It’s all Bees-iness

4G Honey Team brings national spotlight to Hawkins

Story by Lisa Savage

several people in bee suits outside at sunsetMackenzie Rutherford knew bees played an important role in pollination. She knew little else about the insects three years ago, when she and three of her fellow students at Hawkins High School set out on an adventure that has put the school’s beekeeping program in the national spotlight.

Now, the 4G Honey Team has grown from those original four shy girls responsible for the team’s name — 4G stands for four girls — to more than 24 members, national grant funding and a program that serves as a model across the state. Rutherford now works on her grandfather’s watermelon farm. She’s also employed with FedEx, and she speaks often to school groups, civic clubs and others to share information about the importance of bees, beekeeping and honey.

“This just blew up in the best sort of way,” she says of the 4G Honey Team. “I went to college for a year, I got a job, and this program will help the younger students coming along. And it completely changed the direction of my life.”

4G Honey

The 4G Honey Team started quite by accident, Hawkins FFA Advisor Matt Byrd says. In 2019, bees were naturally swarming on the grounds of Ozarka Spring Water plant, especially near the loading docks. “Because it was a water bottling facility, they were limited on what they could do,” Byrd says.

Girl wearing bee protection outfit giving thumbs upCheryl Conaway, quality assurance manager at Ozarka, contacted Daniel Lemmon, of Flint Apiary and Farms, and they reached out to Byrd, thinking the FFA might have a beekeeping program. “We didn’t have anything like that,” he says.

However, Conaway, Lemmon and Byrd came up with a plan. The FFA members used woodworking skills to build hives, which they placed across the 3,000 acres of Ozarka property, and they relocated the bees to the hives. Ozarka provided access to its land and paid for bee suits, wood and other equipment. “We basically set up a bee garden away from the plant but still on the property,” Byrd says.

In the meantime, Rutherford, Jessica Hennous, Brook Goddard and Rachel Parrish approached Byrd wanting to find an FFA project to enter at the Houston Ag Show, the state FFA competition.

Competitions featured ag mechanics components where students built trailers and all kinds of ag-related projects. “I’d never seen any group build bee- hives,” Byrd says. “It had usually been large pieces of equipment.”

Byrd reached out to the competition officials who determined beehives could be considered for the showmanship division because of bees’ vital role in agriculture.

“They had to build the beehives, and have knowledge of the project and how it works. They had to break the hive down and explain what each part does,” he says.

They didn’t place in their specific division but won the show’s Overall Reserve Champion out of 500 other schools. “That’s when they were asked to do presentations at garden clubs and other places, doing one or two a week,” he says.

They also received orders and requests for the beehive boxes.

What's the Buzz About

several people in bee suits taking honeyThe school didn’t have much money in the budget for the 4G Honey Team and the beekeeping project, so Ozarka helped buy the initial tools to build cedar boxes, which provide a natural oil repellant to other insects that might go after the bees.

Ozarka featured the team in a video presentation that went out to its other plants across the country. Then came the call from NBC’s “Today” show, which produced a segment about the team. As part of the segment, the show visited Hawkins and asked the community to fill the school gym.

During the filming at the gym, Ozarka surprised the 4G Honey Team with a $10,000 grant to expand, and $5,000 scholarship for each of the four original members. Soon, the phones started ringing for honey orders and bee boxes. “We weren’t prepared for it initially,” Byrd says.

“We basically turned it into a business. All the proceeds go back to the 4G Honey Team.”

They set up an Etsy store online and shipped honey all over the country, and now, the group has expanded the business portion even more, using the beeswax for candle making and other products.

As the original 4G girls graduated, other students stepped up to continue the work. Emma Williams came into FFA as a shy eighth grader and joined the 4G Honey Team a few years later.

“Not only did I learn so much about how crucial bees are to our environment, but it got me out of my shell and improved my public speaking skills,” Williams says. Now, she plans to attend Texas A&M- Commerce and work toward a degree in ag communications.

“This team has shaped my life,” she says. “It’s been a life-changing program and has such an impact on our school and our community.”

The Gertrude Windsor Garden Club in Tyler submitted a grant application to the National Alliance of North American Garden Clubs. The 4G Honey Team was chosen and received the $30,000 grant, which helps buy more bee suits, build more hives and a larger honey extractor, along with funds to construct an observation booth at the school.

The school board also approved spending $9 million in capital investments throughout the school system, and that includes a new FFA and ag facility at Hawkins, Byrd says. The new facility will include industrial grade honey extractors and other equipment to expand the pro- gram even more.

The state of Texas approved a state- funded beekeeping curriculum course using the Hawkins 4G team as the model. “This is a huge win for other schools, too,” Byrd says. “It’s wonderful to know something we started three years ago is having such a positive impact on so many others now.”