Why just teach your children about honeybees when you could do something together to help save them? This lesson goes beyond “just” planting another pollinator garden by focusing on planting flowers which bloom when bees need them most, providing the maximum benefit for limited space.
Children learn best by doing. And by having someone to inspire their curiosity, encourage them to ask questions and help them find the answers. In this lesson guide, you won’t be creating a lapbook. I don’t have any notebooking pages for you. Well, I’ll include some links to some at the end, just in case you feel the need to have something for their folders. But really, my suggestion for teaching children about honeybees is to plan a pollinator garden together, tend it and talk about who comes to visit your flowers. Talk to your children as you work. Share your knowledge. Listen to their questions and research the honeybee and other native pollinators together.
Not many people outside the beekeeping world know this, but March is the most difficult month for honeybees. They spend winter semi-dormant in their cluster in the hive. They aren’t raising brood. They aren’t collecting nectar. They aren’t making honey. The colony’s population is at its lowest by the end of February, but to be ready for the clover bloom in June, honeybees start waking up and raising brood by early March. A good queen can lay almost her own bodyweight in eggs Every. Single. Day. The hive is preparing for the clover bloom, but the presence of early spring flowers can make or break a hive coming out of winter low on stores and high on demand.
This is a long post with a LOT of information. It contains just about everything you need to get started on your garden and teach your children “here a little, there a little” as you work and watch your garden develop. There is a link at the top of the post to turn it into a pdf which you can then print to refer to offline.
Teaching your children about honeybees
They will learn more and learn it more deeply when the information comes in small snippets, shared while their attention is focused and their minds are already working out what they are observing. You don’t need a lesson plan, a notebook or a lapbook. All you need is a garden you planted together, a sketch book and small, buzzing visitors to talk and wonder about.
Before you get started, think about the lessons you want your child to learn. Use this to guide your conversations with your children as you plan your garden and observe the insects that come to visit.
Look for opportunites to share the information in conversation while you are watching the bees in your garden. Dissect a flower together and look at its parts. Talk about how all the workers you see are female. Drones (males) are raised for a specific job and all they ever do is hang around eating honey and waiting for a chance to mate with a queen. Look for the pollen basket on the hind legs of a honeybee and talk about what that does. Talk about how the honeybee gets back to the hive and how she tells her colony where she found a food source. These conversations do not need to take place during a two week formal study or even in one growing season.
Have questions? Feel free to drop me a note here, via my contact page or on my facebook page. I am not a commercial beekeeper, but I have had hives for several years. I love to talk about this life we have out here, whether it is related to our hobby farm or our homeschooling.
Planning a Spring Garden
As you plan your garden, talk about the importance of habitat to all living things. Honeybees need food, water and a safe place to raise their young just like any other living thing. As humans turn wild spaces into lawns, businesses and farms, it gets harder and harder for pollinators to find the variety of nectar and pollen producing plants they need to survive. If you have older children, you could introduce the concept of a “monoculture.” I live in rural Nebraska and we have acres upon acres of farmland planted in corn and beans. Bees do collect pollen from these plants, but they have a need for variety in their diet just like we do. Kale may be a “superfood,” but it that’s all we ate, we wouldn’t stay healthy, either. Also discuss why you are focusing on early blooming plants.
Look together with your children for a spot in your lawn to plant or extend a garden. Ideally, find the equivalent of a three foot by three foot area to plant because bees like clusters of the same kind of flower best. However, even a small container garden can be beneficial and your children can learn the same lessons. Research plants that provide pollen and nectar for honeybees. (Sap is not something bees generally have difficulty finding). Pay special attention to early blooming plants that will give honeybees (and other pollinators) a nectar and pollen source to replenish needed stores.
Crocuses are a wonderful addition to a garden. They produce a good amount of pollen which provides needed protein to a bee’s diet. They bloom early in the year, sometimes while snow is still on the ground. They also fit very easily into existing gardens because they are finished with their bloom before most other plants have begun to come out of their dormancy. If you have room for shrubs, hazelnuts also provide an excellent pollen source early in the year.
Wikipedia has an comprehensive list of North American nectar sources for honeybees which includes an indication of when the bloom period for each plant begins and how significant it is to the honeybee. When planning a garden, you do not have to worry so much about how many pounds per acre of honey each plant would produce, but this chart definitely demonstrates why the clover bloom is so important to the honeybee! This article from The National Gardening Association focuses on more popular spring-blooming garden plants that aren’t necessarily native.
Set aside time to watch them at work when they visit your flowers (or the weeds in your yard!). Talk about the parts of the bee, notice how they bury their head deep within the flower so their proboscis can reach the nectar within. Let them know that all the workers they see are female. Look closely at the hind legs of the bee and see if you can see the pollen baskets where the honeybee stores pollen to take back to the hive. When they are ready to return, these baskets are full and look like yellowish or brownish (depending on the pollen color) bulges on their hind legs.
The bee’s year
While you work the soil and start planting your garden, discuss the importance of bloom times to the life cycle of the hive. Share the information in the infographic above to re-emphasize the importance of early pollen and nectar sources to beehives and begin to look for things that are in bloom in your area. Talk about where the bees are in their yearly cycle:
Winter: The hive slows down. A cluster forms around the honey and bees take turns eating honey and vibrating their wings to generate heat. Overwintering bees live the longest of any bees (besides the queen)
Late winter (Feb/Mar): The build up begins. The queen can lay between 1,000 and 2,500 eggs a day – almost equal to her own body weight!
Late March: The first bees from the build up emerge from the hive. The bees that overwintered begin to die. Large amounts of dead bees may be found at the hive entrance as bees clean their hives.
June: A strong hive will have at least 60,000 bees to be ready to harvest nectar from the clover which should just be beginning to bloom.
Summer: The hive maintains its numbers. Bees literally work themselves to death and will crawl away from the hive with tattered wings. Her average lifespan during the working season is just 40 days.
Fall: A secondary flow of honey begins as the goldenrod and asters come into bloom. The hive starts winding down for winter. Brood prduction slows. The drones are ejected from the hive. A northern hive will need approximately 80 pounds of honey to survive winter. Southern hives need about half that.
For a sweet treat, when the clover comes into bloom, take a moment to show your children just what all the “buzz” is about. Carefully pull a few of the tiny flowers (the flower of a clover is actually made up of many small flowers clustered together) and chew on the ends that were attached to the flower. You should taste a little of the sweet nectar. This is easiest with the large red clover, even though this variety is worthless to honeybees. Their proboscis isn’t long enough to get to that nectar! Bumblebees appreciate them, however!
The garden you planted may or may not begin flowering this spring, depending on what you planted, however you will certainly have the opportunity to collect some early spring flowers. Pick a few flowers and bring them in to dissect. Help your children carefully cut the flower open and remove all of its parts. Some flowers, like crocuses, tulips and daffodils, are easier to teach with, but your children will enjoy taking a closer look at any flowers you can find.
After you separate the major parts of the flower and discuss what they do, consider sketching them in a journal and labeling the parts. Talk about how pollination works. Honeybees and our native bees collect pollen for their own consumption, but they also help move it from the female parts of flowers to the male parts of flowers, allowing the seeds to form and the flowers they visit to reproduce. This is good for the plant and for the honeybee!
The importance of pollination
Did you know that 50% of the United States’ commercial hives go to California for the almond harvest? Hives come from as far away as Australia to pollinate the almond crop . This creates problems of its own as far as spreading mites and disease to colonies across the country and around the world, but it does attest to the significance of the honeybee in crop production!
Honeybees are responsible for 80% of crop pollination for the plants we eat and their pollination service is estimated to be worth $15 billion a year! Naturalists are not exaggerating when they say no bees means no food!
Why are honeybees so important to pollination? Many insects feed on nectar and pollen, but honeybees practice “flower fidelity.” That means they like to visit the same kind of flower until they’ve exhausted the nectar or pollen supply. Once they start on apple blossoms, for example, they will continue visiting apple blossoms, ignoring all other flowers. This ensures the pollen from one apple tree is carried to another and not lost in trips to dandelions, henbit or whatever else is in bloom at the same time. There are other native pollinators (and some of them are even more effective pollinators), but they do not live in the large colonies that honeybees do and they are not as easy to transport from field to field to pollinate crops.
When the bees begin to visit your flowers, take time to just watch them work. Ask questions and wonder with your children what their day is like. Watch how they dig their faces deep into the flower so their proboscis can reach the nectar. Look closely at the hind legs to see if you can see the pollen baskets. If the bee is close to returning to the hive, you may see large yellowish or brownish balls attached to the hind legs (depending on what kinds of pollen she is collecting). Encourage your children to ask questions and if you don’t know the answers, help them research the answers online or at the library. This is also a good time to discuss the importance of honeybees to our food supply.
For a refresher on the pollination process itself, including diagrams of the parts of a flower, Kids Growing Strong has an excellent article on pollination, written for children.
Remember, each visit by a honeybee is an opportunity to share a little more of the wonder of the honeybee world with your child.
The information I have gathered here focuses on habitat protection and the importance of honeybees to our food supply, but hopefully you will have many opportunities to watch the bees come and go from the flowers in your garden. Each time you stop to watch, consider sharing a little more about the lives of honeybees.
Other topics to consider discussing while beewatching:
Protect honeybee habitat
Rethink your relationship to “weeds” such as dandelions, henbit and even the clover that grows in your lawn. In some communities, you may not have a choice, but learn to appreciate them for the valuable bee food that they are. If you have to remove them, try focusing your weed efforts on controlling them before they bloom. Honeybees aren’t interested in your green lawn or even in the dandelion greens that are beginning to sprout up. What you do with your lawn between now and when the first flowers begin to bloom will not matter that much to your local pollinators.
Once the flowers bloom, try leaving them alone. If you have to control them, try popping the tops off dandelion for some dandelion jelly. At the very least, watch the flowers for bee activity. Bees will work over the average lawn in less than a day (less than an hour!). Some of these weeds will rebloom and draw the bees and butterflies back again, but when you notice that the activity has stopped, work quickly to destroy the weeds (that are a whole lot easier to see with that big yellow target!).
Beekeepers and sustainability types will tell you not to spray chemicals at all. I’m not going to do that. Sure, I’d like for you to do that, but I know that’s when some people will tune out and go on spraying the way they always have, putting bees and even themselves at increased risk. Even whole states need to improve on this. During the Zika virus scare, indiscriminate spraying killed millions of honebees. A few simple rules can prevent your lawn from becoming its own honeybee holocaust, making it safer for the insects you want (and generally saving a bit of money, as well).
- Read the package directions and follow them closely.
- Control drift. Don’t spray on windy days and spray close to the ground so you are only spraying what you need to spray.
- Spray early in the morning and late in the evening when bees aren’t active.
- Try spraying only what needs sprayed rather than the whole lawn or garden.
- If bees are active in your lawn, try waiting a day or two and spray when they’ve moved on.
And of course, think carefully about whether you need to spray at all!
OK, so really, a few extra nectar producing plants in your garden are not likely to have much of an affect on bee populations in your area. Bees visit approximately 2 million flowers to produce one pound of honey. Appreciate that the next time you see shelves lined with this liquid gold. Your pollinator garden will be most effective at teaching your children to respect habitats and learn about honeybees and other insects sharing our lawns and gardens with us.
But imagine if everyone in your neighborhood gardened with bees in mind. A little extra planning put into our landscaping could mean that we could begin to give bees and other pollinators back some of their habitat. Share this information with friends and neighbors who might be interested in doing what they can to help honeybee populations. You don’t have to dig up your lawn and replace it with clover. You don’t even have to stop controlling weeds. All it takes is a little forethought and a conscientious effort to include plants that honeybees seek out in your landscaping and be mindful of their presence while controlling weeds.
Other resources for teaching children
I know, I know. I’m a teacher, too. Sometimes it just feels good to have them complete an assignment to put in their folder and sometimes you just have to have a lesson plan.
(Contains affiliate links, mostly so you know what books I am talking about. If you were to purchase anything through these links, a few cents would be thrown my way.)
A Short History of the Honey Bee, by E. Readicker-Henderson. This is a beautifully illustrated book with a lot of good information, especially for older children. I bought it for myself and read it aloud to my children.
The Bee Tree, by Patricia Polacco. One of my favorite children’s authors. Mary Ellen gets bored and grandpa knows just what she needs: a hunt for a bee tree. Mary Ellen learns that the best things in life are the ones you work for.
A free honeybee lapbook, including a printable game to play with your children
A Round Up of lesson ideas. Definitely go visit a hive if you have the opportunity! Consider calling your local beekeepers’ association to arrange a field trip.
An excellent collection of ideas for nature studies involving honeybees
Most important of all, have fun with your children. Enjoy the garden you plant together and look for opportunities to stimulate their wonder as you share your garden with the honeybee.