Suzanne Perez Tobias

Errant pesticide doomed this Wichita school’s beehive — and it’s a lesson for us all

Beyonce is history.

The aptly named queen of the Coleman Middle School honeybee hive — along with her more than 200,000 worker-bee followers — were victims of a recent pesticide or herbicide treatment that poisoned most of the established colony and destroyed its honey stores just as the bees were hitting prime production.

Jared Hall, a science teacher at Coleman, said he and his students are devastated about the loss. They plan to get another hive going as soon as possible, but they hope the setback sends a message to the community about the need to protect bees from chemical insecticides.

“This whole garden project is intended to teach kids about the environment . . . This was just a painful lesson,” Hall said.

Two years ago, I wrote about the efforts at Coleman, near 13th and Rock Road in northeast Wichita, which became home to the area’s first school-based honeybee hive, thanks to a grant from the Whole Kids Foundation.

Since then, Coleman students have sold unprocessed beeswax and honey for $2 an ounce and entered portions of the hive in the Kansas State Fair. Bright orange labels on the honey featured Coleman’s signature Cougar paw and the #HoneyDomes hashtag, a nod to the middle school’s distinctive domed architecture.

Students gleefully harvested and packaged the honey, which they tasted atop pieces of toast. They took a field trip to a local ice cream shop, where employees whipped up honey-flavored ice cream — a sweet reward for their patience and hard work.

And the project served as a model for other Wichita schools. At least two elementary schools — McLean and Earhart — established honeybee hives over the past two years.

About two weeks ago, Hall and some students in the school’s summer garden program began noticing dead bees inside the hive. About a week later, they noticed more, and the honeycomb at the bottom of the hive was infested with hive beetles.

They scanned the property and discovered that milkweed and other plants in a wildflower garden near the hive were yellow and wilting or already dead — a sure sign of a common herbicide treatment that’s toxic to bees. Maintenance crews had unintentionally poisoned the bees’ prime food source while trying to fight back weeds on the school property.

Britt Hopper, a local beekeeper who helped Coleman establish its initial hive two years ago, has offered to find another swarm and help transfer it into the school’s cleaned-out hive, Hall said.

“There’s a lot of flowers blooming right now, so I’m hoping with all the hope in the world that when we come back for the second part of the summer garden program, we’ll have some bees,” Hall said. “I don’t know how quickly the next hive will build back up and get some good pollination going.”

In the meantime, students have crafted signs that say, “Be nice to our bees. Don’t spray, please!” And because bees can travel up to three square miles around their homes, the students are encouraging local gardeners and landscapers to consider chemical-free gardening practices.

“The kids are pretty bummed about it. A lot of them were like, ‘Oh no, what about our queen? Where’s Beyonce?’” Hall said. “In the end, I think we’ll be OK.”

They’ll just have to find another name for the new Queen Bee.

Suzanne Perez Tobias is a columnist and member of The Eagle’s editorial board. During her nearly 30 years at the newspaper, she has covered breaking news, education, local government and other topics. An avid reader, Suzanne also oversees The Eagle’s books coverage and coordinates the annual #ReadICT Challenge. She can be reached at 316-268-6567.