Science project has third-graders buzzing
By ROB RYSER
THE JOURNAL NEWS
(Original publication: June 29, 2004)
COLD SPRING â€” Kate Robertson lives so close to church â€” next door, in fact â€” that she could open her window on a warm Sunday morning and hear the sermon from bed.
But it wouldn't suit the 9-year-old Cold Spring native to be so idle. Like many girls her age, there is a lot that occupies her time.
She enjoys piano lessons and taking her remote-controlled sailboat for a cruise on the Hudson River, a few blocks down Main Street from her 1897 Victorian home. She takes pride on defense when she can jar the ball loose from the opposing lacrosse player, who is almost always a boy.
But when Kate brought her science project to her third-grade class at Haldane Elementary School recently, she had a surprise for peers who thought they knew everything about her.
Kate Robertson is a bee charmer.
"I wouldn't want to be near those things because I would get stung," said Ryan Koval, 8, gazing from the safety of his desk at a screened-in crate of crawling bees that Kate had brought in. "I have been stung five times and it really hurts."
Kate has also been stung but by wasps, never by bees.
"Bees will not hurt me," Kate told her classmates, while their eyes wandered to a glass-enclosed observation hive that her parents helped bring in with the rest of her beekeeping equipment. "I am gentle with bees, which is very important."
She is also prepared, and showed her class how she steps into her white bee suit with the hood that looks like an oversized fencing mask.
"I have been taking care of my bees for a couple of years now with my dad," she said matter-of-factly. And the more she explained about the mysterious world of bees and the job she has not only to care for the queen but also to strain, bottle and label her own honey, the more kids moved closer to the edge of their chairs.
"Now who wants to dip their fingers in and try some honey?" asked her father, Gordon Robertson, holding a square tray with an oozing honeycomb.
"I do!" Shouted some kids while others whose desks were closest were already dragging their fingers across the tray.
For Kate Robertson, who took over her father's hobby when she was in kindergarten, the best part about beekeeping was happening in front of her as classmates crowded around the comb, delighted by how good the wild honey tasted.
She made sure everyone took home an 8-ounce bottle of her own "Kate's Honey."
The hobby, which she practices mostly at her family farm in Massachusetts, is not so consuming that it keeps her away from other interests, such as her friends or her dog, Burgess, who was stung so badly by bees as a puppy that she stays away from the hives. Nor does Kate think that it is unusual for her to have such a close connection with bees.
If anything, it's natural, says Mark Feldlaufer, an entomologist who heads the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Bee Research Laboratory in Beltsville, Md.
Bees, after all, are fascinating, he says.
"If you go into a bee colony and you are not amazed, I don't want to say that there is something wrong with you, but most people find the inside of a bee colony mesmerizing," Feldlaufer said. "Most people keep bees because they like to keep bees."
Kate has other projects. There is her rowboat named Miss Kate that her father is rigging with a mast and sail. And there is the remodeling of her room, which overlooks the windows of the United Methodist Church.
But she has not forgotten the day her father was going to drop his hobby after being injured in a car accident.
"I said, 'Dad, why aren't you doing the bees?' and he said, 'Because I hurt my back.' I said, 'I'll take it over,'" Kate said, recalling that her father looked at her with some disbelief. "I said, 'I can do it.'"
"Then I was looking through a magazine and I saw some little bee suits and I said, 'What are these?'" Kate said. "He said, 'Those are bee suits.' I said, 'Hey, they're my size. Get them.'"
Once Gordon Robertson got them, Kate could get close to the bees. She says she sometimes thinks of them as her pets.
"She has never been scared," said her father, an insurance broker. "The bees we use are very docile. Unless you go up with a rock and pound on the hive, they are not going to bother you."
The worst that Kate has endured is some agitated bees that wouldn't be brushed off.
"When they get all over me my dad smokes them off and I have to hold my nose," she says.
It is the same smoker Kate uses to pacify the bees when she takes the honey from the hive.
"This is a passed-on art and very few people are doing this anymore," said her father, whose grandmother in Scotland also raised honeybees. "Even though Kate was young, she wanted to do it."
That makes sense to Feldlaufer.
"You have to keep bees to understand it," he said.