Wake County high school students raise bees in their backyards

When nearly 16,000 bees arrived at her home in crates Thursday afternoon, Tracy Taylor put on a protective suit and gloves and got to work.

Taylor, a senior at Wakefield High School in Raleigh, had built a wooden box in her backyard to house the bees as part of a school project. On Thursday, she helped Mellisa Schug, co-owner of Oak City Bees, carefully transfer the insects from the crates to their new home.

When a dozen escaped, buzzing loudly, Taylor got nervous.

“It was kind of surreal to see all those bees. I didn’t think there’d be that many,” said Taylor, 18. “It was kind of like from a horror movie, but it was really cool seeing them all there and knowing that’s going to be in my backyard for a couple of months.”

Sixteen families are hosting beehives as part of a project launched by Jodi Riedel, a horticulture and food science teacher at Wakefield High. Riedel wants to help her students learn how to care for bees and combat colony collapse disorder, which occurs when a large group of worker bees in a colony disappear or die and leave the queen bee behind.

Beekeepers in the United States lost 44 percent of their honey bee colonies between April 2015 and April 2016, according to a survey by the Bee Informed Partnership. The declining bee populations have alarmed agriculture advocates and farmers because the insects pollinate many crops.

Riedel and her students hope to become part of the solution. Their mantra? “Don’t be a hater, save a pollinator.”

In 2015, Riedel received a $175,000 grant from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund in Research Triangle Park to support projects for five years at Wakefield High. Last year, her students studied fermentation and grew mushrooms on toilet paper.

Over the summer, Riedel visited a bee care center in Research Triangle Park built by global health care and agriculture company Bayer, and she decided to try a bee project.

To prepare, students built boxes for the beehives and learned how to care for the hives. They also made lip balm from bee products.

Riedel partnered with Oak City Bees because one of her former students, Hayden Schug, started the company. Schug is now an agriculture student at N.C. State University.

“I just realized how important it was for us to really do something to be advocates for bee health and bee populations,” Riedel said. “We need to advocate for the bees, since they don’t really have a voice, and ensure they have a sustained population and bright future because we need them for our crops and for all parts of the ecosystem.”

Host families for the beehives, which include current and former Wakefield students and teachers, will care for the bees until July 1. Then they can choose to continue housing the bees or give them back to the school, which will give them to another family.

Nick Grantham, a freshman at Wakefield who volunteered to host a beehive, hopes the bees will produce honey, but he mostly wants to learn how to care for them. He grows carrots, radishes, rosemary and other foods in his backyard.

“I’ve always liked bees and pretty much everything agriculture-related,” Grantham said. “I’m very excited.”

Madison Iszler: 919-836-4952; miszler@newsobserver.com