Menlo School students master the art and science of raising bees, harvesting honey and selling wax.

By Angela Swartz

Menlo School beekeeping club members with adviser and biology teacher Tanya Buxton, far right, in their suits during the first week of the 2021–22 school year. (Courtesy Jane Ridgeway)

It’s not every day that you hear a student say they switched schools, in part, to join a beekeeping club, but that was the case of Amory Healy, now a sophomore at Menlo School in Atherton.

Healy, 15, had wanted to transfer to the private school for its academic rigor and theater program when she found the beekeeping group on the school’s Instagram.

“I love how relaxing and fun the club is,” Healy wrote in an email. “I really enjoy having a positive atmosphere to relax and socialize while doing a fun activity.”

Now, she joins a group of up to 10 students at any given time to harvest the honey.

“I also have always loved bees, and really enjoy being able to learn more about them and participate in such a specialized activity.”

There are 36 total members of the unique club, established in 2014 by biology teacher Tanya Buxton. The private school’s three hives are not in the vicinity of where students hang out (one is located near the faculty parking lot), but keep the students busy year-round, producing 36 pounds of honey during harvests about three times a year.

Clockwise from top left: Beekeeping club co-leader Alea Marks uncaps wax on a hive frame at Menlo School in Atherton on Sept. 21, 2021; Junior Alea Marks, left, Alina Hernandez, right, and sophomore Amory Healy, back, process honey and uncap wax on hive frames during beekeeping club activities; Beekeeping club advisor and biology teacher Tanya Buxton pours honey into a glass vial; Lip balm and candles made by the beekeeping club at Menlo School in Atherton; Bottled honey processed by the beekeeping club; Beekeeping club member sophomore Amory Healy uses an electric uncapping knife to free wax and honey from a hive frame. (Photos by Magali Gauthier)

Buxton hopes students take away a genuine concern for the environment and a realization that any human-caused disturbances can greatly affect our pollinators, which, in turn, impacts our food supply.

Fears of bee extinction are growing as the number of species has dropped 25% since the 1990s, according to a recent Bloomberg article. That could be highly detrimental to the environment as a whole. The article states that bees “ensure the reproduction of thousands of plant species and 85% of cultivated crops.”

“Honeybees get a bad rap,” said Buxton, wearing a shirt reading, “Follow the bees and you get honey.”

“You can get stung. People who are allergic have to be much more careful. But they’re non-aggressive; as long as you stay still, you shouldn’t get stung.”

The bees are the western honeybee, the Apis mellifera genetic variety, and do well in this region, she said.

Members of the Menlo School beekeeping club work on one of their hives. (Courtesy Jane Ridgeway)

How the club started

Buxton has been beekeeping for 12 years and keeps bees at her home. She first brought bees to Palo Alto’s Ohlone Elementary School when she taught K-5 science there. With a farm on campus, she taught lessons on gardens and animals.

In the flesh, Buxton conjures up the image of Miss Frizzle from “The Magic School Bus,” an animated children’s series that followed the adventures of a cheerful and eccentric science teacher who brought her students on exciting field trips, including an episode in which her class travels inside a beehive.https://cdn.embedly.com/widgets/media.html?src=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fembed%2FaW2CjyF0ZsM%3Ffeature%3Doembed&display_name=YouTube&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DaW2CjyF0ZsM&image=https%3A%2F%2Fi.ytimg.com%2Fvi%2FaW2CjyF0ZsM%2Fhqdefault.jpg&key=a19fcc184b9711e1b4764040d3dc5c07&type=text%2Fhtml&schema=youtube(via YouTube)

In 2013, a Menlo School student asked her to start a beekeeping club at the school. A year later, after Buxton consulted with neighboring residents and the school nurse (who would make teachers aware of who was allergic to bees on campus), the club came to fruition.

At twice yearly sales, the club sells candles, lip balm, soap, honey sticks, wax food wrap, honeycomb and jars of honey. During the pandemic, the students moved the sale from campus to online.

Buxton said the students gain a new appreciation for honeybees and native bees, and become less fearful of them.

Senior Alina Hernandez had a fear of bees when she joined back during her freshman year. Now a club leader, she has learned an appreciation for the insects.

“It’s a very chill club,” said Hernandez, 18. “[We’ve been] able to have such a hands-on experience and see how much these products come into our everyday lives.”

Menlo School biology teacher Tanya Buxton calls beekeeping “more of an art than a science … You experiment and learn what works.” (Photo by Charles Russo)

Building the hives

Buxton has ordered bees from University of California at Davis, but has also gotten hives from local beekeepers.

About once a year, bees swarm on campus and Buxton, known as the school’s resident beekeeper, is called on to collect them. Swarming occurs when a large group of honeybees leave an established colony and fly off to start a new one, essentially creating two colonies from one. It’s a natural process, the Iowa State University notes. Buxton explained swarms are not aggressive.

Once, she was able to capture a swarm on a redwood tree on the east border of campus. She shook the branch the swarm was attached to and collected them in a box.

Buxton calls beekeeping “more of an art than a science.” “You experiment and learn what works,” she explained.

“Sometimes you lose hives.” For example, she’s noticed hives will die with construction nearby or on days when the air quality is poor.

Interested? Buxton said anyone can start their own hive, but it’s best to be informed before you start it, as it’s important to know how to prevent spreading disease among the bees. She recommends the Beekeepers’ Guild of San Mateo County and Santa Clara Valley Beekeepers Guild for guidance. The San Mateo group also offers beekeeping classes on its website, sanmateobeeguild.org.

Check out the Menlo School’s beekeeping club on Instagram.

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