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The Vancouver Waldorf School built a beehive on its grounds as part of an environmental learning initiative to celebrate its 100-year anniversary. Laura Bergstrome, centre left, the school’s communications and events director is a chief beekeeper, and students in caring for the bees.

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On a weekday afternoon last May, Navé Sacchetti looked out her classroom window and saw something she’d never seen before: a swarm of honeybees floating as if a single body.

She put up her hand to alert her teacher at the Vancouver Waldorf School, before gathering with her fellow students in awe to watch the dense formation travel to a nearby tree branch.

“They swarmed in this huge circle for an hour maybe, and they moved up into the tree to find a new place to build their nest,” Sacchetti says, explaining that a swarm happens when a colony gets big enough for the queen bee to fly away in search of a new home, surrounded by about half of her worker bees. Back at the hive, a new queen takes her place. “It was amazing to see in real life.”

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None of the students or teachers were scared by the roving ball of bees, teacher Gwen Elliot says.

“It was fascination. We just observed. No one interfered. It was a very calm, very beautiful experience.”

To Vancouver Waldorf School teacher Gwen Elliot, the bee project provides a valuable hands-on learning experience for students.

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This is in part because the school had built a beehive on its grounds months prior, as part of Waldorf Education’s GreenBee Wildlife Web Initiative, one of several environmental- and social-impact projects that member schools around the world are participating in to mark Waldorf Education’s 100th anniversary on Sept. 19.

With the honeybee population in dangerous decline, the project’s goal is to help save the flying insects, which are essential to global food supply. More than 160 Waldorf schools in Canada, Mexico and the United States alone have installed hives on their grounds.

“The idea is the interconnectedness of all the schools around the world creating a bee network where butterflies and pollinator animals can come and be safe,” says Laura Bergstrome, Vancouver Waldorf School’s communications and events director.

Bergstrome is one of two staff members tasked with chief beekeeping duties at the Vancouver school. She’s an apprentice to head beekeeper and fellow teacher Jason Yates.

The school has also hosted two community study groups to coincide with the launch of their bee program: one an in-depth look at the “inner life of bees,” which took place in the Fall of 2017, the other, a course called “practical beekeeping 101,” which took place the following spring.

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Laura Bergstrome, Vancouver Waldorf School’s communications and events director and chief beekeeper, says the hive has sparked curiosity in students.

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From the get-go, students of all grade levels pitched in to help care for the bees in one way or another.

When the bees first arrived, then-Grade 7 students and their teacher, Elliott, took on a protective role, sitting with them at recess, reading, singing and playing their ukuleles to them. They kept guard to make sure fellow students observed the five-foot bee zone perimeter.

Younger grades helped plant a pollinator-friendly garden bursting with wildflowers and herbs: borage, goldenrod, poppy, lilac, lavender, mint and sunflower among them. The plants attract not only bees but also butterflies and other pollinators, with sparrows, wren, warblers, and robins regularly flitting around them.

“With the younger kids exposed to them, we’re helping them not to be afraid of them,” student Erika Hilton says. “We drew a chalk line so we could all watch them. We’ve all learned to respect them.”

When teachers Yates or Bergstrome do approach the honeybees’ home to check on them, they do so mindfully and delicately, without wearing intimidating protective gear like gloves and a hat with a mesh face cover. The intention is to build a bond and a mutually respectful relationship with the bees, Bergstrome notes.

Vancouver Waldorf School teachers say students are no longer afraid of the bees on campus – rather, they enjoy protecting and learning about them.

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Sometimes, students will come up to Bergstrome to share tidbits like how they noticed fewer or more bees from one day to the next or that they saw bees on the far side of the yard. No matter what they observe, the students are always excited.

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“We all have our eye on them,” she says. “That care is there. There’s a lot of curiosity.”

“It’s nice to know that just by our experience, we’re helping the bee population,” student Siarra Connon says. “It’s nice because before we had bees at school, a lot of people would have probably seen a bee and thought ‘Oh no! Run away from it! It will sting you!’ Now we all live in harmony with the bees.”

The kids’ practical involvement in beekeeping aligns with Waldorf’s experiential approach to learning and its overarching educational principles: to instill concern for others, connection to the world, and contribution to society.

“There’s the joy of seeing what happens with the hive on a daily basis,” Elliott says. “Just by observing them, their intelligence and beauty, we’ve all learned so much. Our science program is more phenomenon-based as opposed to ‘this is how something happens.’ It’s observing and asking: ‘What do you see? What do you think is happening?’ And students come to the conclusion of why something happens. This is a great example of how we learn.”

How the bee project fits the Waldorf model

Rudolph Steiner founded the first Waldorf school in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1919 at the behest of Emil Holt, chief executive officer of the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory. A scholar and philosopher, Steiner had spoken to the company’s workers about the need to revitalize the country after the war. Holt asked him to open a school for employees’ children.

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Steiner is considered the father of “anthroposophy,” the belief that people have the power to transform the world through spiritual self-development. He was interested in music, art, drama, science, agriculture, and architecture – subjects that all play a key role in modern curricula.

All students learn to play flute or recorder in Grade 1 and are encouraged to take up an orchestral instrument beginning in Grade 3, for example. Vocal music is introduced in the first grade as well.

“After the First World War, Steiner was envisioning this education that would really have the human being at the centre so there could be this new social form; in essence, every human has unlimited potential in service to the world and the community,” says Beverly Amico, executive director of advancement with the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America. “It’s the same mission for the future that is calling on us now.

“Why bees? We’re looking at the best educational tasks initiatives around Waldorf’s 100th anniversary for a revitalized society, one that enhances our relationship with the earth and one another,” she says.

Today there are more than 250 Waldorf schools throughout North America, and hundreds more in other parts of the world. Tuition costs vary from one location to the next. The same teacher typically stays with the same class for five to eight years to get to know the students.

For the GreenBee Wildlife Web, Waldorf Education is partnering with multiple community groups, such as Pollinator Partnership, Spikenard Farm Honeybee Sanctuary, and the Children’s Screen Time Action Network.

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“So much is known about the plight of the honeybee,” Amico says. “We felt we could take on, in a worldwide sense, something that is a universal challenge. We wanted to take action and make an impact. These kinds of environmental initiatives are core to Waldorf Education.”

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