EUGENE — As they walked in a single-file line from their classroom to the barn, second-grade students from Oak Hill School were clearly nervous.
“My hands are so shaky right now!” one student exclaimed.
The group of 7- and 8-year-old students had been waiting for this all year long: the day they became beekeepers.
As they pulled on their child-size white beekeeper suits, netted hoods and gloves, James Luzzi, the school’s naturalist, explained the importance of remaining calm while handling thousands of bees.
“We’re beekeepers today,” he said, standing in the sun near the big red barn. “And beekeepers are very, very calm.”
The entire second-grade class of 16 students, as well as 20 second-grade students from Triangle Lake Charter School in Blachly, suited up Tuesday to give about 112,000 honey bees new homes in seven separate hives. And even their beekeeper suits couldn’t contain their excitement as the sound of buzzing filled the air.
“There’s a bee on my head!” one student yelled.
“Everyone has bees on their heads,” Luzzi said. “We look great!”
Standing in a circle around the hive that soon would be home to about 16,000 bees, the students listened closely while Luzzi explain how the insects’ re-homing efforts would happen. As the sun broke through the clouds, he reminded them not to make sudden movements that could alarm — or even accidentally kill — the bees.
“Bees are interested in three things: pollen, nectar and water,” Luzzi said. “If they land on you, it’ll take them a little while to realize that you’re not any of those things, so don’t worry if they don’t immediately fly away. The more nervous you are, the more nervous the bees are. But bees are our friends.”
As he opened the small screened box to dump the bees into the hive, some students froze in their tracks; were ecstatic to see honey bees landing on their face nets, arms and heads.
“I was kind of scared they were going to get in my shirt,” said Isabella Hartwig, 7. “I kept getting itchy and thinking it was a bee.”
Each year a new group of second-grade students are in charge of tending to Oak Hill’s bees. They harvest the honey, feed the bees, learn about what it takes to be a beekeeper and the differences between backyard beekeeping and commercial beekeeping.
The bee program, for the most part, is manned by Luzzi, 63, who’s been keeping bees at the school for about seven years. He started working at the school doing part-time landscaping about 12 years ago. Since about 2009, he’s helped each grade to complete various science and environmental projects.
Luzzi has a bachelors of science degree in public policy and philosophy from the University of Oregon. He’s also studied ecology and the natural world for many years and has served as a graduate research fellow at UO’s Institute for Sustainable Environment.
Seven hives’ worth of honey bees at Oak Hill School in South Eugene died this winter, mostly because of cold temperatures, heavy snowfall and prolonged damp conditions in December and January. But Luzzi said that weather wasn’t the only factor in the bees’ demise. Backyard pesticides and chemicals and parasitic mites or other pests also might have contributed to the bee die-off. Food didn’t seem to be a problem; Luzzi said the bees had plenty of honey stored in each of the seven hives, five of which had successfully survived the winter before.
When the students discovered in February that their bees had died, they were devastated. Their response was to organize a bake sale to raise money to buy new bees.
James Pearson, the private school’s director of admissions and marketing, said proceeds from the bake sale and community donations totaled about $950, which was enough money for seven new hives worth of bees.