For decades, when people heard the word “beekeeper,” a grandfatherly man in a white bee suit and veil — smoker in one hand, hive tool in the other — probably came to mind. Undoubtedly, his hive was in a sprawling field and the honey it produced was copious, even if getting it out frame by frame was a bit of a challenge.
Whether it was the attention Colony Collapse Disorder generated, the ease of sharing information over the Internet, or a growing environmental awareness, beekeeping is on the rise, and not just for adults. Beekeeping is now a family activity.
If you’re thinking of introducing kids — whether your kids or others — to hive life, what are the top things you need to know to make it great for every living creature involved, from human to honey bee?
When you have a honey flow hive — like those carefully designed and made by Tapcomb®— the physical demands of beekeeping aren’t overwhelming, so you can keep children close during inspections, as well as the honey harvest. Children as young as five can help in various ways, starting out with simple tasks, like placing honey jars under the tap, then moving up to a more active role in brood or hive inspection.
Young children do very well with honey bees when taught to handle them properly. Older children, if not exposed to bees at a young age, may actually be more fearful, but this can be overcome with a little time and patience. As the adult, it’s your job to assess the fear level of the kids in your care and adjust your plan accordingly. Don’t push children to do anything they're scared to do, but don’t be surprised if seeing how comfortable you are around the hive puts their fears to rest. (Of course, a child allergic to bee stings needs to stay away from the hive, no matter how comfortable they are with these industrious little insects. It simply isn’t worth the risk.)
Even before you first approach the hive, explaining why it’s important to move slowly and stay calm is worth the extra minute it takes to do so. Another great way to keep kids focused is to assign everyone a task ahead of time, whether it's holding the smoker, inspecting for mites, or even holding the hive's lid then replacing it when done.
You also want to make sure any kid accompanying you during a hive inspection wears a bee suit and veil, even if you don’t. Your child's bee suit should fit a little loosely, so it’s a good idea to order a size larger than you do for other clothing. As they get older, children may decide not to suit up, but when they’re young and in your care, it’s vital to teach them good habits and keep them from getting stung. It’s also a good idea to have a liquid antihistamine ready, just in case your pint-sized assistant gets stung and has an allergic reaction. Vomiting, needing to use the bathroom suddenly, fainting, and tingling are all signs that a bad reaction is happening, so be ready to call for medical help if you suspect your child has been stung and any of the above is happening.
Once you get safety issues out of the way, you can let science come to the fore. Having children accompany you during hive inspection is a great opportunity to step into the role of teacher. An ongoing lesson plan can include the way insects mate, raise brood, and share the work of running a colony. Honey bees are particularly good examples of this, as they follow a very predictable life cycle. Kids present during hive inspection will see eggs, larvae, and pupae, as well as worker bees taking care of the brood.
The workers also make honey, build and repair comb, and care for the queen, each of which is a lesson in itself. Seeing the workers bring nectar into the hive, as well as all of the capped cells filled with honey, helps kids understand that honey is more than a sweet treat. It also gives them valuable firsthand knowledge of the symbiotic relationship between humans and the wider world.
Bees are incredibly well organized, with every bee bringing their A-game to the task at hand. If you want to teach your kids about the power of teamwork, we can’t think of a better — or more interesting — way to do it.
Whenever you open up a child to the world of beekeeping, you’re opening that child up to a magical world — one that will expand their understanding of our place in the natural world. Expect the experience to be so powerful, it'll stay with them forever.
(One final note: if it isn't children you're thinking of inviting into the beekeeping loop but grownup neighbors, we suggest you read our blog post about the best ways to do it.)