Grade 5 class pet honeybee proves the key to learning is passion

Those portables can get awfully stuffy. Teacher Sandra Kirkby had opened the door and windows in search of a cooling breeze. 

Upon the bee’s entrance, Kirkby’s students went wild with fear. “Mass hysteria” is her description. So, in an inspired moment, she rebranded the bee the “class pet.” 

It worked beautifully. The students started to relax, even greet the bee. They decorated the room with hand-drawn bee portraits. 

A few weeks later disaster struck. The lunchtime supervisor murdered the class pet.

This might have been the end of the story had student Robyn Grix not scrawled a message on the class whiteboard: “Bee Funeral — Tomorrow afternoon. Snacks provided by Mrs. Kirkby.”

A second inspired idea: Kirkby assigned group research topics on bees and transformed the funeral into a teach-in about their deceased friend. 

“There are 25,000 species of bees,” 11-year-old Vanessa Filegan tells me. 


Says 10-year-old Sadia Samoon: “Bees produce one third of our food.” 

Arsh Kadri, 11, researched colony collapse disorder: “a disease that happens to bees when they randomly go out of their hives and go some place to die. Scientists don’t know why or how, so they are putting little cameras on the bees.” 

I did not know that.

As a teacher, Kirkby knows the secret ingredient to learning is passion. She began to weave honeybees throughout the curriculum.

In geometry, her class studied the tessellated hexagons of bee hives. In science, students discovered how honey can be both a solid and liquid. They compared conflicting graphics on bee colony numbers for data management. And they dissected newspaper articles about bees in literacy lessons.

They quickly discovered the untimely death of their class pet was distressingly common. Two winters ago, commercial beekeepers in Ontario saw more than half their colonies die — far more than the 15 per cent considered normal. 

The culprit is not well-meaning lunch monitors. Many scientists point to neonicitinoids (NNIs) — the world’s most common pesticide, which coats the seeds of a crop so the growing plant is imbued with its poison. 

In Ontario, more than half our farmland is sprouting NNI-crops. Virtually all the corn seed and 60 per cent of soybean seeds are sold with NNI coating. 

The government has proposed reducing that to 20 per cent by 2017.

So the students have learned about politics.

“If we don’t protect the seeds, they get to be dinner for bugs,” Meghan Burke of Grain Farmers of Ontario told the class over Skype. “It’s a tough job farming … it’s a small profit line. So if we lose that yield advantage, we could see some farmers going out of business.”

They’ve gathered differing opinions from beekeepers, pesticide producers and politicians.

Ontario Agriculture Minister Jeff Leal sent personal responses to each of their concerned letters, informing them about the proposed regulation change — due to come into effect July 1 — and urging them to plant bee food in their neighbourhood. (Sunflowers, chives and asters are bee favourites, I learned from his letters.)

“We’ve already spread our message high up,” Kadri tells me excitedly. “We’re going to have a bee fair, and there we’ll show all the students and they’ll tell their parents, and it will just spread.”

They’ve felt the rush of successful activism.

During my visit to their portable, the students are busy making bee hotels — little cardboard apartment buildings where foraging solitary bees can rest. I had no idea they needed such a thing.

With all the asphalt of our city, they tell me, bees have to travel further and further to find food. “Their wings get tired,” says Ahmed El Khawass, 11. 

So, after all this study, what have they concluded about neonicitinoids, I ask?

“They should ban it for two years and see how the bees react,” says Gryx, the girl behind the bee funeral. “They did that in Europe.”

Her classmates nod their heads in agreement.

“What do we call that?” asks Kirkby, their teacher. “A moratorium.”

Catherine Porter can be reached at .