by Alaina Mabaso
Chestnut Hill native and Norwood Fontbonne alumna Elizabeth Franklin, 35, is on a mission to help her students see nature’s bigger picture. Now in her fifth year teaching science to sixth and eighth-graders at Germantown Academy in Fort Washington, she’s excited to be finishing her first year in the Academy’s brand-new LEED-certified building, enjoying a new push for lessons inspired by the natural world.
She recounts the experience of an Academy colleague who teaches science for pre-kindergarten to second grade. “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” she asked her youngsters. They replied that the egg came first, of course, but she asked, “Where did the egg come from?”
The kids were confused. Mom buys it at the grocery store, they said.
Franklin hopes any of several eco-inspired initiatives that go along with the Academy’s new energy-efficient building (including storm-water collection and composting) will help put students back in touch with the world outside their homes and classrooms. But nothing excites her more than two brand new beehives that have been recently installed on the school’s roof.
“It’s a really valuable learning tool!” she says, praising Head of School Jim Connor’s support for installing the bees.
While no students have been allowed to participate yet in any hive inspections, “the interest in it is huge,” she says of students’ reaction to the new tenants. One initial five-minute bee-themed classroom session rapidly turned into an entire class period as students deluged her with questions about how the bees’ colony worked. She put a few important questions to the class as well.
“Why do we keep bees?” she asked.
Her students, unaware of the bees’ importance as pollinators, replied that we do it because we want their honey. It was the perfect chance to explain the honeybees’ vital role in our ecosystem.
Franklin is new to beekeeping, but is proving an enthusiastic devotee of her first two colonies, headed by queen bees named Becky and Rafaela. She began her first beekeeping class through the Montgomery County Beekeeping Association in March, and the bees destined for the Academy’s brand-new pair of Langstroth hives arrived with their queens just a few weeks ago.
With an undergraduate degree in botany preceding her graduate-level teaching certification from Temple, Franklin finds the educational hives a natural extension of her interests.
For now, the bees are being fed with sugar water and pollen while they build their combs; it takes some time before there’s enough honey to share. But that’s OK: “our primary goal is to make people understand that it’s OK to have bees,” Franklin says. A beehive close by can seem like a worrisome proposition to many people, but Franklin’s mantra is that 70% of bee stings are actually the work of wasps. Honeybees, which die upon unleashing their sting as a last line of defense, typically sting only when stepped on or when they feel their hive is threatened.
“It’s not resistance; it’s more of an unawareness,” Franklin says of those who don’t know how beneficial bees are to our environment, and might worry about installing bees at a school. “The beehives are a tool for students to learn mutualism and animal behavior,” she adds.
As students don backpacks and stream out the front doors for home far below, a rooftop inspection reveals the progress the Germantown Academy bees have made in the weeks since they moved in. In a Langstroth hive, the most commonly used hive in the US today, several flat frames sit vertically inside the hive’s boxed layers.
They are specially designed to hold the honeycomb that the bees build (or “draw out”) to hold their honey and young (“brood”), while also being easily removable by human hands for inspection and honey harvest. This ease of handling is achieved by leaving a tiny, carefully calibrated gap between frames known as “bee space”: large enough for the bees to fit into and small enough that they do not seal the frames together with a substance called propolis.
In a beekeeper’s boxy, veiled headdress and gloves, Franklin uses a page of The New York Times to kindle some smoke in a metal bee-smoker, which looks like a piece of the Tin Man got stuck to a miniature bellows. The colony rallies, and the air grows thick with the humming of more and more bees as Franklin carefully inspects each frame, noting pockets of deep red pollen and growing brood. Many of the bees sport plump, jaunty dabs of yellow or red pollen on their hips. But nobody stings.
With 160 lush acres bordering the Wissahickon Creek (Germantown Academy moved to the spacious grounds in Fort Washington in 1965 following 200 years in Germantown), the bees are sure to have a busy summer.
“We have such an awesome property for academic learning,” Franklin says, looking forward to more chances for her students to connect with the bees and a bigger world. “I want to help kids see the cycle we’re all part of.”