Beekeeping with Brother Rice Junior High

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The Brother Rice Junior High Food Security Project is funded by Conservation Corp NL’s Youth Engagement Funding Initiative (YEFI) 

Happy Pollinator Week! We’re taking a look at the Brother Rice Junior High beehive! Brother Rice Junior High (BRJH) began their Food Security Project in 2016. Since then, they have worked on developing of green space at the school, hydroponic gardening, vermicomposting (that’s composting with worms!), and starting their very own beehive.

Housed at the Memorial University (MUN) Botanical Garden, the BRJH beehive is part of a program with  BRJH’s Literacy Enrichment and Academic Readiness for Newcomers (LEARN) program. Suzanne Fitzpatrick is the LEARN teacher at BRJH, and she noticed students’ enthusiasm when she introduced hydroponic gardening, a method of growing plants without soil using a water-based solution with minerals and nutrients, into her classes a few years ago. Hydroponic gardening was a hit because it was hands-on, but also because many students who are newcomers to Newfoundland and Labrador have trouble finding familiar foods in the grocery stores, or, when they do, those foods can be prohibitively expensive. Growing their own fruits, vegetables and herbs was one way Suzanne taught her students about food sustainability and increased her students’ food security.

However, Suzanne soon realized there might be a problem with the hydroponic gardens. And beekeeping might just be the solution.

Two students stand in front of their hydroponic garden.
Students in the LEARN program at Brother Rice Junior High tend to their hydroponic garden. Photo courtesy of Suzanne Fitzpatrick. May 2019.

Who are the Pollinators?

Most fruits and vegetables require pollinators to reproduce. Without pollinators, many plants would fail to produce the fruits, vegetables and herbs we eat. 

As Todd Boland, Horticulturist at the MUN Botanical Garden, explained, “Pollinators are any organisms which carry pollen from flower to flower, a process which is required for sexual reproduction in plants. Insects are the main pollinator, especially bees, beetles and butterflies, but in other parts of the world, bats and birds may also be important pollinators.” 

The BRJH gardens are located inside, and this posed a big problem; how would the plants be pollinated? “Students originally came up with the idea of getting bees when we were confronted with the task of pollinating hydroponically grown tomatoes indoors,” said Suzanne. “My naivete and ignorance of the complexity and cost of owning a beehive allowed me to enthusiastically go forward with the idea.”

At first, Suzanne thought adding a beehive to the students’ food security efforts would solve the problem. Due to restrictions on beekeeping in many areas, they spent months finding a suitable spot for their beehive. Finally, they settled on the MUN Botanical Garden. But would this solve their problem?

Not quite. After taking an apiary class online, Suzanne realized that beekeeping was more complex (and interesting!) than she anticipated. The students became the pollinators of their own gardens, gently brushing each plant flower with a paint brush to transfer the pollen from plant to plant.

Women hold a screen with honey comb on it while three students look on.
Karen Youden Walsh, a Lodgy Bay beekeeper and member of the Newfoundland and Labrador Beekeepers Association (NLBA) teaches students at BRJH about caring for bees. Photo courtesy of Suzanne Fitzpatrick. June 2019.

The Hive

Nonetheless, Suzanne and the students forged ahead with their beekeeping efforts. In June 2019, Karen Youden Walsh, a Lodgy Bay beekeeper and member of the Newfoundland and Labrador Beekeeping Association (NLBA), visited BRJH to teach the students about beekeeping. That same month, the class visited G&M Family Farm in Placentia Bay to learn about bees and beekeeping from Gerard Smith and his team.

Suzanne and her students have learned a tremendous amount about bees since they started their beekeeping project in 2019. “What has really surprised me is how much there is to learn about bees and beekeeping, and how absolutely amazing honeybees are,” said Suzanne. “For example, the workers all have specific tasks for life, including acting as undertakers who remove dead bees from the hive. Their social structure is amazing and their dedication to the survival of the colony is awe-inspiring. The beekeepers have all been incredibly supportive and have been a huge asset. We would never have a beehive without them freely giving their time and knowledge to support us, and loaning us equipment.”

In July of 2019, the BRJH students received their nucleus colony, a small honeybee colony created from a larger colony, from another beekeeper in the province. 

Man stands before a table with jars of honey leading a demonstration to a room full of students.
Suzanne’s class visited G&M Family Farm to learn about beekeeping. Photo courtesy of Suzanne Fitzpatrick. June 2019.

Mahmoud Hiddo, a father of one of the students, volunteered to teach the students how to care for their new hive. Mahmoud has extensive experience as a beekeeper. His family moved to Newfoundland from Syria, where he grew up keeping his own bee hives. Suzanne spent time at the hives with Mahmoud, and found some of his methods quite different than expected. “It was surprising to discover some experienced beekeepers – like Mahmoud – don’t wear any protective clothing,” she said. “Mahmoud says, ‘I go to be with the bees.’ I didn’t think that was possible.”

The Future Beekeepers of BRJH

Since their hive arrived last summer, the students have learned about bees and beekeeping from Mahmoud and waited through the long winter. Suzanne said that beekeeping, along with other aspects of the Food Security Project, have had a positive impact on the students. “The students love it and participate with enthusiasm whether it is visiting the hive, growing food hydroponically or working in the garden. We have had a lot of really fun times, despite the hard work which is often involved,” she said. “It has really lifted learning science off the page and taken us out of the classroom, so students are learning experientially and with an inquiry based focus.”

Man stands in front of a pond holding a screen covered in bees and honeycomb.
Mahmoud Hiddo at the BRJH beehive. Photo courtesy of Suzanne Fitzpatrick. June 2020.

The project has also made Newfoundland and Labrador feel more like home for many students. “For most students who are recently arrived refugees, it also allows them to connect with an aspect of their former life – growing food – and it helps connect them to their new home, because they learn that despite the cold, we can grow a lot of food here on the island,” Suzanne explained. “Their families have also gotten involved and been instrumental to our success. Many have visited our classroom to see the hydroponics and have welcomed plants into their homes and gardens.”

Early this June, the weather became warm enough that Mahmoud was finally able to reopen the hive. As schools had closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the BRJH students were not there to see that their bees had successfully weathered the long Newfoundland winter. Suzanne is looking forward to welcoming the students back to the hive soon. “Long term, I am really hoping that if our bees thrive we will be able to provide nucleus colonies in future to our parent beekeepers and help them establish their own apiaries,” she said. “Several students are keen participants, so I’m hoping they will become future beekeepers, too.”

Learn more about Conservation Corps NL’s Youth Engagement Funding Initiative (YEFI) here.

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