caring for something, the fears dissipate.”

By Anne Marie Hampshire 

Honeybee grant applications will be open September 1–October 31, 2017. For more information about the program and how to apply, visit wholekidsfoundation.org and thebeecause.org