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Learning from Bees

Learning from Bees

In many ways, Avon Old Farms is like a beehive. Each bee, like the faculty and staff at Avon, has a job that must be performed for the benefit of the rest of the hive. Just like how the mood and behavior of the bees is a result of how well the hive is being run, the positive experience of students is dependent on the school’s continued standard of excellence. Instead of honey, the AOF hive produces something just as sweet¬— a bright future for every student. 

Students at Avon Old Farms have the unique opportunity to observe all of these aspects of a beehive, and more, without leaving campus. The school currently operates three beehives. The hives, which contain more than 50,000 bees combined, are used to gain a better understanding of the local ecosystem, for the future collection of honey, and as a source of experiential and active learning for students. 

“It’s been a fun thing for the boys,” Joe Rubera said. 

Rubera is a member of the housekeeping staff at Avon Old Farms, but he also serves as the school’s beekeeper. 

He’s had to overcome several challenges in the past few years including harsh winters, diseases spreading within the hives, and a very destructive visit from a bear. This year, however, the bee colonies in at least two of the hives are thriving.

“Modern beekeeping can be very intensive,” Rubera said. “It can be really difficult.”

He said that this year, there is a large possibility that he will be able to extract some honey. 

“When you can see the sweet stuff coming out, people are interested,” Rubera said. 

As Rubera continues to make progress with the hives, he is making plans for the future. This includes extracting more honey to be able to bottle as an AOF product, but also includes the potential for more student opportunities. 

“I think in the next few years we’ll increase our program,” Rubera said. “Maybe with an intersession course or something like that.”

He said the hives have already proven to be a great, real-world resource for student learning. 

“It contributes to learning how the natural world works, how humans and animals or insects interact to benefit each other,” Rubera said. 

One example of this came during a recent Advanced Independent Project in which two students, Wesley Legere ’22 and Stratton Pratt ’23, sequenced the DNA of the pollen collected by the bees to analyze what plants the bees had been visiting. The project was overseen by Dr. Jack Sanford, who teaches classes having to do with biology, biotechnology, and living systems. 

“There was interest from those two guys, and I let them take the lead,” Sanford said. “They were able to see where the bees went, what flowers they visited, to see what we should plant more of.”

Although there were several challenges, the students successfully gathered pollen samples from the bees, sequenced the DNA using a MinION machine, and uploaded the information to a database. 

The students ended up carrying out a broader analysis of the biodiversity on campus. 

“To be in contact with one of the largest DNA sequencing companies in the world and use technology that has significant and current real-world applications is something I couldn’t pass up,” Legere said. “As someone who is personally interested in genomics, this was the perfect activity for me to explore how my future may look, and to pave the way for other boys at Avon who would benefit from an experience like this."

While Sanford gave the students free reign with the project, it did allow him to achieve a personal goal. 

“We were the first to sequence DNA on this campus,” Sanford said. “That was a dream of mine as a teacher.”

Like Rubera, Sanford is excited about the future of the beehives as a resource on campus. 

“We want to expand the beehives in order to get some honey,” Sanford said. “That’s a project we can get a lot of the students involved in.”

He said in the near future, he hopes to be able to utilize the beehives for part of the living systems class he teaches as well. 

On Founder’s Day this year, several students took advantage of their open schedule to join Rubera and Sustainability Coordinator Katy Perry as they opened up the hives. 

This was one of several opportunities throughout the year for participants to see the structure of a hive, and how the bees behave inside. 

“What’s wonderful is the school is supporting it, they’re encouraging the boys,” Sanford said. 

The beehives provide a perfect opportunity to learn through stimulation and experience, which makes them a fitting addition to an institution that is expert in educating boys