Sustainable Seasons | Sweet Start: A Honey of a Program

Posted on Aug 5 by SEASONS Magazine

Photo by Tara Scoville

Photo by Tara Scoville

By Sigrid Wright

Paul “The Bee Man” Cronshaw was just 17 when he first started keeping honeybees on the roof of his family’s home in Montecito.

It makes sense that now, at 60, the popular high school science teacher and president of Santa Barbara Beekeepers Association would want to pass along his knowledge to the next generation. Although Cronshow has preached the bee gospel to students of all ages for years, his latest project—Sweet Start—is aimed specifically at attracting at-risk high school students into donning bee suits of their own.

The program, financed by Fund for Santa Barbara and Orfalea School Food Initiative, is offered as an intensive afterschool program at La Cuesta, a continuation high school for students who are at risk of not graduating. Sweet Start provides mentorship in the art of beekeeping, two hours a week for 10 weeks. Those who complete the program are offered continued support through a business startup stipend and career mentoring.

“My job is to keep these kids from dropping out… In an alternative high school, I can think outside the box—I can connect topics like science and career prep and my love of bees,” Cronshaw says, in a classroom filled with yellow-and-black bee trinkets given to him over the years. “We need more farmers and we need more beekeepers. Think about how many items on your plate rely on bee pollination. Without bees, we’d just be eating grains and tubers.”

Jose Escareno and Dylan Cobb were in one of “Dr. C.’s” science classes where “he was always talking about bees,” and the passion was contagious. On Fridays, they would head to the classroom garden to help plant and care for lettuce, cilantro, beans, peas, kale and potted citrus trees. “When you become a beekeeper, you become a botanist,” Cronshaw tells them.

Once in a while, Cronshaw conducts a seminar and dedicates the whole day to bees: how the queen was born, how royal jelly is made. “One time, he brought a hive into the classroom,” Escareno laughs. “When a couple escaped, he told everyone to be very still, and the bees all went toward the classroom lights. When he opened the door, they all flew out.”

The boys were intrigued and applied for the Sweet Start program, lured by a small stipend and the chance to do field work. They showed up the first day “ready to suit up and grab a smoker,” says fellow intern Anthony Sanchez. “But instead we had, like, eight weeks of classes learning all about bees, right down to the smallest detail. Anatomy of the bee. Hive building. How to site a hive to maximize production. Colony collapse disorder. Flowers. Pollination.”

Photo by Tara Scoville

Photo by Tara Scoville

“It takes about five years to really become a comfortable master beekeeper,” Cronshaw says, unflapped.

When the interns did get out of the classroom, their first tasks were to build boxes for other beekeepers, familiarizing themselves with the units. In time, they started going on ride-alongs with Cronshaw and other seasoned beekeepers to deal with swarms or check on hives for association members. By the end of the program, they had each earned their own hive.

Interns also learned the importance of cooperation. Both a brood box (where the bees live) and a super (where they make honey) can weigh 25 to 100 pounds or more. Moving these takes focus, muscle and often two people.

Both Cobb (a junior) and Escareno (a graduate and now a landscaper) have been inspired to learn more about plants and hope to go through Santa Barbara City College’s Horticulture Program. Sanchez also hopes to land at SBCC to study environmental and human health. As a Type 1 diabetic, he’s interested in endocrinology and enjoys researching the health benefits of things like royal jelly.

As beekeepers now, Cobb and Escareno find themselves worrying about how the bees are faring on cold nights. Or when it’s too windy. Or when it rains. Or when it doesn’t rain. Picking up on Cronshaw’s tendency to make puns, Escareno says, “There are nights I’m thinking: ‘I just want them to bee okay!’”

For more information about the program, visit sweetstart.org.

Originally published in the Summer 2014 issue of Santa Barbara SEASONS Magazine

Editor’s Note: The print version of this story incorrectly labeled photos taken at Santa Barbara High (which also teaches beekeeping) as being taken at La Cuesta. Please accept our apologies.

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