Hawkeye program helps student connect with nature

Wednesday, April 10, 2019
Members of the Hawkeye group cleaned out the bee box. They are, left to right, Maverick Stief,  Conservation Naturalist Laura Jones, Megan Claussen,  Peyton Kohn,  and Kayla Hughes.
Photo contributed.

Hawkeyes began in Cherokee elementary school in the 1960’s with students participating in shooting sports and hunter safety activities. After a short hiatus a few years ago, it was brought back and re-vamped to include hands-on activities in conservation and outdoor recreation.

Students in grades 5th-8th can elect to participate in activities like cross country skiing, building birdhouses, ice fishing, orienteering, hunter safety, and more.  

As an obvious next step in expanding hands-on opportunities for the Hawkeyes program, an outdoor classroom was created. What is an outdoor classroom? Put simply, it is a space that brings learning outside. 

Located to the north of the Cherokee Middle School, you will find a two-acre prairie reconstruction, wetland, bird blind, bird feeders, and various animal houses (built by the students, of course). As a bonus, that space is there for other grade levels and classes to use for educational purposes! That space can be a muse for art and writing classes as well as provide an area for science experiments. 

Hawkeyes students have been involved in the outdoor classroom from the very beginning requesting a bird blind, installing bird feeders, building bird and bat houses, installing bird houses, and as of recently, planting 40 shrubs that will eventually produce cherries, cranberries, plums, and chokecherries. Since its installation, students and staff of the Cherokee Middle School have noticed an increase in wildlife right out their back door. In fact, checking the bird boxes last spring revealed a rare treat, a bluebird nest with eggs. (Eastern bluebirds are picky nesters, rarely nesting in cities and only choosing areas with the best habitat. This species was once one of concern due to the decrease in population as a result of habitat destruction and nest predation.)

During one of the regular monthly Hawkeyes meetings last year, a guest speaker came to talk about honeybees and pollination. From that moment on, the students were hooked on bees! So last May there was a new addition to the program, requested by the students — a beehive. Purchased by the Cherokee County Conservation Board and our local chapter of Pheasants Forever, hybrid bees were placed within the outdoor classroom. (There are several different types of bees, each type having its own characteristics varying in honey producing ability and demeanor.) The nuc consisted of 5 frames with a queen that was already laying eggs and she was accompanied by 10,000 or so workers. By mid-summer, they were around 60,000 bees. Some hives can get as large as 100,000 bees.

The bees did well in the summer and Hawkeyes students were excited to visit the bees and the outdoor classroom in the fall.  They checked on the bees often, watching as they went in and out of the hive carrying pollen. During a hive’s first year, they typically don’t make enough excess honey for participants, only enough for themselves to survive winter. (They need 70-100 lbs of honey for winter.) However, there was an extra frame or two of honey for students to sample.

Unfortunately, the bees did not make it through the winter, which seems to be the story for many a beekeeper this year. There are many reasons that bees do not survive winter: harsh weather, starve to death if not left enough honey, or too many mites, just to name a few. It’s thought that the outdoor classroom hive didn’t make it due to the high number of mites that created wounds in the bee’s exoskeleton. Bees cannot heal their exterior like humans can. Unfortunately, Hawkeyes students had to spend time this month cleaning dead bees from the hive, preparing it for a new colony.

Another nuc of bees is on order for the outdoor classroom. The hope is to continue connecting Hawkeyes students with conservation and real world events. Pollinators are on a downward trend due to many factors, but are so important for human survival. Overtime, the bees will produce honey from plants in the outdoor classroom and surrounding area that students will collect, process, and sell as a fundraiser for the Hawkeyes program.

In the future, students might want to use the wax from processing to make other products like lotions, lip balm, candles, and more. Collecting and processing the honey and wax will also expose students to the idea of economics and farm to table, instilling a sense of place, and a greater idea of how all things are connected. 

Cherokee County Conservation Laura Jones encourages you to visit the outdoor classroom sometime to see all of the things students have done to make an undesirable area near the school into a place that they enjoy visiting and working.  The Hawkeyes students take pride in that space, so if you have a Hawkeye nearby she is sure they’d love to show you around! The best time to look at prairie plants is late summer-early fall. Please take only photos of the flowers, allowing them to stay behind and continue to seed the prairie. Go in the evening, towards dusk and listen to the frogs sing and watch the deer eat.  

If you have any questions about Hawkeyes or the outdoor classroom at the Cherokee Middle School, contact Laura Jones at the Cherokee County Conservation Board by calling 712-225-6709 or e-mailing cccblaura@gmail.com. Laura Jones was a major contribute for information obtained for this story,


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