By Mary Howell, Special to The Catholic Virginian

It’s been a year since Pope Francis’ second encyclical, Laudato Si, challenged Christians to better care for the Earth and all creation. Putting the Holy Father’s words into practice, Blessed Sacrament Huguenot School (BSHS) has partnered with the Huguenot Beekeepers Association (HBA) to install 13 Italian honey bee hives in a new apiary on their 40-acre campus in Powhatan County.

Paula Ledbetter, BSHS’s Head of School, explained, “The beekeepers were looking for a good community hive site just as we received the grants and donations needed to add a Science-Technology-Environmental-Agricultural-Math (STEAM) program to our curriculum.”

The apiary at Blessed Sacrament is experimenting with hives that have a natural finish instead of being painted. The bottom two boxes contain queen bees and their eggs and are known as brood chambers or “deeps,” while the top, shorter hives are called “honey supers.”

The grounds of Blessed Sacrament Huguenot include student-maintained gardens, with nature trails running through meadows and woods, which make it an ideal setting for the tiny honey-makers.

“Our school was chosen over several other potential sites,” Ledbetter said.

HBA Vice President Chuck Burden led construction of the fenced apiary and serves as the Association’s chief liaison with the school.

“Each of the hives houses one queen,” Burden explained. “We feed sugar water to the new brood chambers to help the bees become established, and as each hive grows, watch for swarming behavior – a sign the hive is nearing capacity.”

HBA apiarists maintain the hives and take ‘splits’ off maturing chambers to start new ones, as well as helping educate students about the critical role bees play in the ecosystem.

Blessed Sacrament Huguenot is hosting a community apiary as part of the school’s new environmental education curriculum. From left, science teacher Ruth Frazier, Head of School Paula Ledbetter and Chuck Burden, Vice President of the Huguenot Beekeepers Association.

“Part of our mission is to help more people understand bees’ unique value as pollinators, which far exceeds their value as wax and honey producers,” Burden said. “This apiary can provide a home for up to 600,000 bees, and by next summer we’ll be ready to pull our first harvests of honey and pollen.”

Ruth Frazier, a BSHS science teacher and new HBA member, is excited about the hands-on learning experience the apiary will provide.

“Some activities we plan include repainting hives and planting pollen sources, like wildflowers and clover.”

The initial focus of the apiary will be with elementary school classes, but the school is hiring a part-time teacher to support the STEAM program and planning ways for middle and high school classes to participate.

“Older students can construct hives as part of our woodworking class,” said Frazier, “while the process of mechanically separating honey from its waxy comb can serve as a real-life physics lesson on the uses of centrifugal force.”

She notes that dozens of crops, including apples, berries and other fruits, depend on bees for pollination, and that this apiary is part of a widespread effort to help bee populations rebound.

A decade ago, worldwide attention became focused on dramatic decreases in both North American and European honey bee populations. The phenomenon in which a majority of the worker bees disappear, leaving behind only a few nurse bees and the queen, became known as colony collapse disorder.

While no single cause for colony collapse disorder has been identified, various human activities, including use of pesticides, genetically modified crops and loss of natural habitat, are believed to be contributing factors. In the words of Pope Francis, “Never have we so hurt and mistreated our common home as in the last 200 years.”

The BSH community hive is helping find a solution.

Burden explained, “We are part of the Sentinel Apiary Program studying the parasites and pathogens that threaten hive health, and each month send samples to the University of Maryland for use in research.”

Frazier added, “Learning about bees’ critical role in the agricultural economy will help our students develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills.”

Ledbetter concluded, “Our school is excited to work with HBA, whose mission is to promote new beekeepers through education and technical support, and by doing so help increase the survival and long term viability of this critical insect species.”

Their educational partnership embodies Pope Francis’ assertion, “Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing what is good, and making a new start.”

Chuck Burden shows Ruth Frazier a “Top Bar” hive design.