Busy as a bee

PDF Version here

Age group 1st – 3rd year, TY

Total time 1.5hrs

Notes for teachers and parents/carers

This activity sheet is designed to be carried out at home or school under supervision by a teacher or any adult who can help direct the work which involves some basic mathematical calculations. The instructions are directed to the adult. Most of the information needed to answer the questions is given on the main sheet, but we do encourage the students to think for themselves and to research the topic further. Full solutions to section 3- Let’s work it out, are provided here. Feel free to adapt this activity as appropriate.

Outline: To learn about the life of bees and how and why they control the temperature and humidity of their hives to survive

Junior Cycle Curriculum Links

Students should be able to

  • produce and select data, critically analyse data to identify patterns and relationships, identify anomalous observations and justify conclusions (Investigating in Science, The Nature of Science)
  • investigate patterns and relationships between physical observables (Systems and Interactions, Physical World)
  • conduct a habitat study; research and investigate the adaptation, competition and interdependence of organisms within specific habitats and communities (Biological World, Systems and Interactions)

Statements of Learning

  • Describes, illustrates, interprets, predicts and explains patterns and relationships (16)
  • Devises and evaluates strategies for investigating and solving problems using mathematical knowledge, reasoning and skills (17)
  • Observes and evaluates empirical events and processes and draws valid deductions and conclusions (18)
  • Values the role and contribution of science and technology to society, and their personal, social and global importance (19)

Key Skills

  • Managing information and thinking
  • Communicating
  • Being literate
  • Being numerate
  • Being creative

1. The sensory world of bees

We’ve already seen how hard bees work pollinating plants and producing honey in our first Junior cycle activity sheet. Bees also work hard all year round to make a warm and snug home for the baby bees (larvae), and their precious queen. Every hive has just one queen bee whose job it is to lay eggs. The majority of the hive is made up of female worker bees that take care of the larvae, build the honey-comb, forage for nectar and pollen, and also guard the hive. There are a few male bees or drones and their main work is to mate with queen bees from other hives. We have equipped our SOPHia bee hives with special sensors that detect the temperature and humidity inside the beehive, among other things. Find out more about the SOPhia Hive sensors and data here.

In this activity sheet we’ll take a look at and analyse the physics behind some real temperature and humidity data from the sensors we have in the SOPHia hive. We’ll ask you to use your imagination to think how bees work in their hive, and then we’ll investigate why and how bees manage to keep their hives at the right temperature and humidity all year round.

Did you know?

  • Bees have two stomachs, the first of which is for eating. The second is for storing the nectar that they have collected from flowers or water so that they can carry it back to the hive.
  • Bees process nectar from flowers in their stomachs, and they regurgitate it back into the honeycomb cells in the hive. Then they fan the cells with their wings in order to remove any excess moisture. After all this, they are left with honey!
  • Honey lasts an incredibly long time. An explorer who found a 2000 year old jar of honey in an Egyptian tomb said it tasted delicious!

2. Collective life in the hive

Brainstorm on what the students think life in a beehive is like…..

From what you have learnt about bees so far (activity 1), what do you think life is like inside the hive? Using our imagination in science can help us think and learn about new situations and solve problems in novel ways.

Imagine for a few moments what life would be like for a bee. What’s it like arriving to the hive after collecting nectar all day? Would they have lots of room to move around inside? How would they communicate with other bees about their favourite flowers– what characteristics of that flower most attracts the bees? How does it feel inside the beehive? Warm or cool? Stuffy or ventilated?

Now let’s investigate the physics behind this together.

After discussing the questions above, you can read the following together…

Bees have existed for the last 50 million years and have perfected the art of working and living collectively. Bees do everything for the survival of the hive, their queen and their young. The queen is the only bee which can lay eggs to produce new off-spring or larvae. Worker bees are all female and spend most of the day tending the larvae, or collecting nectar and pollen. Drone or male bees mate with the queen, and help to keep the hive warm. Worker bees also warm or cool the hive as needed. The queen cannot lay eggs if it’s too cold or too warm, and needs the hive to be between 32-35 degrees Celsius. Larvae also will grow into healthier bees if this optimal temperature range is maintained while they are developing.

The humidity in the hive is also an important factor that the bees regulate to keep the queen and her young happy and healthy. Humidity has to do with how much water is in the air. Relative humidity is the amount of water held in the air relative to the maximum amount of water that can be held in the air at a given temperature. That means the warmer the air the more water it can hold. This is a law of physics. The opposite is also true. Can you state it? While larvae are growing, humidity levels are kept between 50-60%. If the humidity is lower than 50% no eggs hatch as they tend to dry out easily. Lower humidity also increases the chances of some bee diseases developing. When humidity is too high it can also affect the water content in the honey which can lead to it fermenting.

3. Let’s work it out – what are they doing in there?

We’ve looked at why it’s important for bees to control the temperature and humidity in their hive. Now let’s work together to find out how they do this. Have a look at the following graphs from our SOPHia hive data, and answer the questions that follow.

Graph 1 : Temperature outside the beehive from June to November 2019
Graph 2 : Temperature inside the beehive from June to November 2019

The outside temperature of the hive varies by about 15 degrees Celsius or more between day and night time. However, the bees manage to keep internal temperature variations to a minimum. Now answer the following questions:

  1. From graph 1, what is the highest temperature registered outside the hive? What is the lowest? What then is the temperature range outside the hive?
  2. From graph 1, what are the highest and lowest temperatures recorded? What then is the temperature range inside the hive? What does this tell us?
  3. The horizontal axis shows the number of hours from 0 to 4000 hours. Can you convert these into days? for each number, eg, 500 hours, 1000 hours, up to 4000 hours.

Graph 3: Humidity outside the beehive from June to November 2019
Graph 4: Humidity inside the beehive from June to November 2019

3. Looking at graph 3 and 4 above, which shows the humidity outside and inside the hive, write down the humidity range for each graph.

4. How do you think bees can lower the temperature of the hive if it gets too warm on a hot day? ( Hint: If you had a set of wings, how could you cool yourself down? )

5. If you lower the temperature of the air, what happens to the relative humidity in the air? (Remember what we said previously about how temperature and humidity are related to each other). On a hot day, would the relative humidity be higher or lower?

Now, have a look at this video and see how bees have become experts at cooling their hives

6. What do you think bees can do to raise the temperature of the hive? ( Hint: When you get very cold, what does your body start to do automatically?) At what time of year do you think bees need to work the hardest to keep the hive warm? why?

Link to solutions page here soon

How do bees keep warm at night or in the winter

Anneke Levelt Sengers and the Story of Heat

We have learnt about how bees can change mechanical energy into heat energy in their hive. Now lets find out more about a woman physicist who has researched the physics behind heat.

Anneke Levelt Sengers is a Dutch physicist who is known for her work on thermodynamics, heat and critical states of fluids. Through the story of Anneke Levelt Sengers, we’ll explore the physics of heat and show it can be created and converted to other forms of energy.

Read more here

6. What did you like, what did you learn?

What did you most like/least like about this activity? 

What did you learn about bees how and why bees regulate the temperature and humidity of their homes?

What else would you like to learn about the science and physics behind the bees?

Physics is all about measurement. In the school lab you probably use a thermometer; or your school might have a temperature sensor. Physicists design sensors to measure all sorts of things, and this activity has shown how important physics is to helping us to understand nature and the environment.

Leave a comment below on how you liked this activity, or let us know via twitter @SophiaPhysics

Sources and Extra Resources 

Short article about how and why bees regulate hive temperature

Short article about how and why bees regulate hive humidity

How temperature affects bees