Fronted with an instantly-recognisable Victorian school design, Orford Primary School provides a friendly, inclusive learning environment for its pupils. It is set in the beautiful Suffolk coastal town of Orford and has a catchment area of the parishes of Gedgrave, Iken, Butley, Sudbourne and Chillesford. With its own weather station (sponsored by Orford Sailing Club), a dedicated IT annexe and a pioneering array of solar panels on its rear extension roof, the school represents a great asset for the community. And on the last day of Science Week in March 2015, I was preparing to take my bees to school.
It had seemed like a good idea at the time. That time was last September, when Debbie Gayler took over the joint headship of Aldeburgh and Orford Primary Schools and I offered to bring the bees in to show to the children. Now it was mid-March, 5C and in the middle of a solar eclipse, with a clammy, dank light fading perceptibly. And I was decanting Queen Beryl and 5 frames of bees out of Snape Hive and putting them into a glass observation hive to take into the school. Suddenly, it didn’t seem such a good idea, after all.
But the time had come. I had long thought that, since the pupils can see the hives from their playground, I should satisfy their curiosity, broaden their education and pique their interest in their neighbouring bees. So to introduce them by name, the two cedar hives are called Snape and Iken, named after local villages and the experimental poly-hive in the middle is called Castle. Because it looks a little like Orford Castle.
So I introduced the children from Aldeburgh and Orford Schools to their local bees in Assembly. And also to my lovely assistant and wife, Sarah. Just as well for that preamble, since in the nick of time, the School lap-top, my memory-stick and the projector started talking to each other, so that my narration of bees going about their business in all months of the year and could fall into place with the pictures. Things were definitely starting to look up.
An observation hive has a single-frame of bees with the Queen, bees, eggs, larvae, sealed brood and some honey on it, inside a viewing section with two glass-sides. This is fixed on top of a nucleus (half-size) hive with 4 frames of bees and a frame of food in it, to keep the bees busy inside the hive. It is a secure installation for both bees and spectators, but the precaution of fixing it in place with a ratchet strap, just like all my hives in the apiary, always seems like a wise idea.
It was a pleasure to take questions about honeybees from all ages of this well-disciplined, but bright and cheerful group of children. There was one question which referred to the Queen’s mating flight and which needed delicate handling, but I think Queen Beryl’s blushes were spared.
At the lunch-break I was given my first School Dinner for 35 years – and my compliments to the chef ! Orford School has worked closely with the Jamie Oliver Foundation to disseminate The Teaching Garden Project to other local schools – and its teaching kitchen adds an invaluable dimension to the educational facilities for the area’s schools.
The school has own organic vegetable and herb garden in which all the children work. Which is great for my bees, who gather pollen and nectar from the plants. Pollination helps the plants become more fertile and productive. Thanks for your gardening work, everyone !
Bees eat lunch, too, you know.
After lunch, we set up the Observation Hive in the centre of the IT room (once again strapping it down securely)
and a bee-jacket and blue glove Dressing-Up station at one end of the room
and a touch-zone with real Propolis
and real Pollen displayed at the other.
And what bee-education day would be complete without a honey tasting ? Here’s a tip which you can try yourself. Take a spoonful of local honey, pop it in your mouth, close your eyes and just hold it on your tongue for a count of five. Just taking this little extra time will reward you with a real release of flavours…
Then we divided up each class into three groups, so that they could rotate around the room and ask questions about each exhibit in turn.
Yes. Looking through a bee-veil does slightly change your view of the world. It makes seeing things a little harder, but it gives you protection. It is important that adults and children should never consider approach bee-hives without proper protective clothing and only while accompanied by an experienced beekeeper.
The sun was shining, after the glum, clouded solar eclipse, as we took the Observation hive back to the apiary and replaced its frames in Snape Hive. The way to think of a bee-hive is as a single organism, with its own personality, habits and even its very own smell, which comes from the particular odour of each hive’s Queen. The bees reunited bees soon settled back into Snape hive.
In many ways, a happy, healthy bee-hive is just like a bustling, buzzing school. Everyone gets on well together and works hard to get the day’s tasks done.
At the end of the day, our goal had been achieved: a spoonful of education about Orford’s bees. And a little entertainment along the way. Sarah and I really enjoyed being “school-side” for a day. Thank you, Debbie Gayler – and your wonderful staff. And of course, thank you, Orford Primary School children for your hospitality to our bees in your school kitchen garden. I can only repeat the words of Orford resident and writer, Anthony Horowitz, who remarked about Orford School, its staff and its pupils: “What a great place. The sort of school everyone would wish they’d been to.” Quite.