Calm quiet fills the ground floor of Amazement Square as a Linkhone Elementary School student gazes into the bottom of a cylindrical beehive.

“Look at those bees,” he says to himself as he watches the prone insects.

Then, he looks up to the top of the enclosure.

“Oh!” he exclaims, shattering the stillness as he takes in the mass of yellow and black stripes bobbing in between sections of honeycomb.

“Bee in the Know," the newest permanent addition to the downtown children’s museum, offers visitors a rare glimpse inside an active beehive.

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Bees swarm inside a nested hive that is part of Amazement Square's new permanent exhibit "Bee in the Know."

"[It’s] not just for the children, but for the adults,” says Anne Saloka, the museum’s lead education specialist. “People are just fascinated to be able to safely get up close and really, really look. Ordinarily, you would not get this close, so there’s a natural curiosity.”

Built in just nine months, the exhibit, which opened to the public last month, continues the museum’s mission of turning theoretical learning into a hands-on experience.

“We try to be current, and we try to be reflective in what we do at the museum in terms of important concepts and subjects that are affecting our society, and our ecosystem and our culture,” says Mort Sajadian, CEO of Amazement Square.

Insects have played a role in the downtown children’s museum since its creation in the late 1990s.

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The entryway to Amazement Square's new permanent exhibit, "Bee in the Know."

When the J.W. Wood Building was being restored as part of its conversion into a museum, several old, faded ads for an insect-killing soil mix were uncovered. One particular ad, painted across the Jefferson Street side of the building, proclaims “Death To All Insects.”

It wasn’t a great message to have emblazoned on a family-oriented learning institution, but since the building was registered as a historic site, the writing on its façade had to stay.

The founders came up with a creative solution: adopting insects as the museum’s mascot, called the LynchBugs.

Since 2001, two of these critters, an ant and a scorpion, have hung on the side of the building where they appear to be painting over the ad, turning the negative campaign into a call for locals to “Respect all insects.”

Bees are among the insects that make up the Lynchbugs, Sajadian says, and since their survival is currently under threat, the leadership at Amazement Square felt it was important to raise awareness.

Pollinators, including bees, are responsible for one in every three bites of food humans consume. Despite their indispensable role in the Earth’s ecosystem, honeybee populations have been declining for decades.

“I felt it was very important for us to undertake a reintroduction and reeducation of our community in terms of why bees are very important,” says Sajadian.

But the exhibit needed to do more than teach bee basics, in the CEO’s eyes. He wanted it to help eliminate the culture of fear that surrounds these honey producers.

“Any time you have a fear about something, you misunderstand it,” he says. “If you diffuse and remove that fear ... then you become a better person for it.”

What better way to reduce the sting surrounding bees than by incorporating live bees into the exhibit?

Set against a hand-painted background featuring a lush garden filled with brightly colored flowers and grassy fields, “Bee in the Know” features activity stations that cover such topics as pollination and bee anatomy.

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Casey Hahn helps his son Liam Hahn, 8, try on a beekeeper outfit at Amazement Square's new permanent exhibit, "Bee in the Know,” on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019.

Children can dress up as bees or beekeepers and view a display of bee-related byproducts, including beeswax candles, toothpaste and, of course, honey.

“We try to emphasize the importance of bees in our lives ... and the ecology perspective of how we need to take care of the environment in order for the bees to survive,” says Saloka.

Even with all the surrounding buzz, the observational hives, only one of which is currently active, are the focal point of the exhibit.

Built inside structures designed to look like trees, a square hive illustrates how domestic bees structure their hives by building honeycomb in straight lines atop wooden frames.

Meanwhile, the hive inside the large, cylindrical tube lets the bees build free-form honeycomb as they would in nature.

Not even beekeepers see hives like these very often, says Certified Master Beekeeper Ann Zudekoff, who consulted on the exhibit. “Typically, a bee colony in a tree is 10 to 15 feet up.”

Although "there are a number of purely science museums that have hives," Sajadian says, incorporating live bees into an exhibit is somewhat of a rarity among children’s museums.

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Sophia Pritchett, 9, observes bees flying around in Amazement Square's new, permanent exhibit, "Bee in the Know,” on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019.

That didn't deter him. After all, Amazement Square — which in 2015 was awarded the National Medal for Museum and Library Service, the highest honor a museum or library can receive — is often venturing into the unknown.  

The team sought guidance from local and regional bee experts, including Zudekoff, trained in proper beekeeping techniques and spent months designing and redesigning the exhibit.

“We would start with an idea, and then we’d have to change one aspect of it, and it would have this chain reaction,” says Logan Doneghue, the museum’s preparator and fabricator. 

Because bees prefer their hives to be warm and dark, Amazement Square's staff chose to build the exhibit in the transitional corridor that connects the museum to the Genworth Education Center, which opened last year. There also is an emergency exit right next to the observational hives since all of their maintenance and upkeep is conducted outside, Sajadian adds.

As pollinators, the bees needed to be able to get in and out of the museum to gather food, so clear tubing was used to create pathways from the top of each hive to the outside world on the northern side of the building that faces the James River. A section of the tubing is visible, so visitors can watch the worker bees carry pollen into their hives. The rest goes into and through the wall, making a small tunnel.

Not only did the hives need to look aesthetically pleasing and efficient for the bees, they also needed to be built so staffers could take them apart for maintenance while still keeping the insects away from visitors, says Doneghue. 

To ensure the safety of both the bees and the museum's human guests, the tree-shaped structure that holds the hives can be opened and the entire hive, including the plexiglass that surrounds it, can be removed. 

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Bees inside Amazement Square's new permanent exhibit, "Bee in the Know,” on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019.

In addition to designing the exhibit, there also was the matter of procuring bees.

Staffers started the museum’s colonies in April with the intention of introducing them into the exhibit in time for a summer opening.

The bees, on the other hand, had no intention of working within Amazement Square’s schedule.

“Bees being bees, nothing works out right,” says Zudekoff, who also helped with the transfer. “They’re on their timetable, not humans' timetable.”

Even after the bees were ready to enter their new abode, the relocation got held up when the queen bees, which were travelling in from Hawaii, did not arrive on time.

The relocation was eventually pushed to September, leading to a slight delay in the exhibit’s opening.


Angel Pennix, 9, tries on a bee costume that's part of the exhibit "Bee in the Know."

“Bee in the Know” is just the first part of Amazement Square’s bee-related plans.

Staffers are already working on a bee blog and have installed a camera so the activity in the hive can be livestreamed through the museum's website.

Sajadian says he wants to create ongoing educational programs for both novice and veteran beekeepers in conjunction with the local beekeeping community.

Part of that will involve having an apiarist onsite every couple of weeks, says Zudekoff.

“The exhibit has a lot of information, but there are always questions,” she adds.

Next spring, staffers will start a pollination garden near the picnic area out back. Nationally recognized artist Matthew Willey also has been hired to paint a four-story, bee-themed mural on the building’s exterior back wall.

That’s only the beginning.

Sajadian wants to develop an annual beekeeping conference for the region and beyond. There might even be opportunities to get involved with bee-related research.

“Our goal," he says, "is really to develop a program that can become a consortium of beekeepers within the region and beyond."

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