Weekend Science Fun: Honey Bees

Happy 2011!

Now it is time to sweep the cobwebs from the blog, check all the old links, delete the posts that are no longer relevant, and spruce up Growing With Science for the New Year. Time to reflect on what we have accomplished and plan where to go from here. Always a fun time of year.

A special thanks to all the regular followers who have made this blog such a wonderful experience! Please let me know if you have any comments/suggestions/questions to help us become even better in 2011.

How Honey Bees Keep Warm

In the last bug of the week blog post I mentioned that honey bees have a way to keep warm that is different from that used by butterflies. It turns out that the radio show Science Friday had a discussion last week (Friday, December 24th, 2010) all about honey bees called Buzz on Bees. One of the show’s guests, Dr. Thomas Seeley from Cornell University, explained that even when it is very cold outside honey bees keep the temperature within their hives up to 90° F. That’s pretty warm! No wonder the worker bees are able to fly when no other insects are moving.

(Photograph taken December 28, 2010 in San Diego, California.)

How do the bees keep warm? They feed on the honey they have stored in the honeycomb, which gives them energy to shiver. Basically, honey bee shiver and shake to create warmth. They use about a pound of honey per week to accomplish this (you can hear the podcast here.)

Honey Bees Swarming

Dr. Seeley also talked about how honey bees make new colonies, a process called swarming. During the time that the scout  honey bees are looking for a place to make their new home.


  • queen honey bee – the large bee that lays all the eggs in a bee colony
  • swarm – a group of honey bees moving from a colony to find and start a new nest, usually contains a queen and about 10,000 worker bees
  • scout bees- worker bees that search for new nests for the swarm, pick the most promising, and lead the rest of the bees to the new site
  • waggle dance – the way the scout bees communicate with each other on the surface of the swarm
  • piping- a sound scout bees make to rouse the rest of the bees in the swarm to get ready to fly
  • buzz run- the actions and sounds of the scout bees letting the swarm bees know it is time to take off
  • wax glands- glands on the underside of the honey bee worker’s abdomen that produce wax for the new honeycomb in the new nest
  • aggregation pheromone- special odors produced by the honey bees to bring the swarming bees back together in a cluster

Making Honey

The other guest on the show was Dr. May Berenbaum 
from the University of Illinois. She explained how bees make honey from nectar and some of the special properties of honey. Basically the bees gather nectar from flowers, carry it back to their nest in a special stomach called a crop and then pass it to other bees for processing. The worker bees dry the moisture from the nectar, add some special enzymes to change the chemistry of the nectar and over time it becomes honey. When it is done, the bees cap the cells that contain honey with wax. The honey can stay fresh in the cells almost indefinitely.


Make a Sweet Honey Book

First discuss how bees collect nectar and make honey.

Information Sheet: What Bees Eat

Secondly, explain that humans have long used honey for food and as a sweetener. Have your children gather stories and poems about honey bees, and recipes using honey from their relatives and family friends and /or the library (like these) or make up their own. Group stories, poems and recipes together to create a small book, decorate with honey bee artwork, and print for distribution.

For more honey bee-related activities and information, see this previous post.

Both Dr. Seeley and Dr. Berenbaum have new books out, written for adults.

Tom Seeley’s is Honeybee Democracy (Princeton University Press, 2010)

May Berenbaum is the 
editor of Honey, I’m Homemade: Sweet Treats from the Beehive Across the Centuries and Around the World (University of Illinois Press, 2010).

And for kids our growing list of children’s books about bees at Science Books for Kids.

Note: If any of the links are broken for you, please leave a comment and I will try to retrieve them.


  1. Mike B.

    I’ll probably check out Honeybee Democracy. Thanks for the heads up!

  2. Roberta

    I’d love to hear what you think of it.

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