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Ask the Bees: How Collaborative Learning Teaches Us to Think Critically

by Alessandra Rizzotti

May 18, 2015
Honeylove mentoring session in Moorpark. Photo by Alessandra Rizzotti.

If you’ve ever wondered where the “bee” in “spelling bee” comes from, The Beekeeper’s Bible has your back. The creature, according to the book, has long been an industrious emblem of the power of both written and spoken word. Ancient Egyptians considered bees to be a symbol of wisdom; in India, bees represent knowledge; in Hebrew culture, bees signify eloquence, with the word for bee “dbr” translating directly to “speech.” Plato himself may have had bees to thank for his future as a philosopher—legend has it that a bee landed on his lips when he was a baby, bestowing him with the gift of erudition.

It may seem a bit strange for bees to have become so inseparable from solitary activities like writing and reading, given that they’re known to thrive in a hive setting. After all, swarming bees are in constant communication with each other. It’s the same way for the mentors and mentees of Honeylove, an urban beekeeping program that gathers in Moorpark, California on an apricot grove just off the 23 freeway. Go there at the right time, and you’ll spy a ragtag group of people—ranging from schoolchildren to young adults and full-grown professionals—dressed in what appear to be white Hazmat suits, crowded together over colorful boxes. Today, the mentees are learning about hive maintenance as their mentor, Kirk Anderson, waxes on about the importance of developing a symbiotic relationship with bees (as well as with each other).

Beekeeping isn’t just a hobby at Honeylove. Rather, it’s a chance for mentees to learn a practical profession in a hands-on way, connect with community members, and be part of something larger than themselves: saving the bees. Over the last three years, more than 1 in 3 honeybee colonies have died out nationwide, putting the world’s food supplies at risk. Anderson puts it this way: “It’s just not good food security if only a few farmers own everything, so I’m into having a diverse population of beekeepers with hives in their own backyards, because that’s what’s going to make our food system sustainable.”

Though it might strike some as counterintuitive, research suggests that collaborative learning fosters independence and critical thinking. It’s been fun to see those findings in action as a Honeylove mentee myself, empowered by my mentors to take charge of my own learning just like the bees do—by working with and guiding others. I’ve attended events at my local Whole Foods in a beekeeping suit, tasked with teaching bee-fearing folk to contact Honeylove rather than pest control if they’re bothered by a rogue neighborhood swarm. My fellow mentees have been volunteering at local schools around Los Angeles, where they’ve seen kids go from stepping on or running away from bees to letting their teachers know when they see sick bees on the schoolyard. 

Anderson stresses that such activities are about establishing the skill of observation. He says:

“A lot of beekeepers don’t spend enough time observing. They want to find an expert and see what that expert’s done and do that, rather than figuring it out with others. Beekeeping should be more about observing what bees are doing to make their hives work. I observe the students like the bees and help them go where they want to go. If I observe their interest in something, I run with that, and help them win at that. And then we find other things to win at.”

Today, Anderson’s phone lights up with a message to relocate a swarm that’s been a hassle for an Eagle Rock radio station. He’s trusting his mentee, an engineering student named Val Rodriguez, to take care of calls like these. Anderson’s goal is to encourage urban beekeepers to make a living at what they do, so he starts off by passing all his clients to them. Rodriguez now not only maintains hives in about eighteen backyards across Los Angeles, but also sells honey at farmer’s markets and allows people to sit in on her inspections. She calls beekeeping a “full-time part-time job,” and she averages about 20 hours a week.

Over the years, Rodriguez says she’s found the process of learning how to beekeep to be less linear than the formal training she’s received in engineering school. Like Anderson, she has a hands-off approach when it comes to bees. “I don’t stress about taking too many notes on inspections because bees are wild animals. We just need to make sure they’re healthy,” Rodriguez says. 

Kirk Anderson and Val Rodriguez teach a class on harvesting honey for Honeylove. Photo by Alessandra Rizzotti.

Ruth Askren’s style of mentoring is to make the learning experience more scientific. Askren quit her job as an art teacher a few years ago when she realized she could make a living doing bee removal and relocations, though today, she spends most of her time on hive maintenance and mentoring. She requires her mentees to keep logs of how their hives are progressing; eventually, she trusts them to understand why certain hive patterns are developing, and how to fix certain issues when they arise. Her aim is to empower mentees on a one-on-one basis so that they can develop the decision-making confidence to do things independently. “I’m always focused on engaging my students in discussion because that’s really one of the best ways to learn—to ask questions.”

Askren wants her mentees to own their learning process by reading textbooks like Honeybee Biology and getting active on forums:

“That just accelerates learning tremendously. It’s also important to be a part of the beekeeping community because you can’t learn beekeeping on your own. If my mentees came to me for all the answers, they wouldn’t learn everything they needed to. I have my own style and idiosyncrasies and they have to find what works for them by bouncing ideas off other people.”

With 381 forum topics on the Honeylove site ranging from how to take care of swarms to queen problems and remedies—not to mention over 900 topics and 20,000 member posts on the international forum Beemaster—there is much self-learning that can be accomplished. But, says Askren, online beekeeping education can be overwhelming and it’s up to the new beekeeper to decide how she should get started—whether it’s through beekeeping conversations in person and online, or hands-on with actual hives.

Now, as I try to catch a swarm in my own backyard to help pollinate my garden (tip: to foster bees, grow buckwheat and milkweed), I’m at a stage where one-on-one attention from someone like Askren has proven to be incredibly valuable. As Michael Bush, beekeeper and author of The Practical Beekeeper: Beekeeping Naturally, says, your own philosophy will “drive your choices in beekeeping.” 

Just as one bee can’t survive on its own, I’m of the philosophy that beekeepers need colonies, too, and the scaffolding I create for myself will involve not only one-on-one mentoring, but also group learning, so I will be able to pay my knowledge forward to younger generations.

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Ask the Bees: How Collaborative Learning Teaches Us to Think Critically