'You have to be emotionally regulated' - How beekeeping is helping teach mindfulness to vulnerable teens

Sarah Kearney, a fourth year Social Work student at UCC, has introduced beehives to help students at Cork City Learning Support Centre

A University College Cork student is using beekeeping to teach mindfulness to vulnerable young people in a Cork city school.

Sarah Kearney, a fourth-year Social Work student at UCC, has introduced beehives to help students at Cork City Learning Support Centre to develop skills for life within and beyond the classroom.

A third of Ireland's bees could be extinct by 2030.

Sarah, who has spent years tending to her own beehives, says the careful pace of beekeeping taught her the importance of mindfulness, helping her to manage stress and even overcome her fear of water.

“I’ve learned a lot of coping skills while managing hives. You have to be emotionally regulated; you can’t get panicked or run away – they’ll come after you!” she laughs.

As a beekeeper, you have to go at a slow pace. I wasn’t, at the start – it was all rush, rush, rush. It was only through practicing that I learned the benefit of mindfulness.

During her undergraduate course work placement, Sarah was keen to try a fresh and fun way of engaging her students, aged 13 to 23; many of whom are from war-torn countries, and all of whom are, sadly, processing some form of trauma.

A year-and-a-half ago, with protective suits for each student and epi-pens at the ready, Sarah introduced the first beehive – containing 120,000 bees – to the school. Thus began a journey that has proven transformative for the students.

From tending to the hives on the roof, to building the bee-boxes and creating a special garden to help the bees to thrive; this has become a labour of love for Sarah’s class.

“The hive is a community, and that’s helping the young people to realise that they’re not on their own; they’re not the only ones going through this experience, and by doing it together they might be able to achieve something,” Sarah explains.

“Things will happen over the year with the beehive – you lose a queen, a hive gets sick. It’s a way of teaching kids that things happen in life, but there are ways of working around it; you can focus on the positive over the negative.

It has helped some of the young people in foster care to understand that you don’t have to have this perfect family; you can make your own family, and others can become your support system.

Productivity and concentration levels in class have increased significantly, particularly for students dealing with Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) diagnoses.

“It is benefiting vulnerable children,” says Sarah.

“The teachers noticed a considerable improvement after the introduction of the bees. If they go to the bees in the morning and then, say, have a maths class, they are calm. They have all the jitters out of their system, and they’re more focused and relaxed.”

Now, with eight beehives in the school, beekeeping has become an integral part of the students’ lives, and one that they enjoy immensely. Indeed, many of them have, on occasion, come to school outside of hours to give Sarah an extra hand.

Sarah, who is from Laois, intends to continue her innovative work after graduation, and hopes to someday run a respite centre for vulnerable people of all ages.

“I’d love to see if it would work in men’s sheds, community centres. It’s not just tailored to young people or vulnerable people – it’s everyone,” she says.

“Businesses, for example, could really benefit from time spent getting back to nature, combating burnout and fatigue.

“It’s just a different kind of therapy, a new coping mechanism.”

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