Several bees buzzed around a white, wooden hive last week, as 16 11th graders crowded around in amazement, taking pictures of the bees and peering around classmates to get a better look.
The students from Laverne Castillo’s ecology class at Nelson County High School took a field trip to Jerry Hatter’s home in Nellysford last Tuesday morning to see his 13 beehives and to learn about honey bees.
Hatter is the grandfather of Danny Ellis. to prepare for the trip, Ellis spoke about the importance of bees in agriculture and the types of diseases they suffer from.
The trip was organized by Kim Ellis, Danny’s mom. Castillo said she encouraged the field trip to help bring the material the students are learning in the classroom to life.
“I’m trying to get them aware about what’s going on around them, so it’s not just in books,” Castillo said.
The class has also been to a stream study at the Wintergreen Nature Foundation and heard several speakers talk about ecology, the study of how organisms interact with each other and their natural environment.
During the two-hour visit, Hatter showed the class active and inactive hives, his protective clothing and the two-inch boxes the queen bees are shipped in from Georgia and Kentucky.
He also passed around pieces of honeycomb, crystallized honey and parts of the inactive hive. Students smelled and touched the honeycomb on the wooden sleeves and even offered to buy it from Hatter.
Since the weather was cold and rainy, he did not remove a brooder from the active hive because he did not want to disturb the bees inside. Brooders are the middle boxes in the hive where the sleeves with the honeycomb are stored in rows. However, he described the rotating basketball-sized cluster of bees that generate enough heat to keep the inside of the hive around 96 degrees Fahrenheit.
Hatter also informed the students of the honey bee’s anatomy, its life cycle, its behaviors, how honey is made and the uses of bee products including honey, lip balm and soap. he also explained the importance of bees, saying without them there would be no fruits or vegetables, and that they are the only insect that makes food for humans.
“to me the best part was the kids’ excitement,” Castillo said. “When he lifted the lid (off the hive) and I saw their faces, they won’t forget that.”
Hatter has been interested in bees since the 1950s, but didn’t start working with them seriously until the 1990s. As a child he would find honey in trees with his father.
Now he has 18 hives with 30,000 to 40,000 bees in each. in addition to those at Nellysford, two of his hives are located off Virgina 6 and three are by Devils Backbone Brewing Company. They’re in different locations because a variety of vegetation produces different tasting honey.
He collects between five and seven gallons from each hive a year, a total of 90 to 126 gallons. However, with a good queen he can sometimes get more like the 15 gallons he got from one hive last year. Hatter usually gives his honey away.
“This is my hobby,” he said. “I don’t do it for the money and I don’t do it for a living. I do it because I love it. have you ever seen someone’s face when you give them a jar of honey? Their faces light up.”
Alonzo Jones, one of the students in the class, said the trip was a great experience because it caused him to think about bees in a way he hadn’t thought about before. he also said seeing it in person and hearing from someone who lives the subject is better than reading about it in a book.
Nicolas Catalon, another ecology student, said he enjoyed seeing how the bees interacted with the ecosystem and humans, something they had been learning about in class.
“you learn a lot better in person than learning from a book,” Catalon said. “When you see it in person, it’s a million times better.”
Danny Ellis said it was nice showing his classmates what he sees every day and he hopes this field trip can continue for future classes.
“It’s good for them to learn how bees are important to life,” he said.
Hatter concluded the field trip with a challenge.
“Each of you has something to do with the environment,” he said. “It’s your job, your duty to protect it.”