Bee Girl creates buzz at Hildene

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MANCHESTER >> An expert on bees spent a week in Manchester at Hildene, the Lincoln Family Home, leading workshops for elementary school students, high school students, and adults.

Sarah Red-Laird, founder and executive director of The Bee Girl Organization, put on school programs for area third graders on Tuesday and Wednesday, and gave presentations and Burr and Burton Academy and Arlington Memorial High School on Thursday and Friday. She also was this year's guest speaker for Hildene's "Last Best Hope," series, in which the organization invites speakers who see monumental problems in the world and takes steps toward fixing them. On Saturday, Red-Laird will be leading a "Bee Safari" at Hildene from 9 a.m. to noon at Hildene's Beckwith Room, teaching community members to recognize the major groups of bees, study their biology, critical habitat requirements, and threats they face. The cost of that program is $8 for Hildene members and $10 for non-members.

At the presentation in Arlington on Friday, Red-Laird was introduced by Stephanie Moffett Hynds, Hildene's director of programming, who reminded the students, "Hildene is right in your backyard. It's 412 acres, and there's a lot going on there." Last year, the group launched a program, "Gardens for Monarchs and Bees," which traveled to area schools teaching students about the important roles pollinators play in local ecosystems. That program went to Arlington's Fisher Elementary School, Dorset Elementary, and Manchester Elementary.

A graduate of the University of Montana, Missoula, and a current resident of Oregon, Red-Laird said she had become interested in bees at a young age, experiencing bees and bee-keeping for the first time at the age of 3. "I don't know if it was how something so small could hurt so much when they sting you, or my affinity for the honey they make, but there's always been something about bees that has fascinated me."

Besides her work as The Bee Girl, Red-Laird also worked as a contractor with the U.S. Department of Defense, training bees to sniff out landmines. She did this by giving the bees a sugary reward when they were in the presence of DNT, a chemical byproduct given off by the TNT inside of land mines. When released into the field, the bees would congregate around land mines, where they could smell the DNT. A thermal map of the area would show a ballistic expert where the mines could be found. Currently, the U.S. military trains dogs to sniff out DNT, but this has led to accidents with the dogs or their handlers accidentally setting off the mines. The bees are so light that they do not set off the mines, so the whole process can be done without loss of life.

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She explained to the students, who ranged in age from freshmen to seniors, that bees do much more, both for the environment and for humanity, than finding land mines. They pollinate flowers, produce honey, and a component in their venom has been shown to treat HIV and other ailments.

However, she said, bee populations have been declining at a rapid rate in recent years, and it is easy to see why. "Is it truly a mystery?" she asked, "I don't think it's that mysterious, and a lot of other people don't think so either." She pointed to varroa mites, an invasive species that breeds in honey bee colonies, and infects the bees with a disease called varroosis, pesticide use, climate change, and loss of habitat as major factors in the decrease in the bee population.

"I really believe," she told the students as a parting message, "that the bigger the challenge, the bigger the chance for growth." She encouraged them avoid using pesticides at their homes, to plant flower gardens, and to simply let weeds grow. She also praised Hildene for working on replacing much unused grassy space on the property with pollinator-friendly flowers. However, she said, the most important way to help the bees is simply to, "create a space in your heart for bees."

According to their website, beegirl.org, Red-Laird's organization, "aims to conserve our bees by educating the public on their importance through our programs focused on community classes and events, public lectures, our Kids and Bees program, and our University program. The Bee Girl organization also facilitates the Farming for Bees initiative, empowering and recognizing land managers who provide habitat for our bees. Bee Girl engages with communities across the nation, and the globe, spreading knowledge and bringing a sense of wonder from the hive to the people."

Derek Carson can be reached for comment at 802-447-7567, ext. 122.


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