Monday, June 21, 2010

Bees, Beeswax, and Honeyed Delights

"As a genius of construction, man raises himself above the bee in the following way: whereas the bee builds with wax that he gathers from nature, man builds with the far more delicate conceptual material which he first has to manufacture from himself."
-Friedrich Nietzsche

To accompany the units on arthropods, parts of a flower, and our gardening unit, the children have been learning about pollination and honeybees. In addition to making honey and beeswax, bees are entrusted with an incredibly important task: pollinating plants. Nearly 1/3 of the human diet comes from insect-pollinated plants, and nearly 80% of this pollination is due to busy bees, adding nearly $15 billion dollars annually in value to the nation's food supply. In preparation for the unit, I found myself reading E.O. Wilson's The Superorganism, and marvelling at how these eusocial insects are able to create such incredibly sophisticated and complex societies, demonstrating apparent group intelligence, using a small number of of chemical signals, stereotyped behaviors, and simple decision making processes that are hard-wired into the colony members.

Honeybees have been declining dramatically since 2006, a phenomenon that has been referred to as "Colony Collapse Disorder." In 2009, it was estimated that nearly 1/3 of the bees in North America did not survive the winter.

In addition to reinforcing our botany and life science curriculum, teaching young children about bees is important because they are at an age where their attitudes and beliefs about these creatures will be formed. Hopefully our unit will arouse their interest in these fascinating creatures and their important role in pollination, while minimizing any anxiety they have of bees, and teaching them common sense precautions for interacting with them. Additionally, tropes and metaphors about bees figure prominently in literature and art; we hope to provide children with the opportunity to interpret literature and artwork that integrates the motifs of bees and beehives.

We began our unit by learning about the life cycle of a honeybee and examining some preserved specimens of bees, bee hives, and bee products.

The children seemed very interested in the specimens, but they were even more interested in bee products. After reading books about honey production, the children were treated to a tasting of honeycomb. For the vast majority of the children, this was their first experience with honeycomb. If you have never tried tasting honeycomb, you place the entire comb (wax and all) in your mouth. Your first bite crushes the comb, releasing a burst of the luscious honeyed serum from it's cells. Each subsequent bite becomes increasingly more mellow, until you are left chewing a soft, juicy, bit of beeswax with a flavor that is only vaguely reminiscent of honey. To say that the children enjoyed their introduction to this antiquated delicacy, is an understatement.

The children were also treated to a tasting of wildflower honey from a local apiary.

Finally, to ensure that our unit would begin with a sentiment of nothing less than absolute benevolence toward these hardworking little beasts, I borrowed a lesson (and a great recipe!) from Alice Waters' book The Kitchen Companion: Inside the Edible Schoolyard and assisted the children in using the remaining honey to make a special snack of baklava.

If you ever consider doing a cooking project with young children, this is one that I highly recommend. Despite the obvious stickiness factor involved, it is one of those rare cooking projects that children can accomplish completely independently- it isn't like baking, if they over or under measure the recipe is not dramatically affected, all of the tasks are simple to accomplish, and the main object of interest is folding the filo dough into triangles. The mise en place for this activity consists of chopping pistachios (the children did this by hand with a hand crank nut grinder, which I put out in the practical life area in the morning -very popular!).

By the end of work period, the school was filled with the intoxicating aroma of cinnamon and honey. Honestly, I ask you, is there a better to treat with which to christen the official first day of summer?

The children were delighted with their treat (comments made by the children ranged from "Wasn't it nice of the bees to make us honey?" to "Finally, we get to make cookies!")- but I guess the clean plates and sticky fingers speak for themselves.


  1. Great activities. I really love your blog! The children engage in many wonderful activities.

  2. Thank you so much for your kind comment! I really appreciate it! We certainly have a good time! There are so many fun things to do with children this age!