The secret world of bees

Courtest of Unsplash - Photographer Kai Wenzel
Busy bees arrive at the hive with pollen on their back legs

PDF Version downloable here

Age group 1st – 3rd year, TY

Total time 1-1.5hrs

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 importance of bees, analysing honey production, and how to help protect our bees

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)
  • Represent situations − use tables, diagrams and graphs as a tool for analysing relations with tables diagrams and graphs (Maths, Algebra)
  • interpret graphical summaries of data (Maths, Statistics and Probability)
  • Properties of lines and line segments including midpoint, lines and line segments including slope, distance and the equation of a line (Maths, Geometry and Trigonometry)

Statements of Learning

  • Understands the origins and impacts of social, economic and environmental aspects of the world around her/him (9)
  • Has the awareness, knowledge, skills, values and motivation to live sustainably (10)
  • 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

1. Why we love bees

Bees are among the earth’s hardest working creatures, and are one of the most important plant pollinators. This means they help trees and plants reproduce, and help us to produce many of our favourite fruits and vegetables. Bees are responsible for the pollination of approximately one third of our favourite edible plants.

Here at the SOPhia project, we set up our own beehive last spring 2019 and are learning so much from them as well as getting some great natural honey! Check out more amazing bee science here. You can check out how we built our hive and monitoring systems at our Beehive Blog.

The All Ireland Pollinator Plan has lots of resources explaining why bees are so important to us and all of the natural world. Watch their video below to start your journey into the fascinating world of bees and let’s make them welcome in our gardens.

There’s lots of science and physics behind the way bees go about their activities, from the electric charge sensors bees use to decide if flowers are worth visiting, to their super bee vision which senses polarized light helping them navigate where ever they need to go.

Did you know?

  • A hardworking forager bee may live just three weeks and travel 800Km.
  • Each bee produces about a 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime, so it takes around 1000 bees to produce your jar of honey.
  • Male bees are called drones and make up only about 15 percent of the population of a bee colony. So female bees rule the beehive!

2. What’s the buzz on bees?

Ask the students the following questions to get started.

What do you know about bees? Do you know what honey is made from and how it is harvested? (Find out more here. Do you know what else bees make that humans use a lot?

Ever wondered how much honey an average beehive can make in a season? Take a guess now and then let’s work it out from the graph below, which shows how the Sophia beehive got on in its first summer season!

Bees are amazing workers and humans have kept them for their honey, wax and pollen over the centuries. Bees are pretty independent, but beekeepers check in on their bees regularly to make sure they are well, that honey production is on the go, and that their hives are snug and dry. They also need to check in to see when new queen bees may want to start a new hive, and help them do so. Physics and the other sciences have helped us explain so many intriguing things that bees do, such as how they fly, and how they see. Monitoring a beehive with physical sensors that take automatic and constant measurements (of temperature and weight for example), can help us see inside their mysterious lives, and understand more about how these creatures work and live together.

3. Let’s work it out – Beehive Mass Analysis

The SOPHia project beehive is fitted with sensors that can take measurements in real time. You can check out the data stream from the sensors here. We can measure how heavy the hive gets over time, as the bees produce more and more honey. Using the data we get from the live feed from the digital sensors, we can learn how a physicist makes observations and analyses data in their experiments. We will also explore how graphs can be used to learn more about a set of data.

Honey Comb

Every day the bees leave the hive to collect nectar to make into honey, returning at night. The honey production increases over time until they have filled up their honey combs. Once they have done this, the beekeepers will add a ‘super’, which is a new box that they can fill with even more honey.

In everyday speech we would talk about the weight of the beehive if we want to say how heavy it is. In physics the weight of the beehive means the pull of gravity on the beehive, while the mass of it is the amount of matter (here the amount of beehive, bees and honey!!) measured in kilograms or grams. For a better explanation of this, read about Forces and Work. The graph below is a selection of the Sophia live hive data between last June 2019 until November 2019. It shows the change in weight, of our beehive over the course of 1200 hours (or 50 days). This is the total weight of the hive, which accounts for the bees plus the weight of the honey they produce.

Four points are shown on the graph: A, B, C and D. They show a change in the rate of weight gain (i.e. more honey being produced) over the course of 50 days.

  • At Point A, the hive was fitted with the monitoring system. The hive was opened a few times throughout the 50 days, we can see this as a spike in the weight every once in a while, we’ll leave these out of our analysis.
  • At Point B, after 400 hours we finally see an increase in the weight of the hive, this indicates that honey is starting to be produced. We can see this by the increased slope of the black line between points B and C.
  • At Point C a super was added and again on July 20th. This allowed for more honey to be produced, therefore the weight of the hive could increase. Again we see an increase in the rate of honey production between point C and D.
  • Point D is the end of the 50 days (1200 hours) that were monitored.

Using the graph below, please answer the following questions: ( The red line is the actual data recorded by the Beehive Monitor system. The black lines have been added to show the average. )

1) The red line shows the weight of the hive oscillates up and down in a regular pattern. Notice this happens about once every day. What could be causing the hive to change in weight so frequently?

2) Work out how many days have passed since the hive was first fitted with the monitoring system at point B and at point C.

3) What will be the total change in the weight of the hive over the course of 1200 hours (From A to D)?

4) From the graph above, you can see that point C is higher than point B. What does that tell you about the weight of the hive? Did it increase or decrease between B and C? Can you remember what the slope of a line tells you about that data? Calculate the slope of the average line (the black line) from B to C? (Hint: to find the slope of a line you get the rise/run)

5) What is the slope of the average line from C to D? What does the difference in the two slopes you have now calculated, tell us about what is happening in the graph? Why is this happening? (Hint: Remember what was added to the hive on June 29th? What have the bees done with this new section?)

6) If the rate of honey production remained constant after point D, what will the weight of the hive be at 1400 hours?

7) How do you think monitoring the mass of the beehive can help beekeepers to keep their bees healthier and produce more honey? Can you think of other useful things to monitor to help keep the bees well?

Click here for solutions to this worksheet

Feel free to research some more information online or in your local library to answer this. There may be bee keepers in your area you could contact which might be able to tell you more about their bees and perhaps even give you a little look!

4. Bees need our help

We’ve just learned about how physics and sensors can help us track our honey production, and the health of our bees. If that gave you a good buzz, we’d love you to continue learning about bees, how they help to grow our food, and why they are in danger from pesticides, loss of habitat, and what we can do to help.

Take action at home

We can all help to make our gardens a welcome place for bees. We can plant wild flowers, mow our lawns less, use less chemicals. For lots more ideas check out the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan website.

5. Eva Crane and the secret life of bees

Courtesy of the Eva Crane Trust

Eva Widdowson was born in South London on 12th June 1912. She became Eva Crane when she married James (Jim) Crane in July 1942.

Without doubt she became one of the greatest writers on bees and beekeeping in the 20th century.

Trained originally as a mathematician she was one of only two women reading for a maths degree at King’s College London in 1933. She obtained a BSc in maths in two years, followed by an MSc in the then novel subject of quantum mechanics in 1935 and a PhD in nuclear physics in 1937. The rigours of her scientific training were never to leave her and she applied them to all her work.

Eva began to keep bees in around 1940. She began producing her own academic literature relating to bees and beekeeping. Her first articles, both of which were published in 1945, were on honey and mead respectively. On 24 January 1949 Eva founded the Bee Research Association, which added the word ‘International’ to its name at a conference in 1976 (henceforth IBRA).

Dr Crane’s research was meticulous and she felt that the cross- referencing and recording of information, so that original material could be traced and used by succeeding generations, was a vital part of her work. She travelled to over 60 countries researching bees.

Eva Crane in Barbados visiting beehives 1988 (Courtesy of the Eva Crane Trust)

In her lifetime she had over 300 papers and articles published and she contributed many learned tomes to the shelves of bee lovers all over the world. We owe much of the state of current scientific literature on apiculture to Eva Crane’s work. In 1950 she took over the running of the journal Bee World.

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, honey production and protecting our bees?

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

Let us know how you liked this activity via twitter @SophiaPhysics

Sources and Extra Resources 

15 Fascinating Honey Bee Facts 

Why do bees buzz?

The amazing world of bees