Thomas Jefferson’s new high school will feature an apiary
There’s a buzz at the new Thomas Jefferson High School — literally.
Over the hillside behind the school, surrounded by trees and brush and a six-foot fence, a bee apiary, with roughly 60,000 honey bees in four hives, sits waiting to educate students this fall.
The apiary is a rarity for a public high school in western Pennsylvania.
“We’re in a prime time right now that we can do some amazing environmental-based things here,” said teacher Dan Giger. “There’s a lot of education that we can push out to kids and this is just the start of it.”
Giger had presented plans for an apiary at the school — along with several other environmental features — back in 2015 to the then construction committee working on the new Thomas Jefferson High School that will now open this fall at 830 Old Clairton Road.
Fast forward a few years and Laurie Woodward, 42, of Pleasant Hills was interviewing for a job in the West Jefferson Hills School District to be the secretary of special education, when superintendent Michael Ghilani asked her about her hobbies.
Woodward, along with the help of her son, Liam, 17, an upcoming senior at TJ, were trying their hands at beekeeping.
Woodward leased a space at Burgh Bees in Homewood, a community apiary, as a hobby.
During her interview in the district, Ghilani asked her if she’d like to take her hobby to the new high school. She wanted a year to try it, she said, and see if it worked first.
“I appreciate her initiative,” Ghilani said. “The great thing about bees is that they’re so important to our environment and our ecosystem. What better way to promote our environment and ecosystem than this?”
Liam, who got interested quickly in bees, then kept pursuing it, asking Giger if they could truly make it happen.
The rest was history.
In April, the district put gravel and fencing around a space Liam found behind the new school that was perfect for an apiary.
They started with two hives and now have three and one nucleus colony — or a mini hive.
The mom and son duo visit the apiary every week to check on the progress.
Liam can talk in detail about how an apiary works, the science behind it and what needs to be done to keep it thriving.
For Laurie, it’s about ecology and the environment.
“We have a lot of problems environmentally right now and you try to pick things that you can do to help the environment – and this is something small that we can do,” she said.
Honey bees help to pollinate our food, she said.
Liam sees the apiary as a great opportunity for students at TJ to learn.
The plan is to have programs surrounding the apiary held during the school’s new personalized learning time, which gives students open time during the day to explore their interests or get caught up on classroom work with teachers.
He hopes to teach students that honey bees aren’t scary.
“They’re not aggressive at all,” said Liam, who fearlessly opens the hive without gloves. “The only time they sting without you really doing anything is if you stand in front of their hive and just stand there.”
Just before winter is when the bees are most agitated, because they don’t want anybody taking their food before winter, Laurie said.
As a newbie, Laurie admits she’s still learning every day. She sought out the help of Chris Vario, owner of Sonny Rose Ranch in Jefferson Hills, to provide advice on the hives.
“I’ve learned a lot about how bees work,” Liam said. “I didn’t realize how interesting and complicated they were.”
Liam surveyed his classmates and received about 60 responses from students, 12 of which said they’re definitely interested in helping with the apiary and 12 who said they might want to try it.
Giger, who has very preliminary plans for an environmental center at the school, also surveyed teachers and found an interest.
“It’s just an awesome, awesome initiative,” Ghilani said. “There’s so much opportunity down there.”
This is just the start.
They’re seeking grants to get more gear and the hope is to be able to take the entire third-grade class from Jefferson Hills Intermediate School to the apiary when they’re studying pollination.
Laurie even talks about getting grants to add an orchard surrounding the apiary, something the bees would certainly love.