Sixth Grade Science Asks: To Bee or Not to Bee?

What’s all the buzz about bees? Sixth-graders learned a swarm of buzz-worthy facts about bees from Paul Zahller, Upper School Science Teacher and JK-12 Interim Science Department Chair, and MICDS junior Peter Grace ’23. They delivered a special presentation about these winged pollinators as part of the sixth-grade science unit on the growth of organisms.

Zahller shared facts about bees’ essential role in natural and agricultural systems. Bees work as pollinators of flowering plants, which provide food, fibers, spices, medicines, and animal forage. Plants rely on pollinators to reproduce, seed, and fruit, which helps plants offer a crucial element for humans and other species to function on planet Earth.

Grace represented a unique perspective from his family’s honey business, Amazing Grace Honey, and detailed the dynamic and complex process of how bees make honey. When a queen lays an egg in a honeycomb cell, it quickly becomes a larva fed by young worker nurse bees. First, they are either fed with “worker jelly,” “drone jelly,” or “royal jelly,” which contains more protein, vitamins, fats, and other minerals. Then, after about six days, the egg cell is covered with a layer of wax by the worker bees until it’s ready to emerge.

So, where does the beekeeper enter the story? Beekeepers create artificial hives and bring in a queen to colonize the hive for the honey supply. A queen can lay approximately 1,500 eggs per day to populate the colony, and it takes about 80 pounds of honey to sustain a colony of bees. Bees naturally create an excess, so the beekeeper can extract about half of the honey to process and distribute to local vendors. Since bees sting, the beekeepers have to wear protective gear, including long pants, gloves, and a helmet with a cover. They use a smoker to move the bees out of the way.

Fun Fact: When bees smell smoke, they think it’s from a wildfire which sparks them to go back to the hive, eat the honey, and shore up for a pending reduction in food. While the bees are tricked into thinking there is a fire, the beekeeper pulls out the frames that hold the honeycombs, checks for parasites and contaminants, and puts them back into place.

When harvesting honey, the beekeepers make sure the honeycombs don’t have live bees, eggs, or larvae before placing the frames in the extruder machine. The next step is to separate the wax from the raw honey, so more extraction and reduction occur until the golden goodness of the honey is revealed.

Fun Fact: It takes two million flowers to produce one pound of honey, and one bee makes a little under half a teaspoon of honey in its lifespan. Imagine how many bees it takes to create one single jar!

How do bees work so well together? Zahller donned his golden antennae and bumblebee suit to explain how bees communicate! Like all insects, bees have antennae full of chemo-sensory receptors, which help them smell and see all kinds of complex chemicals such as pheromones and detect vibrations of air and movements. Bees take that information and release chemicals to communicate with other bees. Meg Coverdell ’28 enjoyed this part the most, “It was fun to watch and learn that bees communicate differently!” Another communication method is movement. A bee will signal to its bee family that food is within 160-ish meters by shaking its thorax in a movement called the “round dance,” where it nudges bees in a circular motion with a directional signal on where to go for food. The “waggle dance” is more complicated: Bees can geo-locate based on the sun’s position and how far they are from food. Zahller demonstrated that the waggle dance is a wiggly figure eight with its thorax pointed in the direction of the food. To get really into the science, the length of time associated with the waggle shows the distance of the food.

As the room swarmed with bee knowledge, Johanna Orwick ’28 said, “I really enjoyed the presentation, and it made me realize how important bees are to our planet. Learning about the complex ways that bees communicate was especially interesting to me!”

Fun Fact: Did you know that the MICDS campus has two bee boxes with two queens and colonies who do their favorite work of pollinating campus and making honey every day?

Thank you, Peter and Mr. Zahller, for sharing your hive of information on the sweet and essential work of bees in our daily life, our campus, and the planet!