Dr. Susan Cusato, Department of Science Education and Environmental Studies, Southern Connecticut State University
The importance of honeybees in agriculture has gained public attention in recent years, along with wide news coverage of their unexplained decline. Growing numbers of people are becoming concerned about the plight of honeybees; however, many people don’t understand exactly what constitutes this concern beyond the reportedly mysterious death of honeybee colonies across the country. In this activity, students combine their understanding of the importance and survival of honeybees with interviews with local beekeepers to learn about the beekeepers’ own understanding of the challenges facing honeybees—from larger agro-economic trends to the microbiological relationships inside the hive.
The honeybee crisis also has brought public attention to the broader issue of the environmental consequences of pesticide use. Through interviews with individual beekeepers, students are able to juxtapose on-the-ground beekeeping with agricultural regulatory policies and microbiological concepts. They explore ways in which policies and scientific analyses may or may not fully address the ecological needs of agriculture and of beekeeping. Students come to recognize that citizens have a responsibility to cultivate a basic understanding of science as well as an obligation to question information—investigating its source and the methods used to arrive at it.
Courses Into Which This Activity Could Fit
Courses covering current issues. The activity can be adapted for any course that examines a current issue in science. Depending on the class, students develop interview protocols that can be administered locally, regionally, or globally. Instructors of courses developed around issues in health, environment, or a number of other themes will be able to identify stakeholders that can be interviewed individually, as organizations, or through social media such as Facebook.
Chemistry courses. This activity can be integrated into chemistry courses in which students interview homeowners, landscape contractors, and public officials regarding pesticide use. Connecticut law, for example, limits pesticide use on elementary and middle school grounds, and some interesting conversations could be initiated as to why the same environmentally friendly practices used at schools are not the practice on other publicly owned land. A state representative or senator could be invited to class to learn from the students about the importance of pollinators and soil health as these relate to pesticide use. The information gathered can also serve as the basis for student engagement with local building officials, legislators, and business people.
Microbiology and environmental studies courses. Recently there has been a great deal of interest and research examining the relationships that exist between pesticides, fertilizers, and other farming practices, such as tilling, on soil health and productivity. There is strong evidence that the soil microbiome is critical for maintaining soil nutrient levels and in reducing threats of soil erosion and the spread of diseases in soil. In a microbiology or environmental science course students can interview farmers and home gardeners in a manner that not only gathers information on their practices and production, but directs farmers and gardeners to online resources that may provide them information and data they may not know exists. Often the information students are learning on campus is ahead of what is practiced in the field, and students and farmers/gardeners may potentially have a great deal to learn from each other.
The core of this activity is a beekeeper interview in which students learn about the practices, challenges, and concerns of beekeepers. Students explore issues inside the hive as well as those extending outward: chemical use in the distant areas foraged by the bees, chemical use inside the hives, agricultural policies, and the economics of agricultural practices that affect or rely on honeybees.
Preparing for the interview:
- Through a homework assignment, students develop a series of potential interview questions drawn from what they have learned in class thus far (and from any knowledge of the issues they may already have). Students may refer to readings and notes from class to identify questions they may have about beekeeping practices including topics such as feeding, treating for diseases or mites, and the collection of honey.
- In class, students share their lists of questions in groups of three to four, consolidating the 30 to 40 questions into 10 questions. Each group identifies the questions students think will solicit the best information to learn about honeybees’ health, what motivates people to keep bees, and what practices appear to correlate with honeybee survival year to year.
- Students post the lists of 10 potential interview questions on the board in class and review all groups’ questions. As a class they identify 10 to 12 questions they think will solicit the most useful information regarding what practices may be resulting in the best outcomes for the honeybees, what motivates these individuals to keep bees and to learn about what the beekeepers believe to be the greatest threats facing honeybees.
- The groups then revise, combine, or expand the 10 to 12 questions into a final list that all students will use. The questions are designed to have responses that may vary from less than a minutes to three to five minutes. Students are provided a rubric from which their interview will be assessed.
Carrying out the interview:
- Students locate a beekeeper through the state’s beekeeper registry or local bee clubs and associations or by identifying beekeepers through local honey sales at farm stands and farmers markets.
- Each group schedules an interview and visits the bee yard. For students who have an issue that would prevent them from visiting a bee yard, such as allergies or phobias, the interview can be done by phone. In rare circumstances our students have conducted the interview via email. However, in-person interviews are preferred because there is a passion and enthusiasm when students return from the interview that is not seen when the interview is completed electronically.
- Students summarize their results in a written format. The results are shared in class and discussed in detail. Students discuss different responses, or approaches to beekeeping, as well as share personal stories, such as the man who continued keeping his wife’s bees after she passed as a way to keep part of her with him. Although students do not analyze the results for statistical significance, information from the interviews are summarized.
The class produces a summary of the interviews that is shared with the instructor. Information from the interviews can also be used directly or indirectly in developing posters, hosting guests in class, and being integrated in electronic outreach through Facebook, Twitter, and/or the department website (see below).
Additional activities (or extensions to the interview) with which this can fit
The New York Times, other major (and local) newspapers, and many scientific and environmental journals regularly produce news stories that directly relate to this activity. Students can share this “news” with the campus community, making posters that report interview results, sharing information regarding specific foods that require pollinators, identifying local threats to honeybees, and presenting action steps that students can take to protect all pollinators. The posters can be placed in dining halls, residence halls, or academic buildings.
Another possible activity is to send the beekeepers interviewed a summary of the class’s interview results, in case they may benefit from the information gathered by the students regarding beekeeping practices and experiences in the region. Students may also get involved in legislation related to the use of pesticides that affect honeybee habitat. At Southern Connecticut State University, we learned one semester of a hearing at the state capital regarding pesticide use. Connecticut is one of only two states (as of 2015) that have a law banning pesticide application to lawns on the grounds of day care centers and public K-8 schools. Students wrote letters to legislators and representatives endorsing the expansion of the K-8 ban to include high schools and universities.
Subsequently, we worked to schedule a venue for students to present support not only for the extension of the lawn care pesticide ban to high schools and universities, but to challenge Connecticut to become pesticide-free on all state-owned properties. We have worked closely with our campus facilities managers and landscapers, and outdoor areas of the campus are almost pesticide-free. The state has not yet acted, but if Southern Connecticut State University can become the first campus to be pesticide-free, we hope it might motivate others.
Scientific Concepts Addressed and Related Civic Issues
The beekeeper interview gives students an opportunity to delve into issues that bridge the scientific and social/civic arenas. Addressing colony collapse though a systems lens enables students to develop a integrated, interdisciplinary understanding of the factors impacting honeybee health. Student understanding builds from a basic understanding of ecological systems and their role in supporting pollinators. Student understanding of concepts such as the role of biodiversity in supporting ecological health and resilience can be applied not only to pollinators, but to many other living things. Environmental impacts from stressors such as climate change, desertification, and drought can result in the loss of species. A system with a lack of diversity will be more vulnerable to change. For example, a field of corn would be less resilient and slower to recover from the effects of a specific a virus than a diverse vegetable garden where some species would exhibit great resistance to the virus. These principles can be applied to challenges facing our communities such as food security and economic stability.
Another concept addressed through the beekeeper interview is honeybees’ interdependence and complex relationships, between individuals and between the bees and their environment. Hive homeostasis provides an excellent example of how single organisms and social systems use feedback for survival. Each bee hive is structured around a complex social system that provides feedback through cooperative actions. For example, a queen must stay at a temperature of 95 degrees; worker bees fan the queen with their body heat in cold months to keep her warm and in hot months they fan her to keep her cool. Worker bees also maintain a temperature throughout the hive that supports the development and emergence of the brood. By regulating the internal temperature of the hive, the bees can influence the role a new bee will have within the hive society. Beehive dynamics are currently a topic of great interest in science as we learn more about the role of social cooperation in species’ survival throughout the plant and animal kingdoms.
The relationships between honeybees and native pollinators provide an example of the important role and balance of all members in a biological system. Honeybees tend to be generalists, pollinating a wide range of plant species. Some native bees, such as the squash bees, primarily pollinate specific species of plants. This diversity enhances the likelihood that all plants will be fully pollinated. Since some plants require thousands of individual pollinations for their offspring to develop, a diversity of pollinators critical. Research has demonstrated that most native pollinators work cooperatively with honeybees.
Within the hive the cooperative social structure can often be challenged by more aggressive pollinator species such as yellow jackets. These other species are searching for free food (honey) or a place to nest. Guard bees within the hive do their best to defend the hive. However, when the environment is stressed as a result of drought, extreme temperatures, or physical destruction, pollinator survival can be threatened as social structures may collapse, leaving bees weak and vulnerable.
The challenges facing honeybees connect to some of our current civic issues. Many of the environmental and community challenges we face today leave individuals feeling helpless. The challenges facing honeybees provides a ideal venue for citizens who want to help “save the honeybees’ and enhance the quality of their own lives. The planting of pollinator habitats, the raising of honeybees, and practices such as composting to enhance soil health integrate science understanding and practice. This activity has been designed in part to provide students with an example of how to use their knowledge and skills in science to enhance the quality of the world we live in. The issues facing honeybees are global problems that can be at least in part addressed locally.
The activity takes place over a period of five to six weeks.
- 60 minutes or more: Students design the interviews.
- 30 minutes: Students identify the beekeeper and make initial contact. Students have three weeks, including their spring break week, to complete the interview.
- 1 to 2.5 hours: Students travel to the beekeeper and conduct the interview.
- 45 minutes: Students write up their results out of class.
- 60 minutes: Students share their results with the class.
Prior knowledge required
Instructor: If the instructor does not have direct experience in beekeeping, it may be very useful to meet with a beekeeper to gain insight into general beekeeping practices. A call to the state beekeeper is a good idea, and an excellent basic guide to beekeeping that includes discussion of natural or chemical-free methods is The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Beekeeping. There are many YouTube videos on practices such as installing package bees, re-queening a hive, feeding (summer and winter), and honey collection. Numerous beekeeping organizations have websites and blogs available online, and a list of resources is given at the end of this document.
Students: The interview is conducted in the second half of the semester in order that students have basic knowledge of colony collapse disorder and other threats to honeybee and pollinator survival. By then, students have sufficient understanding of basic beekeeping practices, the potential impacts of pesticides on honeybee health, and the variability in honeybee species and hive options available to beekeepers.
Student groups need to have transportation to visit the bee yard.
Context and Concepts for Instructors
Assessment: See link #3 (forthcoming) for discussion of assessment and grading.
Locating beekeepers: Instructors may want to gain some background in helping students locate beekeepers. Some states or regions have a registry, bee clubs, or other organizations where beekeepers gather. Alternatively, students can look for local honey being sold at farmers markets or grocery stores, and back-track to the beekeeper.
Dealing with students who have allergies or phobias: If a student is not able to visit a bee yard because he or she is allergic to bee stings or has a phobia, he or she can meet a beekeeper at another location. We are aware of safety issues and work with students on a case by case basis.
Expecting students’ discomfort with cold-calling: This class is generally taught to freshman or sophomores, and we were initially surprised at how challenging they found it to cold-contact an individual and request a meeting. After the interview, students’ nervousness is greatly reduced, and they have greater confidence in their knowledge and ability to converse with others on a topic involving science.
Hypothesis-testing in beekeeping: As students speak with beekeepers, they learn about the issues that beekeepers think contribute to the survival and/or loss of their bees. Beekeepers often struggle with whether to treat a hive, chemically or “organically,” let nature take its course, or look for other practices that would allow or encourage the bees to protect themselves (such as keeping a smaller size or different strain of honeybee). After the loss of a few hives, most beekeepers develop a series of practices that appear to work for them. However, the saying holds true: “Ask two beekeepers what you need to do to help your bees, and you will get at least three answers.”
Many beekeepers want to use organic practices and find it challenging to locate information regarding organic alternatives to address common problems such tracheal and varroa mites. There are numerous websites from beekeeping associations and beekeepers that provide information on site owners’ personal practices. However, much of the information regarding raising bees organically has not been researched and published; information on organic alternatives based on empirical data is very hard to find. Often, beekeepers are relying on ad hoc strategies to support a struggling hive, and their efforts are often more reactive then proactive. A significant part of this challenge is that colony collapse disorder and other causes of honeybee illness and death are often multi-factorial and not well understood.
Beekeepers discuss with students what evidence they may have after a hive died or was abandoned. Did the bees starve, is the queen still present, or have the bees simply disappeared? Beekeepers discuss theories and methods that they use to enhance survival and how they decide whether they were successful. Record-keeping and data are often non-existent, and beekeepers rely on memory to help guide their practices. The accumulation of information from the interview provides students with knowledge and data that some beekeepers find helpful or interesting.
Personal interest in a social/scientific problem: The students return from their interviews with a much greater understanding of the importance of beekeeping for pollination and the challenges and rewards of keeping bees. Beekeepers often share personal stories and relate the frustration and sadness they experience when a colony dies. Many students return with a stronger desire to keep bees and feel empowered to be able to make a difference on a local scale. Unlike many environmental problems that are global in scale and where the actions of a single individual go unquantified, a beekeeper can directly observe the difference that a hive makes. Many beekeepers observe a significant increase in flower, fruit, and vegetable production and quality in their yard as a result of pollination by the honeybees. Some beekeepers identify practices that optimize bee survival and begin breeding their own queens and sharing information. In Connecticut there are numerous groups of beekeepers that meet regularly and host conferences and workshops to educate others about the importance of pollinators and reining in environmental chemical use.
To treat hives with chemicals or not to treat? Through this activity students increase their understanding of basic ecological principles and come to appreciate the complex relationship between technology, social norms and assumptions, commercial agriculture, and ecosystem health. One of the interview questions focuses on the beekeepers’ decision to raise bees without treatments, to treat the bees with “organic” insecticides, or to treat with chemically based pesticides and medicines. During the review of the results in class, interesting discussions grow out of the decisions beekeepers make regarding treatment and the reasons they have for treating (chemically or “organically”) or not. Students begin to view the world as a system of which humans are a part and which is often negatively influenced them. Students typically gain information related to concepts such as the need for diversity, the role of adaptation and cooperation, and the ways in which evolution drives the relationships that exist between plants and animals.
Resources on beekeeping: Instructors not familiar with beekeeping practices and techniques may find the resources listed below to be useful.
What students will be able to do
Depending on how the instructor employs this activity, students may learn to do the following:
- Post-interview, students can identify ways in which a global environmental problem can be experienced locally.
- Students gain the confidence to solicit knowledge from people as information resources through the experience of cold-calling someone and gaining self-directed knowledge from that person (and forming rapport with a stranger in the process).
- When students discuss their interview results in class, their confidence increases even further, specifically in their ability to contribute to solutions to complex social problems. Students are more likely to take steps to address not only issues in beekeeping, but also issues in other areas in which humans struggle to relate effectively with the natural world.
- Students understand how current environmental issues (e.g., colony collapse disorder, climate change, loss of biodiversity) are multi-factorial and require a systems thinking approach in order to be resolved.
Ways that this activity enriches the engagement of citizens with social and civic problems having underlying scientific issues
This activity connects to several SENCER ideals, including:
- SENCER robustly connects science and civic engagement by teaching “through” complex, contested, capacious, current, and unresolved public issues “to” basic science.
Colony collapse disorder and the plight of pollinators is a local, regional, and global problem. The science behind this issue includes chemical use and its impact on the environment, epidemiology of insect and plant diseases, and the relationships between numerous environmental systems. The players in this issue include the economic drivers of commercial agriculture and the transition, over the past century, of honeybees into a commodity (livestock). This interview allows students to gather information about how these factors work together to impact honeybees and other pollinators both globally and locally.
- SENCER invites students to put scientific knowledge and scientific method to immediate use on matters of immediate interest to students.
As students interview beekeepers, they learn about the various practices and treatments that beekeepers use and their rationales for using them. These interviews elicit immediate interest by the students, who, in our experience, quickly find themselves educating others about the dangers of household and agricultural pesticides and how making choices to support local beekeepers by purchasing local honey helps to protect pollinators.
At the beginning of the course, students think of bees as pesky insects that sting. By the time of the interview, they understand that bees have evolved complex relationships with plants, other insects, and humans over thousands of years. As they begin to see the honeybee as an important and complex creature with a long history that is closely integrated with our culture, students become vested in honeybees’ welfare.
- SENCER helps reveal the limits of science by identifying the elements of public issues where science doesn’t help us decide what to do.
In class, students are engaged in systems thinking exercises that help them begin to understand how many of our current scientific and social problems cannot be solved by science alone. Students are able to view colony collapse disorder in the context of scientific, economic, political, and social drivers. They recognize that these evolving relationships often provide impediments to the resolution of these complex issues.
As a result of the interview, students gain insight into how science sometimes fails to have “all the answers.” They learn that research into single factors that ignore the broader system often fails to contribute meaningfully to the solution of the problem.
- SENCER conceives the intellectual project as practical and engaged from the start, as opposed to science education models that view the mind as a kind of “storage shed” where abstract knowledge may be secreted for vague potential uses.
Students meet with beekeepers early in their learning about honeybee issues, thus their learning integrates an exchange of information from the outset. Through the interview, students come to view themselves as members of a community of people interested in helping bees and other pollinators, using scientifically derived knowledge to solve problems where appropriate and at the same time recognizing where issues are civic in nature.
- SENCER seeks to extract from the immediate issues the larger, common lessons about scientific processes and methods.
As students speak with beekeepers, they learn what issues beekeepers think contribute to the survival and/or loss of their bees. They discuss what evidence the beekeepers have after a colony dies or the hive is abandoned by the bees. Beekeepers discuss theories and methods they use to enhance survival and the basis on which they decide whether they were effective. Prior to the interview, students have learned about the half-life of pesticides in soil, LD50, false positive and false negative results, the science of pollination and plant processes in nectar and pollen production, and the value and differences between anecdotal and scientific information.
- SENCER, by focusing on contested issues, encourages student engagement with “multidisciplinary trouble” and with civic questions that require attention now. By doing so, SENCER hopes to help students overcome both unfounded fears and unquestioning awe of science.
Through these interviews, students gain a better appreciation of the strengths and weaknesses of science. They learn not only that science often does not provide the full answer but that poor scientific thinking that fails to consider a systems thinking approach to a complex problem such as the loss of pollinators. Often a lack of knowledge about science processes and principles can even be responsible for contributing to the problem. However, science is the tool we refer back to in order to identify potential causes and work toward solving problems like colony collapse disorder and the loss of pollinators. Students recognize that as citizens we have a responsibility to have a basic understanding of science and the obligation to use that knowledge in a manner that supports the health and wellbeing of our planet. When things go wrong and problems arise they should be comfortable in questioning current scientific practices and policies when it fails to support the principles of sustainability, systems thinking, and resilience.
Many of our most pressing challenges such as the loss of pollinators, climate change, and the spread of diseases such as Zika virus and AIDS require a multidisciplinary approach to work toward solution. Sustainability brings the environment together with principles of economics and social justice. Systems thinking requires that our problems be studies within the greater system of factors that resulted in the problem and need to be studied in efforts toward resolving the problem.
The College Board’s Enduring Understandings That Connect Most Closely
Big Idea: The process of evolution drives the diversity and unity of life
Enduring Understanding 1.C: Life continues to evolve within a changing environment
The evolutionary relationships between plants and pollinators are always changing in a constantly changing environment.
Enduring Understanding: The stability and resilience of an ecosystem is dependent on its biodiversity
Genetic biodiversity is critical to maintain and the health and resilience of all of earths living systems. Diversity results in a more complex ecosystem, in which interdependence is less reliant on a single factor.
Big Idea: Biological systems utilize free energy and molecular building blocks to grow, to reproduce and to maintain dynamic homeostasis
Enduring Understanding 2.C: Organisms use feedback mechanisms to regulate growth and reproduction, and to maintain dynamic homeostasis
Hive homeostasis provides an excellent example of how single organisms and social systems use feedback for survival.
Enduring Understanding 2.D: Growth and dynamic homeostasis of a biological system are influenced by changes in the system’s environment
Systems as small as a beehive or as large as our planet survive through their ability to maintain homeostasis through self-regulation and adaptation. Rapid or dramatic changes in the system’s environment often result in the loss of a systems ability to maintain itself.
Big Idea: Living systems store, retrieve, transmit, and respond to information essential to life processes
Enduring Understanding 3.E: Transmission of information results in changes within and between biological systems
Honeybees provide an ideal venue for understanding the relationships between soil health, plant growth, pollinator, biodiversity, and ecosystem health and resilience. Interdependence and communication between these realms influences the growth and evolution of biological systems.
Big Idea: Biological systems interact, and these systems and their interactions possess complex properties
Enduring Understanding 4.B: Competition and cooperation are important aspects of biological systems
The relationships that exist between honeybees themselves and with other pollinators, as well as with plants, provide an opportunity for students to examine the ways in which cooperation and competition both benefit and threaten the health and survival of each member of the ecosystem.
Enduring Understanding 4.C: Naturally occurring diversity among and between components within biological systems affects interactions with the environment
The diversity of pollinators plays an important role in influencing the diversity and health of different components of the environment. For example, overall plant diversity may rely of generalist pollinators such as honeybees. However, the survival of a specific species of plant may depend on a single pollinator (specialist) that has co-evolved with that plant. The diversity of plants in the environment influences the diversity of animals including insects, birds and mammals.
Benjamin, Allison and Brian McCallum, A World Without Bees. Pegasus Books New York, 2009.
Bonney, Richard E., Hive Management: A Seasonal Guide for Beekeepers. Storey Publishing, 1990.
Buchmann, S. and Gary Paul Nabhan. The Forgotten Pollinators. Island Press, Washington DC, 1996.
Bush, Michael, The Practical Beekeeper: Beekeeping Naturally. X-Star Publishing. 2011.
Check out his book or website (www.bushfarms.com/bees) for strategies for keeping bees naturally. Bush shares his insights and experiences throughout several decades of beekeeping without chemicals.
Conrad, Ross, Natural Beekeeping: Organic Approaches to Modern Apiculture. Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, Vermont, 2007.
Jacobsen, Rowan, Fruitless Fall: The Collapse of the Honey Bee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis. Bloomsbury Publishing, New York, 2008.
Marchese, Marina C., Honeybee: Lessons from an Accidental Beekeeper. Black Dog and Leventhal Publishers, New York, 2009.
The story of a brief visit to a bee yard can lead to a new life completely revolving around bees. Ms. Marchese shares how her interest became a passion and the lessons learned along the way.
Penn State, College of Agricultural Sciences, Beekeeping Basics, 2007.
A common reference for beekeepers interested in a guide for keeping honeybees without the use of traditional medicines or pesticides.
Sammataro, Diana and Alphonse Avitable, The Beekeepers Handbook 3rd edition. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York, 1998.
Stiglitz, Dean and Laurie Herboldsheimer, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Beekeeping. Penguin Books, 2010.
Another excellent reference for beekeepers keeping honeybees without the use of traditional medicines or pesticides.
Xerces Society Guide, Attracting Native Pollinators: Protecting North America’s Bees and Butterflies. Storey Publishing, North Adams, Massachusetts, 2011.