Bees: A System of Systems for a Young Audience

Several times a year, my wife and I pack up the truck with beehives, enormous pieces of honeycomb, apiarist’s tools and a white jumpsuit complete with veils and hats, and head to our local school. There, I do a beekeeping class for hundreds of elementary age kids ranging from 4 to 11 years old. The effort is part of my campaign promise to keep a close connection to our public schools. Before being elected as a member of the County Board of Supervisors in 2007, I spent eight years on the school board.

Now as a Supervisor, it gives me an opportunity to be a presence and spend a day in our county schools. An added bonus for me of course, as an avid beekeeper, is the sharing of a hobby I love with such a young audience. Kids are completely fascinated with how something as wonderful as honey comes from a fuzzy flying insect. They get over the “stinging” phobia much more quickly than the adults I teach occasionally, who just want to know, “Where can I buy some?” The natural curiosity of kids at this age opens the door for me to talk about the whole story of bees, which is one of the most amazing system of systems in the universe.

While my first thoughts of beekeeping certainly came from my immigrant grandparents and other forebears who it turns out were all beekeepers, my expertise after so many years stems from a desire to learn this miraculous system. An engineer’s dream, the beehive always has a contingency plan, even if one or more parts become compromised.

Bees, honey, and engineering
When we first started talking to school-age kids, my wife included all kinds of extra activities, like bee coloring pages and bee puzzles. We quickly found out, however, that even younger kids were much more advanced than we realized. Children as young as five want the lowdown on how bees make honey. The great side benefit to this is that it leads to an explanation of pollination and what would happen if, as Albert Einstein surmised, bees disappeared from the earth. If that came to pass, he said, mankind would have no more than four years of life.

At this point we are discussing with elementary age children a system within a system within the world’s ecosystem. This all originated with a question: How do bees make honey? They like hearing that bees are an integral part of our ecosystem and have an effect on the world’s food chain. And they howl with indignation when I tell them that without bees, blueberries and watermelons would be the first to go.

So early on, my program became a small class in math and engineering, and the room would get really quiet with all those little minds burning rubber. Then the hands would wave wildly and a loud competition would ensue as to who would be the first to answer the questions.

Here’s a small sampling of what I asked to give students a view of one of nature’s most efficient builders of a system of systems. For a teaching tool, I use one beehive three stories high and ask the kids to remember that each of the three stories has ten frames.

  1. How many frames are there in all three beehives?
  2. I bring out one full frame of honey and ask them to guess the weight. (Three pounds)
  3. I ask them, if it takes 40,000 bee trips to make one pound of honey in the jar, how many trips to make one frame of honey?
  4. How many bee trips does it take to fill one box, which is ten frames?

One of my young audience’s favorite exercises is to learn the duties of each bee, and how their tasks and accomplishments fit into the hive as a whole. They are always surprised by how honey bees arrange themselves and assume different roles during a lifespan, which for most of them is as short as seven weeks. They are first nurse bees, then move on to new job assignments such as pollen workers, nectar workers, and guard bees. Of course, there are drones and a queen.

These groups demonstrate even more significantly the parts of the hive that make up the system that produces that good gold stuff called honey. Their eyes get wide when I tell them honey is the only food that includes all the substances to sustain life: vitamins, minerals, enzymes, and antioxidants.

Sometimes, kids as young as five end up answering the questions. As a beekeeper hoping to keep alive a dying art, this makes me feel that maybe, just maybe there are a few budding apiarists in the lot. As a Supervisor concerned with our public schools, I am hoping there are a few budding mathematicians and scientists as well.

The beginnings of an understanding of engineering
Elementary students who grasp, even in a rudimentary way, how this system of systems is built, have the beginnings of an understanding of engineering. I am reading more and more about schools in other countries using the beehive as a teaching tool and a basis for class projects. In England, a group of students chose to help honeybees further adapt to a mite problem which destroys colonies annually by creating a doorway with tiny brushes that remove the mites as the bees enter the door. There is a design problem, however, as a certain amount of air must flow through a bee hive. Upon discovering this, students went back to the drawing board to design the hive itself to create the right number of openings.

Scientists are finally running to ground the fourth century theory of the Greek mathematician Pappus, who surmised that while the beehive is a thing of beauty, its aesthetic construction is no accident, but the most efficient use of space and strength that could be used by bees to store their food supply. We can now see that they are using technology which is truly an engineering marvel.

In an article in The Guardian, author Keith Devlin writes: “Not until the advent of close-up film techniques did scientists know for certain how bees build their honey stores. It is a remarkable feat of high-precision engineering. Young worker bees excrete slivers of warm wax, each about the size of a pinhead. Other workers take the freshly produced slivers and carefully position them to form vertical, six-sided, cylindrical chambers (or cells). Each wax partition is less than 0.1mm thick, accurate to a tolerance of 0.002mm. Each of the six walls is exactly the same width, and the walls meet at an angle of precisely120 degrees, producing one of the ‘perfect figures’ of geometry, a regular hexagon.”

The keeping of bees goes back before biblical times. Honey found in the Egyptian Pyramids is still edible today. Recently, a 3000-year-old apiary was discovered in Tel Rehov, Israel that yielded a Bronze and Iron Age bevy of hives, capable of producing a half-ton of honey.

Honey was also used for its medicinal properties, though why it killed bacteria was not understood. Now we know that honey is anaerobic, incapable of growing bacteria, and has since been studied extensively in the 20th century. Today it has been shown to kill many types of bacteria. To make a long story short, it attacks and dehydrates most of the germs that it comes into contact with.

Many times in my bee classes, people ask, “What if?” This can be anything from wondering what happens if a hive loses a queen, to a large predator like a bear helping itself to the food supply. My standard answer is that bees reserve the right to do something different to make the parts continue to work for the whole. The enemies of beehives are numerous and have evolved over the years, just as bees do in response to the environment. Killer wasps can sometimes overwhelm a hive, as can hive beetles, varroa mites and even other bees. Strong guard bees can take on a wasp attack by sacrificing their numbers in a violent pile-on to repel the intruder. An amazing and new adaptation is the corralling of hive beetles, a new pest, into one small area. The bees realize they can’t completely get rid of these pests, so they create a jail. Changes in weather also call for adaptation, such as bringing in more water to evaporate during hot weather as they fan the opening of the hive to move the cooled air.

A single bee has no one to dance for
Even with today’s technology, we will probably never know all there is to know about how the parts fit into the whole and how the engineers/bees are able to adapt to new situations or threats to both their brood and honey stores which make up their food supply. There is a common misconception that the queen directs the hive; however, the individual bees themselves accomplish the engineering using their tiny, DNA-created sesame seed-size brains. What’s even more amazing is how that brain enables them to adapt to new situations.

The function of a beehive is the function of any system from the beginning of time, to survive and continue. I was recently pleased to see an article about the science of bees and a reference to how bees dance to communicate with one another when they have found a new home or food source. The author noted, “A single bee has no one to dance for.” This illustrates in one sentence a beehive’s whole system, which is conceived from the interaction of all the moving pieces.

Understanding all this, just as I strive to understand systems in my day job, allows me to create strategies for improving both the health of my hives and the honey flow.

Bees already have what engineering classes attempt to teach students, the ability to develop a systems view of the world, considering the whole, when contemplating even a minute change to a part of that system.

Bees make it all look so easy. In their case, the very physical survival of their species depends upon their engineering and systems excellence. Human engineers, the systems they design and the businesses they work for could take a lesson from bees in complex adaptability. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Leave a Reply