There’s a buzz at The Charlton School.
The honeybees are back.
“For the past 20 years or so the honeybees have come into the back of the barn, building combs. Only last year we didn’t have them,” said Bob Thorpe, who for nearly 30 years has maintained the grounds at the 41-student, not-for-profit residential treatment center and state-approved 853 special education school.
Thorpe had to admit he was puzzled that the bees took a year off, especially after he and a helper three years ago built a glass viewing window in the barn along Lake Hill Road so that students and staff could more easily view the busy visitors.
So the next season, he waited. “I was nervous. I’m very passionate about it. And then I saw one or two bees, and then four or five, and then on June 28, I saw tons of them. I said, ‘Oh my God, they’re back.’ ”
Science teachers Patrick Clear and Alex Becher like to take their students across the road to see the bees, and school executive director Alex Capo is very supportive of the project.
“This is our living classroom that Bob has built for us,” said Clear.
“[The students] are pretty wary of it at first,” said Becher of the colony, which has somewhere between 40,000 and 60,000 healthy bees.
“But they think it’s pretty cool,” added Clear.
Clear himself is a beekeeper at home, and he plans next year to attach a box to the wall of the Charlton colony and let the bees build out the comb so they can then remove some of the honey. “We can make our own Charlton School honey,” he said, noting that the school has a farmers’ market each year where the students raise money for programs.
And there could be more than honey available. Last spring Thorpe tapped some of the maple trees on campus.
“We came out and had the students taste the sap,” said Clear, “and then we boiled it down to syrup. It’s an interesting lesson for the kids. It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.”
The Charlton School is situated on more than 200 acres within the Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake Central School District. Its student population consists of females ages 13-18 who are intellectually highly functioning but have experienced multiple psychiatric hospitalizations and school disruptions as a result of mood disorders, attachment struggles and complex traumas in early development.
The educational and treatment teams include a psychiatrist, nurse, therapists, teachers, psychologist, equine therapist and other staff. The goal is to help the students successfully navigate adolescence and achieve improved mental health.
The spacious campus includes a nature trail, pond, barn with horses, tennis courts and more in addition to residential, academic, administrative and athletic buildings.
For Thorpe, the bees represent more than just an interesting viewing opportunity.
“They’re important to the environment,” said the Galway resident, who is active as an advocate for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska and an accomplished wildlife photographer. (His stunning wildlife photographs can be seen at robertthorpe.blogspot.com.)
Thorpe has traveled above the Arctic Circle a half-dozen times and befriended Sarah James, a native Gwich’in from Arctic Village, Alaska, who has received multiple honors for her efforts to protect the refuge from plans for oil and gas exploration. James traveled to Glens Falls a few years ago to appear at one of Thorpe’s photo exhibitions.
“Be it the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or the honeybees, they need to be protected,” said Thorpe, adding that The Charlton School campus itself “is a refuge for the students and the bees.”