Teens help with sweet nature project
by Greg Peterson
Marquette Monthly, September 2009

“Albert Einstein ... speculated once that if bees disappeared off the surface of the earth, then humans would have only four years of life left.”
Todd Warner, KBIC Natural Resource Director

(Negaunee, Michigan) – Surrounded by a swarm of 150,000 loudly buzzing bees on a hot summer day, a group of Marquette County teens turned nervous faces and trepidation into smiles and a education that they heard loud and clear – to protect rather than fear pollinators.

At first only two teens wearing protective beekeeping gear entered the apiary behind the Negaunee township home of Jim and Martha Hayward. The others wearing only shorts and t-shirts soon approached when they discovered that honeybees are not aggressive.

Bees and butterflies "are a part of the web of life because they pollinate all the flowers and fruit trees that provide us with food," said Dr. Jim Hayward, a Marquette dentist who has four honeybee hives on a shaded hillside.

The teens literally got up close and personal with the honeybees by inspecting honeycomb trays each covered with about 3,000 busy bees and even handled a drone that Hayward explained do not have stingers like the rest of the colony and are easily identified by a larger round abdomen and bigger eyes.

"It doesn't have a stinger? Are you positive?," asked apprehensive teen Keith Gelsinger of Marquette.

"I am positive," Hayward said confidently while carefully handing the struggling drone to Gelsinger. "You can grab on to it – it won't sting you."

In his soft-spoken, calm demeanor that relaxed the teens and the bees, Hayward said "you can stand a lot closer if you want, you won't get stung."

"The sole purpose of the drone is to mate with the queen. Otherwise it has no function. It can't even feed itself. The other worker bees have to feed the drones."

The teens let out an audible but soft gasp when Hayward pulled out a tray that was dripping with honey and packed with bees.

"Oooohh," several of the astonished youths said at once.

Pointing to the edge of the honey-oozing tray in the bright sun, Hayward said "you can see the glistening of honey there."

"It's awesome,' said 13-year-old eighth grader Tanya Nelson of Ishpeming. "Look at it, it's honey, it's dripping."

The teens also visited a bee farm along the Dead River operated by Dr. Lisa Long and Lee Ossenheimer in Negaunee Township and heard from beekeeper Jon Kniskern of Marquette.

The Zaagkii Project is sponsored by the nonprofit Cedar Tree Institute (CTI), Keweenaw Bay Indian Community (KBIC) and the United States Forest Service (USFS).

Honeybees often have "sacks of yellow or orange pollen on its legs," Hayward said. "They are busy bringing their nectar and pollen back to the hive."

"You can learn a lot about the health of the hive by just looking at the flow of the bees coming in and out of the hive," Hayward said as the heavy bees bounced in for landings.

Teen Anatoly Nelson was impressed that he was able to stand in the huge swarm and not get stung.
"Holy cow, that's a lot of bees," Nelson said.

In its second summer, the three-year Zaagkii Wings and Seeds Project protects pollinators through habitat creation that includes teenagers constructing dozens of bee and butterfly houses while helping native plants flourish by distributing and planting tens of thousands indigenous seeds.

Billions of bees of have died worldwide in an ongoing syndrome dubbed Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Suspected causes for CCD include pollution, pesticides, climate change and habitat destruction.

Bees have always been killed by a wide-range of predators.

Natural bee killers include black bears that raid hives for honey, bald-faced hornets who kill the queen and feast on the colony, birds that pick them off in mid-air and skunks who scratch on the hive with an insatiable taste for guard bees.

Feral and commercial hives are attacked by viruses, bacteria and parasites like a tracheal mite that infests honeybee airways and blood-sucking mites that infect and feed on adult and larval bees causing wings deformities.

Hayward uses electric fences to protect bees from persistent bears and elevates hives on cinder blocks to discourage skunks.

"That makes the skunks have to stand up, so their bellies are exposed and the bees can sting them more easily," Hayward said.

Experts say bee colonies have declined 70 to 90 percent in the past quarter century. Albert Einstein predicted humans would die within four years if bees disappeared.

"People get into beekeeping is to sell their pollination services to orchards around the country" including "apple and cherry orchards in Michigan," Hayward said.

"I got into raising bees after local bee populations died out because of some disease and we did not have anything to pollinate" our fruits and vegetables, Hayward said.

The teens learned about beekeeper tools like honeycomb trays, frame grippers, a hive tool and a bee brush.

"You can brush them off an area with this gentle brush and it won't damage the bees," Hayward said.

While reassuring the teens that "honeybees tend to be docile," Hayward donned himself and two youths in protective gear including a bee veil and gloves.

"If I make a false step and jar the hive or move too quickly it keeps me from being stung," he said. "Honeybees die if they sting you, so they are not anxious to sting unless they are protecting themselves or the hive."

The teens gathered along the edges of the hives listening to Hayward's honeybee facts.

"The queen excluder keeps the queen from getting up into the honey chambers and laying eggs so you don't get larval bees into the honey," he said. "These two chambers are the brood chambers, where the hive raises its new bees."

During the summer, the queen "lays close to a thousand eggs a day," Hayward said. "It takes 21 days for a bee to develop."

Using a smoker that burns dried sumac, Hayward said the smoke "simulates a forest fire"  triggering a protective instinct that causes the bees "to gorge themselves with honey in preparation for leaving the hive."

"When they are gorged wit honey they are more docile," he said. "The key is moving slowly and trying to be a gentle as you can be – so the bees don't get too excited."

"Drones develop from unfertilized eggs, worker bees are developed from fertilized eggs," Hayward said. "If they need to make a queen they take worker larva and feed it a special extract from their heads called Royal Jelly and that larva grows into a queen instead of a worker."

The teens likely have "never been that close to a bee hive before," said Jim Rule, a child care counselor at Marquette County Youth Home.

"Even the kids that did not have any protective gear were right up close too," Rule said. "I was amazed at how brave they were."

Hayward explained that the bitter sumac burning in his bee smoker makes a great tea that tastes like lemon.

Later the teens made sumac iced tea, add a drop of Hayward's honey and served it to Zaagkii Project supporters at the annual CTI Midsummer Festival at Presque Isle in Marquette. The youths made other natural hors d'oeuvres like honey and wild mint in a tiny appetizer cup.

The teens visited Laughing White Fish Falls in Alger County, the organic Dancing Crane Farm run by Natasha Gill in Skandia, and planted native species plants at the Borealis Seed Company owned by Sue Rabitaille in Big Bay.

Meeting three days a week for five weeks, the teens walked dozens of miles during numerous hikes, climbed Sugar Loaf, and swam in Lake Superior and the Dead River.

Martial arts training and Tai Chi lessons were given to the teens by Rick Pietila of Marquette. The teens built a huge beehive with help from Jim Edwards at the U.P. Children's Museum, who created a large butterfly for the Zaagkii Project in 2008. Facts about monarchs were taught to the students by Susan Payant of Marquette, nicknamed "The Butterfly Lady."

The students learned about different species of native plants and insects during several outings with an Ojibwa brother and sister – Levi and Leora Tadgerson - who are Zaagkii Project interns from the NMU Department of Native American Studies.

The students learned "different uses the Ojibwa had for edible and medicinal plants" like "the saps of different trees and the roots," said Levi Tadgerson, 22, of Marquette, an NMU senior.

"We explained this plant is good for keeping bugs away from you and this plant is good for a breath mint," Tadgerson said.

The Tadgersons were impressed with the teens' ability to grasp Chippewa language because "we would tell them the different native names for plants and two days later they would remember it," said Leora Tadgerson of Negaunee.

"I think the earth is suffering," she said. "Indicator plants like wild rice that don't grow as much anymore because of the way we have abused the earth."

The pair taught the teens to seek a "symbiotic relationship" with the earth because "nowadays we are more of a parasite to the planet," Levi Tadgerson said. "We need to respect the gift we have been given by Mother Earth."

"There are ways to heal by just getting into the woods and learning knowledge from elders," he said. "There are gifts and teachings every day that you will get from the earth."

Both passed on respect for the earth inherited from elders and knowledge about native plants learned from NMU Anishinaabemowin Professor Kenneth Pitawanakwat, who offered the closing prayer at the CTI midsummer festival.
"We greet each day and end each day with a thank you prayer,"  Pitawanakwat said.

"In Native America, all events begin and end with prayer. It's a spiritual component that's all done with prayer. There is no such thing as a separation of church and state."

Noting a Tai Chi performance by the Zaagkii Project teens, Pitawanakwat said:

"The sounds from the soft fluttering moves of Tai Chi were very beneficial to all of us."

Turning to the band, Terracotta half-life of Marquette, Pitawanakwat  said "megwich for your inspirational songs."

A few weeks earlier, the sounds of hammers and saws filled the Grace United Methodist Church in Marquette for several days as the teens built and painted 36 mason bee houses with help from carpenter Bruce Ventura and artist Diana Magnuson, both of Marquette.

In 2008, other Zaagkii Project teens built and painted 17 butterfly houses at the church.

Shaped like a birdhouse, the mason bee houses have five pieces of wood below the roof with 33 holes that are each turned into a private nursery.

Mason bees "are very particular" and "want a five-sixteenths inch diameter hole," Ventura said. "If the holes are too large other insects get into them, and if the holes are too small the mason bees can't get in."

After laying a single egg into each hole, the mason bees "deposit some pollen and mud that hole closed hence the name mason bee," Ventura said.

Mason bees "make these holes three to six inches deep depending on the size of the tree," he said. "Mason bees are solitary bees, they're not colonial like honey bees."

While mason bees do not make honey, Ventura said "they're great pollinators like honeybees."

Ventura is impressed with the teen's carpentry and artistic skills.

"The young people are terrific," he said. "They did a great job putting the mason bee houses together and decorating. They did a lot of sawing and nailing and screwed in the tops."

Lessons on protecting pollinators was not lost on the Zaagkii Project teens.

"I learned that there are 4,000 different species of bees," Bobbie Weymouth, 14, of Beaver Grove told project supporters at the CTI Midsummer Festival.

Earlier, Weymouth explained what he'd learned about mason bees as he nailed and sanded mason bee houses.

"The bees are going to put pollen it these holes and put mud in and then they hatch an egg," said Weymouth, whose brother Daniel participated in the Manoomin Project, a CTI environment initiative that paired Marquette teens with Native American elders to restore wild rice to seven remote rivers and lakes across the U.P.

While screwing on a mason bee house roof and sanding the edges, Elliott Burdick, 17, of Marquette said "pollinators are important to all life on earth because they pollinate all the fruits and vegetables we eat."

"I am screwing in the roof to the base of the bees houses right now," Burdick said. "Then I am sanding it down so the edges are not sharp and making it all flush. The mason bees will be going inside these holes."

The students learned that butterflies are just as important pollinators as bees.

"I learned that Monarch butterflies only eat and lay their eggs on milkweed," said Jake Gentz, 16, who will be a senior this fall at Marquette Senior High Schools

Student Brandon Maki of Marquette said he "learned we can make natural teas out of spruce trees and pine trees."

The mason bee houses are now in yards across Marquette County. The mason bee houses and last summer's butterfly houses were put up around the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community and one of each were placed by the USFS in the "The People's Garden" at U.S. Department of Agriculture Headquarters on the National Mall in Washington D.C.

Teen Devon Myers of Marquette told Zaagkii Project supporters at the CTI Midsummer Festival that the students "made 36 mason bee houses and we are giving some of them away tonight."

USFS officials said the Zaagkii Project is effectively spreading the word about the importance of native plants and the teen mason bee and butterfly houses have a positive impact on the survival of pollinators.

"In point of fact, the mason bee houses are very useful," said Jan Schultz, USFS botany and non-native species program leader in Milwaukee, WI. "The mason bee houses are used by mason bees and other types of solitary bees. They really like them and they will have customers."

"The insect pollinators in North America evolved with indigenous plants and so they are really well-suited to pollinate them," Schultz said after watching the teens make the houses in Marquette.

Schultz said that "native plants and the native insects that pollinate them represent a symbiotic relationship" and cannot survive without each other.

"In some instances they have a mutualistic relationship, where they are pollinated by one insect and one plant species, so it can be really specific," she said.

Vegetable and flower garden production increases when "native plants are in close proximity," she said, "because the pollinators that people want to pollinate their squash or tomatoes need to have food all summer long."

Pollinators "are not going to magically appear in front of a tomato flower at an appropriate time," Schultz said. "So planting with native plants in proximity to their garden makes for a much more productive garden and more produce."

"Milkweeds and monarchs are a stunning example ," she said. "The monarch larva prefer to eat various milkweed species."

"The more of the milkweed that monarchs eat, the less palatable they are to predators because apparently they taste really horrible," Schultz said. "So that's beneficial to the monarch butterfly and they also pollinate the milkweed flower."

During the CTI Midsummer festival, KBIC Tribal President Chris Swartz Jr. announce the building of a native plants greenhouse that scheduled this fall on tribal property near Baraga.

KBIC "is happy to be partnering with the Cedar Tree Institute and the U.S. Forest Service in trying to protect native plants and bring them back home," Swartz said. "One day we hope (KBIC) will be regarded as pioneers to bring these native plants back here," he said. "So it's only fitting that the (KBIC) become involved in helping save those native plants."

"We have been working with the Cedar Tree Institute for a number of years and they are great to work with," said Swartz, noting the Manoomin Project to restore wild rice and native plants restoration project at the KBIC Sand Point beach on Lake Superior.

Teaching respect for Native American culture and the planet are goals the CTI plans to continue for another decade, CTI officials said during the festival.

"We honor the presence of the Native Americans," said Marquette banker and CTI board member Steve Mattson. "It's tremendous that the (KBIC) have shown the leadership and the vision to have the first greenhouse for native species plants in the U.S. on their native land."

Working "behind the scenes," the CTI will continue efforts like the Zaagkii and Manoomin projects because "they are important," Mattson said.

"We're the quiet people and we like to keep it that way," Mattson said. "We like to do big things and we can only do big things through each of you."

The Zaagkii Project contributors include the Marquette Community Foundation, Marquette County Juvenile Court, the M.E. Davenport Foundation, the Kaufman Foundation and the Phyllis and Max Reynolds Foundation.

Picture Credits
Visit photos of the day's events by Greg Peterson:

Photos: Black Bear: www.grit.com
Drone: www.roseofsharonfarm.com
Honey Tray: http://gayejohnson.files.wordpress.com

Bee Stinger: www.Wikipedia.com
Bee Eggs: www.beediary.wordpress.com
Mason Beehives: Greg Peterson
Kenneth Pitawanakwat: Greg Peterson
Native Woods: Greg Peterson

Milkweed Monarch: http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu
Wild Rice: http://www.sos.state.mn.us
Animated Butterflies: www.heathersanimations.com

KBIC Tribal youth protect pollinatorsNative Village Home Page