Skip to main content

NSTA Reports

Teaching the Science of Honeybees

By Debra Shapiro

Middle school students at Allendale Columbia School in Rochester, New York, prepare their honeybee colony for the winter. Photo credit: Beth Guzzetta

Most students know “honeybees are important pollinators that provide some of the foods they like to eat. Additionally, students may also recall hearing news stories about honeybees not doing well or even dying off. 

[O]thers are…terrified of anything that has a stinger…Bringing an observation hive into the classroom where students can see the real-time activities and life cycle of honeybees can provide a significant life-changing learning experience for them,” asserts Phil Kahler, a science teacher at Tualatin Valley Academy in Hillsboro, Oregon, who once had a beekeeping program at his school.

“[S]tudents will learn to appreciate the work [bees do] to store pollen, make honey, and raise their young. If students can make a personal connection to honeybees, they will begin to understand them and will be more likely to do what they can to protect these and other pollinators,” Kahler maintains.  

Beekeeping fits in “with many units I teach in my Advanced Placement Biology curriculum,” such as “animal behavior, ecology, and conservation,” says Jamie Holbrook of Saint Mary’s Hall in San Antonio, Texas. Beekeeping “gives students an opportunity to connect with nature that they wouldn’t get otherwise, an experience that might influence [their] future decisions [such as] voting on [environmental] policies.”

“All bees aren’t equal; they serve different purposes within their hive and the environment. This appreciation of differences translates to other animals as well as to plants, [helping students] develop a greater respect for all living things,” maintains Beth Guzzetta, Lucius and Marie Gordon Chair in Science at Allendale Columbia School in Rochester, New York, who started an apiary with her seventh-grade life science students in 2018.

“Honeybees aren’t aggressive, not like yellow jackets are. [Studying them] gave students a different perspective on bees,” observes Jacqueline Cappiano, a science teacher at Amity Regional High School in Woodbridge, Connecticut. 

Cappiano, English teacher Sean Malloy, and a social studies colleague helped establish their school’s beekeeping program, which is part of the curriculum for an alternative program within the school for students who need more individualized learning. In this program, “we take a nontraditional approach to teaching [and wanted to have] a program that would be special for [these students]. Our school psychologist, Linda Descesare, is a beekeeper and encouraged us,” Cappiano relates.

“The students were really enthusiastic,” Malloy recalls. “They developed a proposal [explaining] why beekeeping is important, how the program would be run, the risks versus the benefits…They [presented their proposal to the school superintendent and the principal], and it was approved” for funding.

“There have been numerous benefits to our students,” says Malloy, including “team building, problem solving, and fulfillment via activities that fall outside expectations of the traditional classroom setting, as we have maintained four hives on the roof of our school.” Plans call for the hives to be moved from the roof to inside the school because “we want to make the apiary part of the school community and have more students be able to see it,” says Malloy.

Guzzetta’s seventh graders planned and designed a pollinator garden with help from a local beekeeper and nursery. “They even give tours and teach the elementary students about the importance of honeybees, our garden, and other pollinators,” she relates, and they acquired “engineering skills” when they built a stand for the hive.

Holbrook says she asks her AP Biology students to “build a website [for] a beekeeping business [located] anywhere in the world…They are business owners selling a product from the hive,” such as honey or beeswax.

Starting an Apiary

“When starting out, I highly recommend recruiting a volunteer beekeeper who will commit to working with you and your class over several seasons until you feel comfortable running things yourself. Read lots of books and watch online videos. Talk with other beekeepers, or take a beekeeping class…Seek out a nature center or museum in your area that has an observation hive,” Kahler recommends. 

In addition, The Honeybee Conservancy has lesson plans on honeybees. The NSTA Kids book Next Time You See a Bee by Emily Morgan could be used with elementary students.

Starting an apiary can cost anywhere from $1,500 to $3,000, the amount Holbrook estimates she spent, most of which she obtained from donations. “Bee suits are expensive,” she notes, costing about $120 each. She began the program with two nuclear hives that hold five frames each—half the number of a regular hive body. “I recommend having two hives because if one fails, you’ll still have the other,” she says.
“Our beekeeper volunteers his time and has brought us supplies to use, such as a smoker, and [other] equipment,” Guzzetta relates. 

“When people [in your area] decide to give up beekeeping, they’ll be selling or donating supplies and equipment. Look online,” Malloy suggests.

Teachers should also anticipate ongoing expenses for replacing supplies, suits, and equipment—and sometimes, the colony itself. “We lost all our hives one time. It taught students about perseverance because we learned to troubleshoot what went wrong,” Cappiano recalls.

“To ensure their survival, before the weather turns cold in the fall, you will want to move the colony to a full-sized hive box in your backyard, where they will remain until spring,” Kahler urges.

When working with bees, safety is paramount, and several teachers say their schools have developed a safety protocol. “Our school’s attorney created a liability waiver [because] students may not know if they have an allergy to bee stings,” recalls Holbrook. She checks students three times after they have donned bee suits to make sure they’re thoroughly covered and keeps epinephrine injectors and allergy relief medication on hand. Her school’s maintenance staff found a remote spot for the hives, and “built a fence, a gated area to keep students” who aren’t in her class out, she adds. 

“I teach students how to behave [around bees] and why bees react [in certain ways],” Guzzetta explains. “We use smoke to calm the bees” when opening the hive during certain times of the year, which also allows “us to install traps for hive beetles and treat for varroa mites [which threaten the hive]. It also allows us to remove honey from the hive without causing a lot of stress to the bees,” she reports.

Sometimes the students need calming. Holbrook recalls two students who feared bees and were claustrophobic. “They helped everyone else get suited up and walked outside, but not close to the hives...They didn’t feel left out, and were able to do the class projects.” 

“I never force a student [to get close to the hive], but the students are curious, and in the end, [those who are afraid usually] want to get close to the hive and observe the bees,” says Guzzetta. 

“Modeling by students who are proficient and competent with bees” helps students who are afraid because “they see the other students are safe,” Malloy maintains.

Though Malloy and his social studies colleague “knew nothing about beekeeping to start, we learned so much by being open-minded and unafraid. If you commit yourself to learning, you can make it work,” he concludes. 

This article originally appeared in the April 2020 issue of NSTA Reports, the member newspaper of the National Science Teachers Association. Read the entire issue now.

Biology Environmental Science Interdisciplinary Life Science Middle School High School

Asset 2