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Bee farmer demonstrates craft for school children

Abuzz with joy
Melanie Fessides, of Honeybee Farm, talks to first-graders at St. Gregory School in Zelienople about honeybees on Thursday. Christine Border/Special to the Eagle

ZELIENOPLE — Melanie Fessides lifted colorful panels painted with honeycombs and bees before a crowd of first-graders Thursday at St. Gregory School as she explained how new hives form.

“There are some bees that go to look for a new home, and they come back, and they tell the other bees where that house is by doing a little dance,” she said. “That’s called the waggle dance.”

One of the children rose right away to imitate an idea of what this dance might look like, sparking a whole movement of wiggles from the class as everyone did their best to speak fluent bee.

The swarm of bees thronged tirelessly throughout their box behind glass, heedless of their stardom before Dana Bodkin’s first-grade class.

Fessides launched into beekeeping seven years ago, discovering rapidly that her hobby of choice would demand the dedication of a second full-time job.

Nourishment, disease prevention and other conditions of care immediately called for heavy-duty devotion.

Melanie Fessides, of Honeybee Farm, talks to first-graders at St. Gregory School in Zelienople about honeybees on Thursday. Christine Border/Special to the Eagle

Now her thriving colony has expanded from two hives to 45. Her apiary, which she runs with the support of her husband, Chris Fessides, helps produce hand cream, lip balm, cider, beer and, of course, honey.

Her outreach to schools is especially rewarding, though.

“It’s just nice to let kids know from an early age that bees are very important,” she said. “If they’re gone, so are we.”

Rather than children seeing bees as a threat, she said, it’s more valuable for youngsters to recognize that these creatures need help from humans — not pesticide sprayings. We can plant flowers for them to replenish their colonies, and, in return, the bees will pollinate our food, she said.

Melanie Fessides went on to show the first graders this by offering them honey straws and beeswax samples.

Donning her beekeeping equipment, Fessides told the class that a beekeeper uses a “smoker“ — a hand-held device that produces smoke — to mellow out bees when they grow angry. She said she fills the device with wood and grass, lights it on fire and then pours the smoke toward them, so that “they’re just going to eat honey and be happy instead of stinging the beekeeper.”

She discussed how queen bees lay eggs and how the colony helps to incubate those eggs, whose newborns gnaw their way through the wax when they emerge.

The students learned how the female bees are the workforce of the colony, with the male drone bees serving only to mate with the queen. The males bees then are banished from the hive and left to fend for themselves. This news received a wave of remarks between the boys and girls.

There was no shortage of questions after the presentation.

“What happens if the queen dies?” asked one girl.

“Hopefully there will be other eggs that are still there that she laid previously,” Fessides said. “And (the bees) will build these cells, will build them right in the middle of that framework, called an emergency cell. So they will try to replace her with the eggs that she left behind, and hopefully a new one will be able to come out.”

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