Augie students wrangle bees to learn lessons about food

Posted Online: Oct. 07, 2012, 8:27 pm
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By Anthony Watt,
The students were in class when they donned white protective suits and prepared to wrangle bees with their professor's husband.

The lesson: how to get honey that isn't in a store or a little plastic bear.

The classroom: the farm of Kurt and Jennifer Burnham in Orion.

Mrs. Burnham is an associate professor of geography at Augustana College and co-instructor of the Literature and Landscape Learning Community with Jason Peters, professor of English.

A learning community is a pair of topically related courses taught in the same term by cooperating instructors and taken by the same group of students, according to the college. The instructors collaborate to help students achieve understanding of the same phenomenon from two different points of view.

The goal of Literature and Landscape: to heighten students' awareness of where their food comes from and how they get places through real-life experiences and reading works by environmental writers.

"They sound so vague and broad, but they are really fantastic guiding questions for the class," Mrs. Burnham said.

Once the suits were on, Kurt Burnham led students John Oostenryk and John David Draminski to the hive, a stack of white wooden modules in a nearby meadow. The hive looked a lot like a set of drawers, just with a multitude of honeybees bobbing purposefully around it.

They began applying smoke to the hive with a small handheld device filled with smoldering material and soon had the upper lid of the hive off.

As they worked, the cloud of airborne bees thickened, becoming a whirlwind around them.

Soon, they pulled a comb from the hive. Being artificial, it was a wooden rectangle much like a picture frame, set up so bees could build their wax storage cells in the central plane of the rectangle.

Despite being cased in wax, the honey gleamed amber in the afternoon sun. A small group of bees clung stubbornly to the frame.

"Smoke it and brush it," Mr. Burnham told the students. "Try brushing those off."

They repeated the process with other combs until they had about 10.

As they worked, Mr. Burnham told them they were leaving some honey in the hive to serve as its winter food.

Once the honey combs were out of the hive, they were weighed. The estimate was about 35 pounds of honey and wax.

The next step was called "uncapping." Mr. Oostenryk and Mr. Draminski, joined by classmates Megan Cocker and Ellen Loechner, learned to scrape the wax seals from the honey-containing cells. This is done either with a broad knife shaped similar to a spatula with a serrated edge or with a spiky tool similar to a hair pick.

The scraping was done over plastic bins in the Burnhams' garage. The bins were designed to catch the wax and any honey that comes out when the combs are uncapped.

When the wax seals were off, the combs were placed in a large metal drum containing a framework to hold the combs. The framework was attached to a hand crank, allowing the operator to spin the combs, forcing the honey from them.

The students took turns at this as well.

Once out of the combs, the honey dribbled down into the bottom of the drum, where it could be emptied from a spigot into a specially designed bucket containing fine mesh to strain the honey, ridding it of foreign objects.

The honey exercise was one of many activities in which the students could take part to learn more about food production, Mrs. Burnham said. Other options included collecting chicken eggs, gardening, pickling vegetables, slaughtering and dressing chickens by hand for the table and milking goats.

The transportation part of the class included discussions about fossil-fuel availability and using alternative means of travel, she said.

Mrs. Burnham said she believes many people have become used to convenience when it comes to food and transport.

They may not always think about how those conveniences come about, she said.

She said the idea is not to convince the students to follow one set of practices over another but to heighten their awareness of alternatives to how they get around or procure food.

"At least I can challenge them to start to think about these (things)," she said.

Mr. Oostenryk said resources are how a house gets powered, a car fueled and food gets to the table.

One of the exercises in the class was to pick five food products and examine their labels. Mr. Oostenryk said he looked at a package of shrimp as one of his five. Those shrimp came from Thailand.

"That's a long way for a shrimp to go," he said.

Producing food closer to the table -- growing it in a home garden, for instance -- results in fewer resources being used, he said.

Ms. Loechner said she is trying to become more conscious of the food she buys, including choosing more fresh produce and less processed food.

"I've kind of become obsessed with reading labels," Ms. Loechner said.

She also is picking her bicycle or her own feet more for traveling, she said.

People should be less concerned with convenience, she said. For example, cooking at home might take more personal effort but also has its rewards.

"It's going to be a lot better for you, a lot better for the environment ,and overall, a worthwhile experience," she said.


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  Today is Wednesday, Oct. 1, the 274th day of 2014. There are 91 days left in the year.

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1889 -- 125 years ago: Harvey McKenna, of Detroit, billiard player matched to play Wizard Schafer in New York in January for the world championship, was a professional friend and manager, Billy Catton in Rock Island.
1914 -- 100 years ago: Levi Cralle, former Rock Island county sheriff, had come from his farm near Mitchell, S.D. to visit friends in the city.
1939 -- 75 years ago: Work is being rushed on the new high school building in Orion to replace the one destroyed by fire last winter. Classes are being held in churches.
1964 -- 50 years ago: Rehearsals for the 84th season of the Handel Oratorio Society chorus will begin at 7:30 p.m. Monday on the stage of Centennial Hall, Augustana College.
1989 -- 25 years ago: The Rock Island City Council's plan announced this week to have the federal government vacate Valley Homes public housing and move residents to Arsenal Courts to reduce density may not be feasible.

(More History)