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Behavioral Ecology of Bees

Graduate Fellow Meg Eckles & Teacher Partner Jeff Kepper

Ecology is a grand synthesis of biological interactions, and can be overwhelming in its complexity. Using the biology of bees as a guide, we have developed curriculum designed to makes these interactions and relationships more accessible to students.

Meg Teaching


Our curriculum focuses on expanding student’s understanding of behavior and ecology, with an emphasis on improving their understanding of their local environment and its organisms. Using my background in bee ecology, I designed a number of activities focusing on honeybee behavior and their role in the ecosystems of San Diego County.

In our first activity, we introduced students to the different varieties of local bees by having them dissect a bumblebee and a honeybee. Not only did this give them a sense of the adaptations different bees have for dealing with their environment, but also introduced them to microscopy.

In our second activity, students were asked to watch live bees foraging on a stand of honeysuckle on campus. They identified not only how bees used their physical adaptations for foraging, but also how their behavior and interactions affected their foraging success and the success of other animals which were visiting the flowers. Our goal was to give students a broader perspective on how organisms in an environment interact and compete, and how this affects the system as a whole.

We also introduced the concept of plant-pollinator interactions: Certain plants receive more visits from specific insects than others; plants with large, brightly colored flowers tend to attract more bees than those with small or nonexistent flowers, which are more often visited by other insects; plants that have flowers of certain colors also tend to be preferred by some insects (or birds) more than others; some blooming plants in an area have many bees on them while others do not (this is a result of bees communicating information indicating that specific plant's location). The students would also notice that certain insects 'fit' into some flowers better than others, an indication that perhaps coevolution has occurred between those plants and insects.

In our final activity, students use dice to mimic bee visitation to different colors and different shapes. The sides of the dice are ‘weighted’ differently to mimic bee preferences for violet/yellow and symmetric shapes. After rolling the dice for 5 minutes, students are asked to examine their data and draw conclusions on which colors and shapes bees prefer.

Afterwards, based on the data they collected and the knowledge about bee ecology they have learned so far, each group must design the ‘perfect flower’ for attracting bees. They make the flower out of construction paper, and the flowers are drizzled with sugar water and placed in a flowering bush for 15 minutes. The groups compete to see whose flower attracts the most bees. By the end of these activities, students will have a better understanding of how individual adaptations affect and animal’s role in the ecology of its habitat. They will also be able to describe why pollinators specifically are important in the ecology of a system, and how the interactions between pollinators and between pollinating insects and plants can affect the makeup of a community.

Throughout these activities we familiarized students with current events dealing with bee ecology, specifically the die-off in bee populations caused by colony collapse disorder. At the end of each activity we would come back together and as a class go over our results and how they fit into the ‘big picture’ of the ecology of a system. I was able to introduce examples, pictures and samples from my own work to better explain and contextualize how what they were seeing on a small scale in the classroom reflects what actually happens in nature.

Each of these activities is done with students in small groups, and each lab was structured such that the groups had to discuss concepts with each other in order to proceed. Most of the labs were inquiry-based, with students increasing their understanding of concepts through hands-on manipulation or firsthand observation. At the end of the unit, students had acquired microscope skills, and understanding of the scientific method and experiment design, and experience collecting and analyzing data and later using that data to draw conclusions.

Honeybee Foraging Preferences Student Worksheet

Honeybee Foraging Preferences Teacher Guide

Bee Dissection Teacher Guide

Bee Dissection Student Worksheet

Describe Honeybee Foraging Teacher Guide