Agricultural Literacy Grant awarded to Honeybees in the Classroom: “It’s all for the kids”

In Minnesota, Butterfield-Odin Public School’s third-grade teacher, Jen Harris, brings an observation hive into her classroom each fall. Students first think the honeybees will escape and sting. After Harris reassures them, and they take a good look at the hive, it’s hard for the students to pull away. They don’t want to miss anything. In the past, some students have even witnessed baby bees hatch.

Harris calls her project Honeybees in the Classroom, and it recently received an Agricultural Literacy Grant valued at $650 from Minnesota Agriculture in the Classroom. The grant will help Harris teach the students about different bee products that aren’t just everyday honey.

“I was very excited, to say the least when I found out I’d gotten chosen,” said Harris. “It’s all for the kids.”

Honeybees are crucial to Harris because they’re starting to disappear. Different theories behind the cause range from cell phone tower usage to insecticides and pesticides.

“I feel it’s just more important than ever to educate the kids on what they can do to help the bee population,” said Harris. “One that really stands out is dandelions. As kids, all of us, I’m sure, picked the dandelions and brought them in [for] our teacher, mom, or whatever. But I always tell the kids, don’t spray the dandelions because in the spring, what’s the first thing that pops up in our lawns? Dandelions. That’s one of the honeybees’ first foods or sources of nectar.”

Harris finds it amazing how many parents return to her to say, “Thanks, Mrs. Harris. We can no longer spray our dandelions,” and Mrs. Harris tells them, “That’s good!” After learning in the classroom, the kids are sharing with their families and helping to keep the honeybee alive.

“If the honeybee disappears, we humans will be gone, too,” said Harris, “because we’re so dependent on them pollinating for us.”

Harris didn’t think much about honey bees before she married a beekeeper. Her husband and brother-in-law started the Trimont Fruit Farm in the early 1970s before taking over the honeybee business. The duo had up to eight or ten different yards of bees. It’s currently at four or five yards. Harris remembers gearing up in a bee suit and tagging along to do her photography, another of her hobbies.

“When my husband passed away, I thought, this is going to be the end of me having access,” said Harris. “My brother-in-law assured me, no, it would not.”

Harris has focused plenty on the educational side of it all, also having taken part in 4-H programs.

“It’s a never-ending learning process,” said Harris. “Every year I do it with the kids, I learn more.”

Harris first learned about Minnesota Agriculture in the Classroom around six or seven years ago after subscribing to an agriculture magazine.

“I mean, we’re right in the middle of agriculture here in Southern Minnesota,” said Harris. She sees it as an excellent opportunity for the kids to learn because a lot of them have no idea what agriculture is all about.

Two summers ago, Lucille Amman, B-O fifth-grade teacher, invited Harris to a Minnesota Agriculture in the Classroom tour, where educators visited a variety of ag businesses, ranging from a hog farm to a winery.

Harris then learned about monthly project kits from Wanda Patsche, Regional Ag Curriculum Specialist for Southern Minnesota. Patsche sends out monthly emails, explaining the month’s project, and asking educators if they’re interested. For example, around homecoming, Harris’ class visited an apple orchard in Fairmont, and the month’s project kit was about growing apples. The students experienced hands-on learning and got to make apple pie in a cup.

When the Agricultural Literacy Grant was nearing its due date in November 2019, Harris started thinking and asked Patsche if her Honeybees in the Classroom project would be the right choice. Patsche thought it was perfect.

As part of the grant paperwork, Harris had to budget her project. After flipping through a mixture of catalogs, pictures, and informational books, Harris listed supplies to make beeswax candles, posters, honey field candy, tiny two-ounce jars for honey samples, and more for the students to try and create products made from honey.

Later plans for Harris include putting a video together of the honey extracting process to show how honey ends up in a jar. Harris currently only has pictures.

Harris would also like to explore cooking more with honey. Once she becomes more comfortable with it, she’ll be sure to share it with the students—a project to think about for next year. 

Originally published in St. James Plaindealer on January 23, 2020.

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