Dunbar students take a train ride to protect honeybees

Solidifying their title as the coolest neighbors in the Valley, last week John and Nancy Lasseter invited every classroom at Dunbar Elementary School to come take a ride on their private train. But it was more than just a joyride – students rode with hand-made “bee bombs,” a mixture of soil and wildflower seeds that will attract honeybees, which they eagerly threw into a vacant field on the Lasseter’s property.

“We wanted give the children an empathetic perspective about the plight of the honeybees, and show them that there are fun and positive ways to achieve balance in nature and also make a difference,” Nancy Lasseter said.

It was part of a larger effort to protect the honeybee population in Sonoma County, which, following international trends, has drastically dwindled in recent years. As bees do not pollinate the county’s major crop, winegrapes, their habitat has diminished over the years, threatening the bees’ food source.

The North Coast Natural Resource Conservation and Development Council is working to enhance the local population with its “Bee Patch” program to create dedicated habitats for honeybees, which in Sonoma Valley is being spearheaded by Tish Ward, vineyard manager for Atwood Ranch. Her goal is to have 100-acres of native wildflowers planted across Sonoma Valley by Nov. 1, and has targeted vacant plots of land like the field provided at Lasseter Family Winery.

“As stewards of the land, we employ organic and sustainable farming practices not just because it is our duty, but because it is simply the right thing to do,” Nancy Lasseter said. She added that it has become a personal mission for the family ever since her youngest son, Jackson, did a school project on honeybees. They enlisted beekeeper Randi Sue Collins to tend four active hives on the property, which will benefit from the field of wildflowers come spring.

“Since Jackson and my husband, John, love honey, they were all for the idea,” Nancy Lasseter said.

But it was a conversation between a landscaper at Lasseter and Dunbar’s school garden coordinator Alissa Pearce that got the students in on the action. Pearce said the students had been studying the bee predicament, and a plan was hatched to offer unique hands-on education about species conservation.

“As fun as this is, it’s a cumulative experience for a year-long project on bees,” said Dunbar Principal Melanie Blake. “It’s an integrated science lecture – something they worked on last year and will continue learning about this year.”

On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, the classes took turns making visits to the neighboring winery. After ascending a steep slope, the youngsters were greeted with a life-sized version of Lightning McQueen and Mater, both stars of the popular Pixar flick, “Cars,” which incited shrieks of glee when Alita Matthews’ class of first graders arrived on Tuesday.

“They’re here – they’re real!” exclaimed 6-year-old Sarah, who pressed her face up so close, her breath left a cloud of fog on Lightning McQueen’s shiny red paint.

Students began with a lesson on bees from Collins, who held up pictures to show the difference between a honeybee, yellow jacket and hornet. She offered fun facts on what makes bees unique, such as how they create static electricity to attract pollen, which they carry back to the hive.

But as soon as the Lasseter’s vintage steam train rolled up to the mustard yellow Justi Station, the students quickly lost focus on anything but the engine. After getting settled into the open-air cars, each child was given two eggs packed with a mixture of soil and wildflower seeds.

“About 600 eggs were donated by the families – we have 265 students, times two eggs each, plus a few extra for adults,” Blake said, explaining that the school sent home instructions for how to carefully remove the top of the egg shell so it could be packed with soil.

The train chugged along, past colorful cow cutouts and carved wooden bears, before coming to a stop at a vacant field. With an egg in each hand, the 6- and 7-year-olds got into position, waiting patiently for the OK to throw their “bee bombs.”

When the time came, the eggs sailed into the air, making a light plop as they hit the ground. The Lasseters’ crew will tend the field of flowers, and students are hopeful they can return in the spring to see their contributions in bloom.

“It gives me great joy to have this opportunity to share an appreciation of our environment, and an understanding of the importance of living in harmony with nature,” Nancy Lasseter said.

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