The bees of Bayfield Kindergarten

Published on Tuesday, 20 April 2021
Last updated on Monday, 19 April 2021

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There’s a buzz in the air at Bayfield Kindergarten!

This early childhood education (ECE) service is a nature lovers’ playground, with bees, worms, flowers and vegetables at every turn, and the kindy has gotten that little bit buzzier, since one of its educators won an ECE Hero Award!

Rae Shurbutt has taken out the gong for Environmental Hero, and she’s responsible for a hive of activity at her ECE service.

With help from the Dunedin community, Rae has converted a wasteland area into a wonderful bee garden at her kindy, and she’s teaching tamariki hands-on lessons about keeping bees and caring for the natural world.

Today, Rae explains how beekeeping works in the early learning environment.

How did you come up with the idea of establishing a bee garden at Bayfield Kindergarten?

Well, the idea for the bee garden began as an interest that several members of our kindergarten committee had in bees. We pursued local beekeepers, but no one was able to take on a new hive instalment.

As my husband and I have kept bees for years, it seemed only natural for me to provide the bees and the apiary know-how.

As we discussed how to safely keep bees at the kindergarten, the back garden seemed like the best choice for the bees and the children, but the area really was a wasteland, with sand for soil and loads of unused equipment.

We submitted a successful grant application to the Otago Regional Council and held two fundraising events to raise money for the garden redevelopment and apiary supplies.

The kindergarten community worked together to enrich the soil, clear out the weeds, lay out garden beds, and build trellising.

This is a beautiful initiative, though bees can sting! How do you ensure that your children are kept safe?

Keeping the beehive in the back of the kindergarten goes a long way towards keeping our humans safe.

We’ve positioned the hive so that the building sits between the hive entrance and the kindergarten playground. This ensures that the building creates a directional barrier to the bees’ flight patterns. Of course, we still get a few bees foraging in our front gardens, but we’ve devoted heaps of time and energy to teaching the children how to move safely among bees, and the tamariki have truly taken the message on board.

They know to give the foraging bees their space and to never swat at a bee if it comes close. Instead, the children know to stand still and wait for the bee to go on its way.   

We’ve marked out an area under a large tree where the children can safely sit and watch the bees as they fly to and from their hive, and we are always revisiting how to safely move around the bees.

That said, both our children and teachers take an active role in caring for the bee garden, and this means getting up close and personal with the bees and their hive.

Last term, the children worked together to create mosaic stepping stones that mark out the safest paths to take as we tend to the gardens for planting, watering, and weeding. The fact that the children made the stepping stones themselves gives them a sense of agency and ownership of the safe practice the stones represent.

Of course, when we need to open the hive for servicing and maintenance, the children and I wear protective apiary suits. We have 10 child-sized suits, which the children take turns using, and on most hive-servicing days, we can work in two groups of 10 tamariki.

My husband (also known as ‘Bee Man Tim’) is a licensed beekeeper, and he comes to help on the days that we open the hive, so there are two experienced adults present to shepherd both bees and children along as we work with the open hive.

Beekeeping is an unusual and rewarding job for preschoolers. What are do you think are the main benefits of having a bee garden at kindergarten?

For starters, the scientific exploration of keeping bees makes for fantastic learning. Honestly, you’d be shocked at how many of our children can tell the difference between worker bees, drones and the queen as they work with the hive!

Our children can tell you what colours of flowers the bees like best, how they collect nectar, and how they store pollen.

Our tamariki are also well-versed in the natural predators that bees need to guard against (particularly wasps), and how plants need bees for pollination.

However, kaitiakitanga (guardianship and protection) is probably the most valuable learning we gain from the bees and bee garden. The children continue to care for our bees and bee garden with a sense of awe, wonder, respect, and intense responsibility. I don’t think any of our children would ever dream of swatting or squashing a bee, so it’s a win for the humans and our buzzy friends.

At the same time, children are coming to understand and internalise how the bees fit into the larger eco-system that we all share.

Best of all, the children pass on this understanding to their friends and family.

How has the community jumped on board with your bee garden?

Parents, whānau and community members have all been extremely supportive and enthusiastic!

Neighbours have donated plants for the garden, and they watch over the fence when the children and I service the hive.

Parents have donated time, compost, bulbs, and plants, as well as building expertise and muscle.

And, of course, the tamariki have proven themselves excellent apiary ambassadors when it comes to protecting and promoting bees in the community. I’ve had many parents and whānau share how their children have taught them what to do when a bee flies near them, and this knowledge sharing is beneficial for our population of bees and people.

Do you have any special plans for the bee garden, going forward?

We are enjoying our first autumn with the bee garden, so are putting in new autumn and winter perennials to help build our bee garden into a multi-season green space.

In the future, we’d like to develop the pathway leading from the playground to the bee garden to create more of a visual and aesthetic link between this largely utilitarian throughfare and the garden itself.

The bee garden is a wonderful place to hang out and be creative, so we are also planning to purchase some outdoor tables, chairs and easels to go under the tree in our safe bee-watching area.

Finally, we are planning to purchase a centrifugal extractor, so that we can harvest honey at Bayfield Kindergarten, allowing the children to experience honey production from start to finish.

Aside from having beekeeping skills, what do you think makes an ECE Hero, and how does it feel to be working in such a life-changing sector?

Ha, ha! Well, the beekeeping skills are surprisingly handy, but seriously, I think curiosity and a sense of adventure are the two most important qualities for ECE teaching. As a teacher, it is essential to want to learn, experiment, and give new things a try. If the teacher has a passion for learning, so will the tamariki!

When I think about how it feels to work in this sector, I am humbled and inspired by an intense sense of purpose and responsibility. As educators, we are setting the stage for how our children feel about learning and how they position themselves as learners.

My goal is to instil a strong sense of confidence, responsibility, agency, and joy in our tamariki as they explore this wonderful world and master the art of learning!

We couldn’t agree more, and thank you for sharing these enriching early learning moments with us.

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