When Vaughn Holly, 17, heard that his classmates at Propel Andrew Street High School in Munhall were taking a beekeeping class that involved tending to live beehives, he "thought it was crazy."
"I didn't want to have anything to do with it. I was afraid of getting stung," said Vaughn, of Mount Oliver.
But now he's among a group of 11 students in the class who, along with teacher Brandon Keat, recently received a 2013 Governor's Award for Environmental Excellence for cultivating four urban beehives, which are located behind the former St. Michael's Convent in Braddock. Propel is the only school to receive the award.
Propel students created the hives in the spring of 2010 by building wooden frames to hold them and purchasing three 2-pound packages of bees, or about 30,000 bees.
Twice a year, usually in late spring and fall, the students harvest the honey and sell it to make money to support their program and purchase equipment such as an extractor to extract the honey, a smoker to calm the bees in the hive before honey extraction, and protective veils to wear while working. For the first year, the effort was an extracurricular activity. But for the past two years, it has been a class, complete with projects, homework and exams along with regular visits to the hive.
Gilaysha Kirkland, 19, has been with the program from the start. Even though she has been stung several times, she said she never thought about quitting. She enjoys learning about the life cycle of bees, what they eat, how they socialize and how the honey is made, she said. Before the class, "I had never heard of beekeeping before," she said.
Despite his initial fear, Vaughn said he became interested in the course because students got to take trips to the hives and perform hands-on work, including harvesting the honey. "It's a lot better than sitting in the classroom," he said.
Mr. Keat said the class is not a typical one. "These students become beekeepers. Most of them embrace that."
A few students, however, have dropped out after being stung.
Four of the current students visited the hives Friday -- Vaughn, Gilaysha, Ian Snyder, 18, of Turtle Creek and Quinton Williamson, 17, of Munhall.
The idea for the class came from former student Jonathan Walker, who as a freshman brought the idea to Mr. Keat, an English teacher. Mr. Keat took the idea to Propel superintendent Carol Wooten, who, he said, "thought the idea was great." But, the school's lawyer "didn't think it was such a great idea. He had all kinds of concerns that had to be worked out."
Most of those concerns were addressed when the group found a location away from the school to locate the hives. The space behind the former convent on Braddock Avenue had been used by Burgh Bees, a nonprofit that promotes urban beekeeping. The group was moving some hives from the site, making it available to the Propel students. They started with two hives in 2010 and doubled the number the next year.
It's a bittersweet time for the students because the award came around the same time they discovered that all of the bees in one of their hives have died. On Friday, they visited the hives to remove some of the dead bees for testing and to inspect for parasites or other clues that could explain the dead hive.
While they weren't certain before Friday that the entire hive was dead, students suspected as much when they visited the hives about a week earlier in warmer weather and saw some bees flying around three of the hives, but not the fourth, Ian said.
When they opened it Friday, the found thousands of dead bees lying in the bottom of the wooden box holding the hive. Because the queen was found with the other bees, Mr. Keat and the students theorized that a parasite or pathogen may be the likely cause of the hive's failure. The queen produces all of the offspring, so if the queen had been missing, the students would have considered that she had abandoned the hive and the remaining bees died off.
Vaughn noted that the undertaker bee -- the bee who routinely removes dead bodies from the hive -- either became overwhelmed or died with the group because it was apparent some bees had been removed and dropped outside of the hive. But the large majority of dead bees were inside the hive.
Vaughn explained that honeybees live between four and six weeks in the summer when they are working and active. In the winter, which they spend huddled together in the hive against the cold, they can live four to six months.
"This is the first hive to die. It's kind of sad," Gilaysha said.
There is concern worldwide about the massive declines in honeybee populations, which some researchers blame on the use of certain pesticides. The reason for the concern is that the majority of the approximately 100 crops that provide 90 percent of the word's food are pollinated by bees.
While mourning their lost bees Friday, the students were also gearing up to recolonize the hive with new bees once warmer weather arrives.
"It's important to keep the bees alive so they can pollinate everything," Ian said. "It's part of the cycle of life."
Mary Niederberger can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1590. First Published March 25, 2013 4:00 AM