Bees are truly amazing critters. Their existence is so vital to the eco-system of this planet and our food resources that our very survival is dependent on them. In this study of bees, I cover a full spectrum of exercises based on both scientific investigation and child-led activities utilizing the Montessori philosophy.
I put together this article to both educate about the importance of these little guys and to motivate us to take action to protect them. By the end you will get acquainted with bees of all sorts using books, learning fun facts and utilizing activities that help identify some of the most common stinging and non-stinging examples of the family. You will learn their vital role in the global ecosystem and the dangers of extinction looming over them. Dig in and have fun!
Books[Disclosure: This post contains, at no cost to you, affiliate links to Amazon]
These books are chock full of fun illustrations and factoids about natures busiest bug. They are great warm-ups for the activities in this post or just as a nice bedtime story.
National Geographic’s books are famous for their amazing pictures and kids will love this realistic introduction to Bees. The information is not too complex either, very child-friendly.
As a material for younger kids, the Bee Book by Charlotte Milner is ideal. It has many more illustrations to help explain all the life and work of natures most industrious of insects.
This fun and beautifully illustrated book is one for all ages. Five Bizzy Honeybees takes you on a journey within the hive of these fascinating creatures. You won’t want to put it down!
Turn this book into a beehive! Yes, a book you can actually use to make a home for bees, amazing! It’s also full of wonderful illustrations, facts, and activities to learn more about the bees.
Types of bees
Bees come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and species. More than 20,000 exist in a variety of regions all over the planet. However, many bee-looking insects aren’t even bees, like wasps and hornets. But they all have the same paralytic effect on us when we see them because we automatically assume they are out for blood! Truth be told, the majority of the species we are familiar with when we mention bees, such as honey bees or bumblebees, are quite docile.
They’re only interested in one thing: the luscious nectar from flowers.
Any chance encounter with them where you have been stung was either because you got close to a nest, you were unlucky enough to step on one, or, if you were like me as a kid, you were too curious and started playing a little too roughly with them.
Nine times out of ten it was for one of those reasons mentioned above or it wasn’t even a bee. Their wasp and hornet cousins tend to be much more aggressive and will sting people seemingly on a whim. Well, to make it a little easier on you and your children to find out which species to avoid, or to admire from a difference, this list is full of some fun facts and interesting tidbits of information.
Honey bees actually originate from Eastern Africa and were imported to North America to help pollinate crops. Unlike the drones, which are male and only serve to fertilize the queen, most bees we see are worker bees and are female. They not only have stingers but are also responsible for all the pollinating that takes place. When they collect the nectar to bring back to the hive they pick up pollen while jumping from flower to flower.
Also known as wood bees, carpenter bees are ever bigger and more territorial than honeybees. They can be quite annoying if you own a house as they tend to bore their nests in them and lay their eggs to hatch. Like the honey bees, they collect pollen and stuff it into sacks on their legs in most cases. But, as they are rather large, they are also known to be destructive to flowers they can’t fit inside of and simply devour the part with the nectar, not contributing to pollination at all.
Bumblebees are the fat fury version of bees which can be quite intimidating at first glance because of their sheer size and the loud humming they make when they buzz by us at breakneck speeds. The noise they make is actually where they get their name. The sound from their buzzing also vibrates the pollen off the flowers and it sticks to their fur. They are actually a phenomenon of Mother Nature as their wings, say the laws of physics, are actually too small to lift such a heavy object. But they succeed nonetheless and contribute greatly to the pollination process.
This beautiful specimen distinguishes itself from other bees in many ways. First, it is black and white, not yellow. It has no sacks on its legs for carrying pollen, only little hairs on its abdomen. And finally, it uses leaves which it has cut with its unusually large mandibles to cover the holes where it has laid its eggs. Though they do sting, they are not known to be aggressive or particularly territorial, so no need to panic when you spot these little guys.
This group of bees gets its name from, you guessed it, their affection for human perspiration. But they’re actually quite small, about a quarter the size of a honey bee, yet contribute greatly to ecosystems due to their large numbers and ability to fit into small flowers. Their small size also contributes to their speediness which can make them difficult to spot.
This species, though similar in appearance to bees is actually, as the name suggests, more akin to a fly. How is a fly different from a bee? For one, it only has two wings instead of four and its eyes are much larger and side-mounted. But perhaps the biggest, and most important to your kiddos, is that they have no stingers! They serve the same purpose as bees when it comes to pollination but have a much better technique as they can hover and zip around quickly from flower to flower as they are about half the size of a honey bee. They are the Speedy Gonzales of pollinators!
Wasps are actually just as different to bees as humans are to apes. They look similar but are fundamentally different. They have less hair, are thinner and brightly colored. They’re also more aggressive and much more willing to sting if agitated. They rarely serve as pollinators, making their presence in urban areas much more of a nuisance than a necessity. A paper wasp gets its name from the nest it makes by secreting a thin clear material from their saliva and plant material. This one will also feed on nectar at times, so, yes they do some minor pollinating, but the absence of a furry body means this is minimal.
Tarantula Hawk Wasps
This type of wasp is, you’ll be happy to hear, less aggressive towards humans and has beautiful orange wings. Their sting is, however, one of the most painful in the insect world, so definitely keep your distance! They get their name from the preferred nesting of their larva. They sting the tarantulas and lay their egg inside and once the larva immerges, it feeds on the still-living spider. Not a very nice way to go!
Yellowjackets are the pesky beasts that show up when you’re trying to enjoy a picnic in the countryside. They are carnivores and have their sights set on your hamburgers and hot dogs. They’re one of the most aggressive of the wasps and their stings are particularly painful. A honey bee’s stinger has a barb that literally pulls the stinger, along with its intestines, out of its body, which is why it dies afterward. The absence of this bard allows yellow jackets and other wasps to sting as often as they can. So if you see any setting up a nest around your house, get rid of it immediately, with the help of a professional of course.
Hornets are the motherload of the stinging insects. They are wasps but are much fatter and lack the furry exterior of bees. Their stinger is so huge it is visible to the naked eye. Avoid these critters at all costs as killing just one releases a pheromone so powerful it can alert its nest from miles away and they attack with vengeful furry. They also eat meat and feed caterpillars, spiders, and other small insects to their larvae by stinging and paralyzing them.
The parts of a bee
With bees, you have a variety of configurations, shapes, and sizes when it comes to the parts of their bodies. So to make things easy I stuck to body parts of the most common of the species, the honeybee, the bee in our honey bee felt board. You can use it as a prop to talk about all the cool parts with your child.
As with all insects, the body is held together with an exoskeleton, that’s a hard exterior shell, like a crab or lobster, rather than an internal skeleton, like mammals. That body is broken down into three main parts: the head, the thorax, and the abdomen.
A bee’s head manages a large part of its duties. Not only does it contain most of its sensory organs for sight, taste, smell, and touch, it also holds the main tool for working with the things it comes into contact, the mandible. It also houses the Ocelli, which are the three dots on the top of its head which are responsible for detecting motion. They are a second set of ‘eyes’ for the bee.
The compound eyes work together with the ocelli and are responsible for visual sight. The ocelli are more for low light conditions, such as when she’s working in the hive.
The antennae of a bee work both as their nose and fingers as they have little sensors all over them which help to detect things like flowers, felling other bees or even how to smell their way home to the hive. They are mounted on the forehead and are an essential organ of the bee.
Though they may look scary, the jaws of a bee, or mandibles, are not for biting little kids. They help the bee get a lot of work done, like lifting objects, manipulating wax or moving pollen. Although not depicted in the felt board, the bees tongue, or proboscis, also rolls out of its mouth just below the mandibles and can suck up nectar or water like a straw.
The thorax is the torso of the bee and is in the middle between the head and abdomen. The wings and legs are all attached to this part of its body. It is black and has many hairs on it to help collect pollen.
The honeybee has two pairs of wings. The forewings are larger and are connected to the thorax closer to the head. The hindwings are smaller and attached behind the forewings. During flight, these two wings are connected to give a better lift or upward stability, but when the bees are at rest they can be separated for cleaning and easier movement.
The forelegs are more like the hands of a bee than legs as they don’t assist much in walking. They use them more for cleaning their head or antennae. Like all the legs on a bee, they are quite flexible having six segments to them. They also have sensors on the feet which are used to smell things.
The mid legs take the brunt of the workload of the bee as they are used to pack the pollen into sacks mounted on the hindlegs. They also collect propolis or a sort of sappy liquid from trees which they use to make repairs on the hive should cracks be discovered.
As with the mid legs, the hind legs are responsible for movement for the bees. They also contain sacks which store the pollen that gets collected from the hairs of the bees. Their forelegs have small combs on them and they brush the pollen into these handy saddlebags.
The abdomen is the single largest body part of the bee. It contains some major organs, including the digestive and reproductive organs and the glands for wax and scent for the worker bees. The bee breaths through little holes called spiracles and these holes line the sides of both the thorax and the abdomen.
And finally the stinger, the dread of all suffering from apiphobia, or the fear of bees. The stinger on a honey bee is purely a defense mechanism and is only used in a life or death situation. That’s because, since their stinger is attached to its intestines, if she has to use it, the barbs on the end of it hook to its victim and rip both the stinger and its intestines out with it. And then the poor little thing dies. So please be careful when handling these creatures as they are very delicate and their venom can be quite painful.
The life cycle of a honey bee
The stages of life for a bee are very common in the insect world. Most begin with an egg, from which a larva hatches, this matures into a pupa (in the case of the bee) and finally, the last cycle ends with a mature bee. We tried to add as much detail to our felt board and felt pieces in order to make the different cycles as clear and comprehensible as possible for the student of zoology.
The queen will generally begin laying eggs at the end of the cold winter months. It only takes about 3 days for these to hatch into new worker larvae, preparing the brood with a new generation of workers.
The worker larvae can feed up to 1,300 times a day on average. Their main diet is pollen, honey and secretions from the worker bees who care for them called bee bread.
After about 6 days the larvae secrete a cap and they cocoon into a pupa. The length of the pupa cycle depends on whether the larva was a worker, drone or queen. Workers can take up to 10 days, drones a bit longer, 11 or 12 days, and the queen is much faster, less than a week in some cases.
Life in its final form finally emerges from the cocoons after the pupa stage finishes. All bees are assigned their roles from their very inception and work together like a well-oiled machine. The life cycles vary from bee to be but the general range for workers is between 6 to 7 weeks but as long as four months.
Drones life span have an even broader range between 4 to 5 week and up to 4 or 5 months. The queens can fluctuate between 2 to 4 years depending on the health of the brood and the availability of mating partners.
Working with felt boards and 3-part cards
Whether it’s the parts of the bee, the life cycle of the bee, the 3-part cards or constructing honeycomb puzzles, using our felt boards for the study of bees will get your kids exciting about learning just how fascinating and important these endangered critters are.
These felt games and cards were designed to work in conjunction with this lesson guide while taking advantage of all the wonderful learning possibilities in just about any educational environment. Whether it’s a homeschool zoology lesson or a Montessori school Freeplay material, kids will be itching to learn more about these beautiful creatures.
How do bees make honey?
Have you ever wondered how such a curious little bug like a bee can make such a delicious elixir like honey? Well, I certainly was wondering this before I started writing this article. And after having researched all the wonderful factoids and tidbits of information about the bees I came across a comprehensive and interesting article that explains the process perfectly.
But first, I asked myself, Why do they need honey in the first place? It can’t just be for spreading on toast! In fact, they need it for something a bit more important than that, to feed their larva after hatching. The nectar is collected by the worker bees and delivered to bees who only work within the hive and are responsible for producing the honey.
This happens by exchanging the nectar mouth to mouth and repeating many times until the moisture content is reduced to 20% from 70%. The watery nectar turns into a sappy thick syrup after a while. This honey is mixed with pollen and injected into the honeycomb cells which is where the eggs hatch into larva.
So there you have it, nature’s sweetest sap is intended for babies and is the result of countless regurgitations. Yummy!
Why are the honeybees dying?
Bees are in grave danger and have been reducing in numbers for the last couple of decades. According to the Sierra Club, the honeybees are dying because of many factors: Pathogens, parasites, poor nutrition, loss of habitat and pesticides.
Pesticides are used industrially on crops like canola and corn and disorient the bees and contribute to memory loss. All of these factors have contributed greatly to what is referred to as colony collapse.
How can we help the bees?
There is something we can do about this collapse, especially if you live in a city. First, plant a flower garden! Give the bees and other insects pesticide-free sources of nectar.
Another thing you can do, aside from the felt activities above, is learn a little more about how the bees live and function so well as a community. A beehive in your own backyard would give your kids the chance to observe them at work. Just make sure it’s in a high place out of kid’s reach!
These materials are wonderful for increasing your child’s appreciation for these essential creatures. Everyone can participate in saving bees. Without them, we will be in serious trouble.
This video hypothesizes a world without bees. What would our world be like without them? It’s definitely worth a look-see in order to impress upon our kids the importance of their preservation.
More fun activities
This fun game will keep the focus on the honey bees and give your kids some good entertainment. It teaches kids hand-eye coordination, dexterity, and strategic thinking. If they’re not thinking and acting carefully they’ll release all the bees from the hive!
This Hanna Honeybee game is great for the little ones. Aged for 2 years+ it’s a fun set of board games design to raise awareness of the life of the honey bee. Bees to need to collect nectar from flowers advance through the whole process of making honey.
It can’t bee stressed enough how important these little bugs are in Mother Nature’s system. 25 to 30% of all the food we eat is possible because of the pollination made by these critters and other small animals. Having a serious lesson about them is not only fun and educational for your little ones but critical for their and our survival. I encourage you to get even more informed by purchasing one of the books I recommend above and watching some nature programs such as the video above.