A few days ago two OxNatBees members were invited to Wolvercote Primary School to introduce children to bees and beekeeping as part of the school’s Big Science Day (along with investigations into Worms, Fireworks, Electricity, Microscopes, Rockets, Floating and Sinking, and Slime).
Ann P and Paul were assigned to Badger Class and set up a display of beekeeping equipment, posters and pictures in an alcove off the classroom. We talked to three classes over the course of the day and had taken along loads of things to show them.
Favourites proved to be examining an open (but empty) hive and handling its comb, tasting honey, and of course dressing up in suits and veils! A big thank you to Ann W, Will and Jack for lending us child-sized suits and suitable veils. And a big apology to the cleaners and parents for the sticky floor and clothes after the kids found the jar of runny honey…
As the day went on we adapted to the fluidity of telling and showing excited young children key things in a limited time. Their teacher Emma instilled some structure by initially settling the children and giving them basic background on bees in a short Powerpoint presentation and group discussion before letting them loose on us in batches of about 4 kids each – this way we could almost keep up with the barrage of questions.
Teacher’s presentation and what the children already knew
The teacher, Emma, first got the children to write down what they already knew about bees, which served as a jumping-off point for introducing key points like:
- there are 250 different kinds of bee in Britain and 25,000 in the world
- a hive can have up to 60,000 honeybees
- bees visit 2 million flowers to make a jar of honey
The key facts the children already knew were bees make honey and bees can sting you, but to our delight the 6-7 year olds were also aware that: honeybees die if they sting you; they only sting if you hurt them; if the queen leaves they all follow; and the queen is the mother of them all. It transpired that they had absorbed this by studying books called The Scented Garden and Brilliant Bugs in years 1 & 2.
We explained in a simplified way how bees make honey: gathering nectar, regurgitating it and fanning their wings to evaporate / concentrate nectar spread across comb. (A few children were confused between nectar and pollen.) Regurgitation and mouth-to-mouth feeding grossed out a couple of kids so we helpfully pointed out this is similar to how humans used to feed babies.
Emma asked why we need bees. The children said we’d die without them. But why? “Because trees need them to live… we need trees for oxygen” (good answer!). With a little guidance they connected bees to pollination and food.
Emma then assigned different children to different roles in the hive (ignoring gender politics). Boys were keen to be guards, girls tended to bundle onto a pile of cushions where the queen was being attended, and we did a group waggle dance to indicate where food is. The key facts we were trying to lodge in their heads, of course, are that bees have different roles, co-operate and communicate, and also how important they are to us.
We had child-sized suits and veils to dress up in (one lad paused before putting on a veil to ask “is this for girls?”); an empty Warré hive with some comb; a comb sample with a queen cell; a skep; a hollow log (“this is where bees live in the wild”); propolis to smell; a rock-hard solid wax lump to compare with comb; a wax candle; goose feathers (we explained these made very soft brushes to move bees without annoying them); a smoker, which still smelt despite being unlit, and which the boys greatly enjoyed squirting at each other; a queen cage; a kaleidoscope (see picture); and hive tools.
We also had a lot of photos to illustrate various points like: different species of bees; close ups of bees collecting pollen; their multifaceted eyes; and a “spot the queen in this group” challenge.
The children really enjoyed the interactions and the dressing-up part – although at one point I helped a small boy into an adult sized bee suit only to end up with it on back to front and his leg through an arm!
The childrens’ response to the smell of propolis was interesting. Most adults love its rich, complex scent but if the first child of a group to smell it declared it was horrid, almost all the others in that group decided the same; whereas if the first child liked it, so did most of the others.
Some questions arising
- How often do you get stung? – About 6 times a year, managing 5 hives. But I know a beekeeper who is stung up to 40 times in one day. Bees are like dogs or people – if you treat them roughly, they react badly, so we treat our bees very gently and they don’t think of us as a threat.
- Are we going to eat honey? Can we eat wax? – Yes; yes but while wax won’t harm you, there’s no nutrition in it
- How many bees are there in the world? – Errr… well there are several million hives in the world with up to 60,000 bees in each, it’s a good sum to try…?
- Can I eat this comb? – Yeeess… but it’s old so probably best not, try the pure honey instead
- How long does it take a bee to die after it stings you? – A few minutes
We left Emma with a lot of seeds for bee-friendly flowers, donated by Ann W, which she is passing to a colleague who teaches the children about ecology and runs a garden for them.
We’re told the children wrote an account of the day, and the bee suits, honeycomb and getting to touch the equipment kept coming up as their favourite part of the day.
I left with a huge respect for the unbounded enthusiasm of young children and renewed respect for teachers and their undervalued skills – primarily patience!