A Bee on the Window: Thoughts from Our School Naturalist

On the first day of school this year, I took a photograph of a bee crawling across a pane of glass. It was a newly installed window in the not-yet-opened McGehee Building. The sound of pneumatic hammers and cranes droned on around me. That picture, it wasn’t a great photo or really notable, although I did like the image of the clouds reflected on the dark glass. It had that. That and the bee exploring the smooth glass.

At Oak Hill, those honeybees, they’re around a lot. The wooden hives are maybe two hundred yards from my office window. And just outside my door, I can count seventeen fruit trees that remain from a remnant orchard. In the springtime, the bees flock them and all throughout the summer, the bees pillage the creeping blackberries.

The colonies are the domain of our staff naturalist and the 2nd grade. Every fall, in the third or fourth week after the school doors open for the new year, a swarm of six and seven year olds, many of them missing teeth, don white smocks and bee-proof hoods. The kids are four feet tall, maybe, at best. I see them standing in front of a mound of thicket and bramble that dwarfs them. The naturalist explains that there might be ten thousand bees in any one of the hives. He teaches the kids how to use the smoker to calm the bees, how to remove the the frames and get at the comb. He shows them the way to process the honey and they get to take it home to their families.

The cycle repeats itself. Last year’s beekeepers are today’s 3rd graders. Yesterday’s 3rd grade is now a group of middle schoolers. And so it goes on. This is Oak Hill School’s twentieth anniversary– there are teenagers in our high school that used to be second graders here. Now they walk the sharp, geometrical halls of the recently-opened McGehee building and they talk about college and they gossip about Mies van der Rohe and Sierpinski’s infinite polygon. They’ve got plans and dreams. Many are already world-travelers— they’ve been to Mexico or Guatemala or Costa Rica or Ecuador with our Spanish teachers. They’ve seen Europe or Asia or Africa. They hum with teenage energy.

But they used to be 2nd graders.

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The Oak Hill School Campus sprawls over 72 acres. It is a former horse ranch. In places, you can see the trails and the old pastures. Some of the original buildings remain— integrated and re-purposed. The ranch house, with its big fireplace and view of Mt. Pisgah, is now a library and the administration building. A whitewashed guest cottage becomes a clay-spattered art studio— see the visiting ceramicist turn a pot on a wheel in front of an audience of high school juniors, hear him teach them to get their hands dirty and do it themselves. The naturalist tells me the orchard trees outside my office date back at least sixty years. Yet they still produce fruit, still are pollinated by the bees.