School Outreach Work
by Jaime Pawelek
The Urban Bee Lab has been performing outreach to schools in the San Francisco Bay Area, Salinas (Monterey Co.), and Oxnard (Ventura Co.) for the past several years. Our work includes teaching children about pollinators and pollination, where their food comes from, and how to plant a bee garden at their school. We have worked with children grades 3-7 and with teachers at many schools; more specifically with Laura Honda at Manor School, Marin Co., Sue Holland at Middle Creek Middle School, Marin Co., and Beth Sonnenberg at Martin Luther King Middle School, Alameda Co.
One of the main topics we discuss with kids at the onset of our presentations is the “sting factor,” which is on the minds of the students and some teachers when the topic of bees arises. Female bees have an egg laying apparatus (“stinger”) that is used for laying eggs, and when needed, in defense, they switch on venom that travels down the same canal as the eggs to produce a sting. Because male bees don’t lay eggs, they don’t have a “stinger”. We want them to realize that bees really don’t want to sting, because they are afraid of humans! We are bigger in size and that matters! Bees use it as a last resort and would rather fly away than have to sting. In our field work in California only very rarely do we experience a sting, and this usually happens through careless handling of a female bee in a net.
Another fun topic is honey. We ask them where it comes from and if they know how it’s made. They all know that honey bees make it, but what they are surprised to find out is that it is actually “bee barf”! Honey bees regurgitate nectar they collect from flowers, and back at the hive they pass it among each other many times before it actually becomes honey. It’s surprising to see their reaction when they realize how nectar becomes honey. Honey then takes on a whole new meaning!
We also like to expose children to the vast diversity of bees that can be found in city gardens. We have boxes of curated bees collected from California and Costa Rica that we display (with a magnifying glass) to provide a closer look at the different sizes and colors of bees. The biggest reaction comes from the largest carpenter bees, that can be more than an inch long in body length with an outstretched wingspan of ~ 2 inches, and the tiny stingless bees that look like ants with wings. At first they are wide-eyed and surprised by the variety of bees, but then you hear oohing and ahhing over the diversity of specimens. Some bee species have metallic colors of blue or green, which bring additional oohs and ahhs.
Another important part of our outreach is connecting bees and other pollinators to food. We often conduct an exercise where we give children a choice of foods to pick from, like berries, almonds, chocolate, rice cakes, and corn tortillas. They favor the first three, and when they find out that without pollination they might have a diet that consists more of the latter two, they are surprised. We then explain that if we didn’t have pollinators like bees, wasps, bats, moths, and flies our diet would consist mainly of foods that are wind pollinated (eg. rice, corn, and wheat), and we would lose a lot of our favorite foods. We feel that this helps create awareness and inspires children to want to conserve natural pollinators.
During the summers of 2007/’08 we taught 7th graders at the Martin Luther King middle school in Berkeley about pollination and the connection to food they grow in their edible schoolyard. We caught male carpenter bees (remember they can’t sting!) and cooled them down in a portable cooler, and allowed the children to hold them (if they were interested). We found that kids that were afraid of bees are suddenly holding and petting the fuzzy creatures that they once screamed and ran from. The buzz that bees emit while being subdued in our hands also leaves a lasting impression on the kids. It is like a benign electrical vibration. We also pass out nets and let them explore their garden and catch bees, which we identify and release. This hands-on experience is something that they will always remember.
We asked the teachers that we work with to give us a few words about the work we have done with them at their schools. Here is what they had to say:
“The information on the website is written in a very child friendly way. By reading this information the children are able to understand the importance of our native pollinators and learn how they can help them survive right in their own school yard,” Laura Honda at Manor School
“Using the research based bee garden with my students gives them ‘bee eyes’ to look deeper into the mysterious and bee-utiful world of plants and insects!” Sue Holland at Middle Creek Middle School
“Entering the garden in sixth grade, students have many fears about insects, particularly spiders and bees. When given a chance to examine, catch and talk about bees for a full class period, student’s fears are dispelled and they are left with awe and appreciation for these humble creatures. As with most things that we are fearful of, the more we learn about the cause of the fear, the more it dissolves in our minds. Is it not our role as teachers to help free the children of their fears in order to create a more peaceful, tolerant world?” Beth Sonnenberg at Martin Luther King Middle School