"Flap your wings really fast!" Miss Jennifer told the class of first graders at The Primary School during a recent December morning.
The 16 first graders, assembled on a mat, extended their arms from their sides, hands rapidly quivering in the rhythmic motion of flying. For the moment, boys and girls made an insectivorous transformation. Bees, all, drying nectar in a "hive" to become nature's sweetest delicacy: honey.
The "Bee Brave" class, a module in Sager Family Farm's Big Buzz About Bees program, addresses anxiety and fear among children in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic while teaching an appreciation of nature. Learning about the complex interactions within honeybee colonies helps children to learn about life skills such as socialization, self-reliance and teamwork.
The class introduces methods to overcome these obstacles in an age-appropriate, accessible way through the lens of beekeeping, Executive Director Kendal Sager said. Students learn how to identify anxiety in their bodies and develop coping skills in stressful situations by understanding why many people are afraid of bees. Those lessons can be applied in other stressful situations.
The organization was a recipient of last year's Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund, receiving $15,000 to expand its programs to reach underserved students in East Palo Alto. In addition to Bee Brave for first graders, kindergartners received an introduction to bees, insect life cycles and their needs. Fourth graders were taught the "Pollinator Paradise" class, which focuses on how to support pollinators through habitat creation, water sources, and year-round forage in their school gardens.
This year, Sager Family Farm brought bees and their lessons of nature to 432 students in kindergarten, first, second and fourth grades at four different schools — the first time the programs have been taught in East Palo Alto, Sager said.
"How many of you are scared of bees?" Jennifer Verstregen — Miss Jennifer — asked the first graders during their Dec. 9 session. Hands shot up.
Verstregen empathized: What's scarier than a hive full of angry, swarming bees, right? she asked.
But there's more going on behind those compound eyes than would seem at first, and Verstregen invited the children to get inside the hive mind.
When a bee stings someone, it dies, she explained. It's a pretty drastic result.
"They must have a really good reason for that to happen. If it knows it is going to die, what feelings might a bee have? Do you think a bee might be really scared when they sting us?
"How do you feel when you are scared?" she asked the children. "I start to shake. I want to run away. My heart beats really fast."
She waved her hands in a simulated panic.
But understanding can help individuals and societies learn to overcome fear — of nature and each other, she said. And to understand the motivation behind a bee's anger, one has to peek inside their home.
Verstregen opened a beeless, miniature hive box as an example of what a full-sized hive would look like. It is lined with suspended wooden frames, some covered in waxy honeycomb.
When out looking for food, the bees slurp up nectar from flowers with their long proboscis, or tongue. The bees deposit the nectar in their "honey stomach" — a pouch separate from the stomach they use for their own eating. When the honey stomach is full of nectar, they fly back into the hive, where the nectar is deposited in the wax honeycomb.
This is where the wing fanning comes in: The bees work their wings to circulate the air and reduce the amount of water content and concentrate the nectar into honey. This becomes the bees' food.
But there is more.
The bees are a family: There are sharp-stingered sister bees — the workers; and brother bees — the drones, which don't have stingers; and the queen mother. Like any family, they want their home to stay safe, Verstregen said.
"The mommy bee — the queen — her job is to make lots of baby bees. Do you think a bee that is scared might sting us if it thinks we will hurt its babies and family in the hive?" she asked.
So how does one keep the bees from being scared?
By using character traits that will induce the bees to feel safe. A beekeeper must be calm, gentle and brave around the bees, she said.
"Sometimes the best thing to do is to take a deep breath. Taking a deep breath is a thing we can do to become calm. Taking a moment to pause and take a deep breath allows us to take a moment to think," she said.
Up close with bees
That was her segue into the real interaction with the bees. Trepidation filled some children and curiosity consumed others as Sager opened the doors to the live-bee-exhibit box. Inside, separated from the children by clear plexiglass, nearly 5,000 tawny-colored insects swarmed busily over the honeycomb. In the center, the queen, larger than the rest, poked her head into one of the hexagonal cells. She was inspecting it for cleanliness before she laid an egg inside the brood chamber, special cells where the baby bees will incubate.
Verstregen invited the children to approach the hive. If they put their hands on the plexiglass, they could even feel the warmth the hive gives off.
"We are going to show the good character trait of a good beekeeper and stay calm," she said as the children approached.
Nine times out of 10, the children who are the most scared will come up to the hive and place their hand on the glass, she said. By understanding the motivations behind behaviors in nature, children become less afraid, more accepting and more appreciative of the natural world, she said. Those lessons transfer into their outlook and behavior in the real world.
"I was kind of worried when I first saw the hive because I thought the teachers would open it up, but I touched it. It was kind of warm. I saw the queen bee and I was kind of nervous!" a soft-spoken girl said.
For two boys, the bees weren't scary.
"I liked it. It was my first time with the bees. I want to touch them next time and to learn how to be a beekeeper," a sturdy boy said.
"They were cool," added the smaller of the two. "I wasn't afraid. I want to have them in my backyard. I have a pet dog and a pet bird. If I had pet bees, I would feed them."
Another girl, a 6-year-old with large brown eyes, is an old hand at conquering her fears of nature.
"I was afraid of fish when I was a baby. I got over it when I was older, since fish — most fish — don't bite," she said. "We can't be bad to the bees or they will sting us and they are going to die, and we don't want them to die."
An awe that started at Hidden Villa
For Sager, the children's excitement and curiosity is much like her own at that age, and that's why she wants so much to instill an awe of nature in children at a young age: so they'll grow into adults who will treasure the natural world.
In first grade, she had her first contact with bees at Hidden Villa in Los Altos Hills.
"I milked a cow and fed the chickens and I came home and said 'I'm going to be a farmer,'" she recalled.
Her parents were a bit taken aback. They had other ideas for their daughter's career.
"They were like, 'Oh, my God. We live in Silicon Valley,'" she said.
Sager, a Los Altos native, went into tech, but she maintained her interest in farming.
"I wanted my own farm animals ... that I could play with on the weekends," she said.
After working at DreamWorks Animation on films such as Kung Fu Panda 2, she left after taking a short sabbatical. She started beekeeping in 2011 and joined the Bee Guild in San Mateo County. When she first showed up, the bee guild was predominantly composed of 60-year-old men.
"They asked me if I was in the wrong place," she recalled.
But soon, inspired by Sager's infectious enthusiasm and drive, their nonprofit organization became Sager Family Farm's fiscal sponsor for demonstrations to kids at schools.
"They said, 'We think you would scare the kids less.' There's an endorsement if I ever heard one," she said.
Sager Family Farm has taught its Big Buzz About Bees program in 350 classrooms to about 8,208 students since its founding in 2015. Sager used her Dreamworks training in storytelling and connected it with state education programs, including the Department of Education, the California Department of Social Services, California Common Core, Next Generation Science Standards, and the California Blueprint for Environmental Literacy with grade-level-appropriate curricula. Sager Family Farm has now taught 200 elementary school classes in the Bay Area for free, plus extra for-fee classes.
Verstregen, a nature educator with Sager Family Farm, has also been a teacher for 25 years. The class gives the children "a chance to explore nature up close and to see what nature has to offer," she said.
The classes incorporate elements of the student's regular learning, such as instruction about insect body parts, how parents help offspring, geometry and shapes and counting by 10s.
Martha Valencia, the children's first-grade teacher, said the program is currently connected to a unit in which the students are learning about tools and how different jobs use tools. The children saw how beekeepers use specific tools in their work.
And when they talked about being gentle, calm and taking deep breaths, it connects to how children address crises and disagreements.
Valencia said the bee class also taught her a lesson.
"For me, bees are usually scary, but we can be kind to all the helpers" of the natural world, she said.
The annual Weekly Holiday Fund charitable giving drive is in full swing, with a goal of raising $600,000 for local nonprofits serving children, families and individuals in need. Read more about the Holiday Fund at PaloAltoOnline.com/holiday_fund or go to embarcaderomediafoundation.org/holiday-fund/palo-alto to donate.