Twelve years ago, headteacher Dora Plant sent three staff on a beekeeping course. This led to a meeting with beekeeper Yvonne Kilvington, who subsequently began working as an outdoor learning assistant at Ashbrow. The school began to take beekeeping to heart, partnering with a range of organisations to build a wealth of goodwill around what is now a nine-colony apiary.
Today, the pupils, and also their parents and grandparents, share a sense of pride and ownership in the project, which featured on the BBC's Gardeners' World last summer.
As with many groundbreaking school initiatives, the children were inspired by an assembly. Yvonne was keen to educate pupils about the important ecological role bees play in the natural environment - and her talk captivated the children. Keen to capitalise on their enthusiasm, Yvonne worked with Dora Plant to explore how to make bees part of Ashbrow's Cornerstones Curriculum and Forest School status. 'We saw beekeeping as a practical opportunity to enhance our curriculum, providing pupils with outdoor learning experiences about the lifecycle of bees, and their crucial importance in the pollination of crops and flowers,' says Yvonne. 'We also wanted to create a family project, with a focus on mental health and wellbeing.'
Yvonne was able to establish the first hive with donations of £250 from the school fund and £200 from the Huddersfield Beekeeping Association. Local beekeepers were also keen to help young people learn more about bees, and donated gloves, suits and hives, while two beekeeping equipment suppliers, Thorne and Sheriff, gave discounts on kit. 'We let the grass grow in our school garden so we could create a wildflower meadow, and local garden centres donated end-of-season seed packets and plants,' says Yvonne. 'The project has generated a lot of community goodwill, with parents and grandparents volunteering to help in the garden, and activities have expanded into keeping rescue hens and ducks.' The school furthered its environmental initiatives by successfully applying for a lottery grant of £4,000 to invest in a Ridan food composter. This recycles all food waste from the kitchens to create fertiliser for the vegetable beds, which, in turn, produce fresh, healthy food for the kitchen to use. Any surplus vegetables are sold alongside Ashbrow honey at the school's harvest festival, with proceeds channelled back into the apiary and garden. Some Ashbrow pupils have ventured further afield, winning first prize in the honey confectionery category for their homemade honey sweets at the Yorkshire Beekeepers Honey Show in Harrogate.
In July 2019, the school held its first 'Bee Festival', supported by a £200 grant from the British Beekeepers Association (BBKA), which was used to purchase a trophy and other equipment, such as the coloured candle wax sheets for making rolled candles in one of the workshops. 'The BBKA also helped with publicity, featuring us in its magazine and putting other schools (and the BBC!) in touch with us - and we're very grateful for that,' says Yvonne.
Ashbrow has a two-form entry, and there are now enough hives for KS1 and KS2 classes to look after one each. Pupils spend one afternoon per week on the project. In the winter, they learn about natural history, microscopy, selection, breeding and honey harvesting. They also learn how to make candles, lip balm, soaps and hand cream, and how to use all the products from the hive.
In the spring, the children don protective suits to enter the apiary and inspect the bees. They check that the queen is laying her eggs, that the colony is healthy and happy and increasing in numbers so that they are ready for the summer. With the help of a local master beekeeper, they've even tried their hand at bee breeding, grafting bee eggs from the wax cells into artificial ones to raise new queens from the best stock.
The project has empowered children and their families, says Yvonne. 'I remember one boy whose confidence in the classroom was pretty low, but spending time outside with the bees had a huge impact on his school work. He felt good about himself as he achieved things he thought he never would - and this is the case with a lot of children.'
As word of the Ashbrow apiary has spread, Yvonne has become involved with an important new funding initiative that has enabled five schools and one college campus in South Yorkshire to set up apiaries of their own. She is head beekeeper at the David and Jane Richards Family Foundation (DJRFF), which was set up by Sheffield-born technology entrepreneur David Richards and his wife, Jane, to provide more than £1million to support practical initiatives in both beekeeping and computer science. David, the founder and CEO of software company WANdisco, is a passionate beekeeper and both he and Jane see beekeeping as a valuable way for children to learn about nature, organisation and production. Their foundation was launched last year and will donate £2,000-£3,000 to individual schools to cover the cost of equipment, school membership of the BBKA, and the purchase of bees. Their aim is that the apiaries will be a valuable teaching resource to enrich the curriculum and help children learn about the living world around them.