A gaggle of British primary school children has published important findings on bee behavior
By Richard P. Grant | January 28, 2011
For millennia, naturalists and thinkers across the globe have peered into beehives and wondered: What the hell are those things doing in there? Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, and after him Roman poet Virgil, both wrote extensively of their fascination with the lives and habits of bees. These days, with mysterious illnesses wiping out entire hives and jeopardizing the viability of some commercial crops, serious research projects probe honeybee pathogens and behavior. And now, to centuries of cataloged knowledge of bee behavior and biology, a group of British schoolchildren have added their insights in a linkurl:paper;http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsbl.2010.1056 published in a recent issue of the Royal Society's __Biology Letters__.
Image: Alvesgaspar via Wikimedia commons
Twenty five 8-10-year-olds, under the guidance of University College London neuroscientist Beau Lotto, found that bees can learn complex rules to solve puzzles, and that individual bees have personal preferences, suggesting the insects may possess some form of personality. As bold as those claims might be, the concept for the study itself was even more radical.
Lotto, who is known for melding the worlds of science and art, helped the children -- students of Blackawton Primary School in Devon, UK -- devise a hypothesis, design and conduct the experiments, then write the paper, complete with their own, hand-drawn figures (in colored pencil). Using an old country church in the southwest of England as their laboratory, the children tested whether or not they could train buff-tailed bumblebees (__Bombus terrestris__) to learn the orientation of "flowers" containing sugary or salty water based on the pattern of colored light surrounding containers of the liquids. They found that it was possible and that the bees were using spatial and color cues to decide which "flower" to feed upon.
The scientific community is hailing their findings as valuable contributions to the study of bee behavior. "The field of insect colour and pattern vision is generally poorly understood and the findings reported by the schoolchildren represent a genuine advance in the field," the Royal Society said in a statement.
The idea to have school children design and conduct a complete scientific study started when Lotto wanted to do a primary school assembly about doing science. He discussed the idea with Blackawton headmaster David Strudwick, who says that the key thing "was the idea of science as a game," remarking that Lotto has "the best job in the world, because he just plays games all day." This idea grew into a plan to challenge expectations of what science is -- both in the minds of the schoolchildren themselves, but also fellow scientists. "Science is about getting it wrong so that you can get it right," says Jo Lunt, a science teacher at the school.
Lotto applied for funding, but was refused on the grounds that the "cost to benefit ratio" was too low and skepticism from the reviewers that children would be able to design the experiments properly. This simply strengthened Lotto's resolve, so he funded it out of his own studio:
F1000 Member Amy Barrios, linkurl:evaluating;http://f1000.com/7345956?key=vp8v08k27pbrg1f the paper for Faculty of 1000, writes that the study is a "fabulous example of amateur scientists making an important contribution."
Most practicing scientists might find it hard to relate to Lotto. It's difficult imagining anyone worried about faculty committees or where the next grant is coming from taking on such an unconventional project. This is especially true in today's era of big science, where even the most basic equipment is not within a hobbyist's budget. Lotto was fortunate in that this project was cheap to run -- some wood and plastic, a little sugar solution, and a few lights were all the equipment he and his pint-size collaborators required.
Lotto, like any parent, recognizes that children are "burning with curiosity" and anything that reverses the common perception of science being dry and boring must surely be worthwhile. Lotto says that the underlying aim of his work is to get people to think of good science as "a way of being," to use science as a vehicle to get the kids to think of themselves as learners, and to become active in the "process of making sense of how they make sense of the world."
And the paper? There are no references -- Lotto says this was deliberate, not simply because the scientific literature is not understandable to primary school children, but also because "the true motivation" for any scientific study must be one's own curiosity, inspired by observations of the real world. Also missing are statistical analyses. And the paper is certainly written in an usual style. But there are undoubtedly real scientific findings here, not least that these children learned that "science is cool and fun because you get to do stuff that no one has ever done before," as they write in the paper's abstract. Barrios writes: "Although many of us discovered the second point years ago, the novelty and impact of this work cannot be disputed."
**__Related stories:__***linkurl:Science, rah rah;http://www.the-scientist.com/2009/09/1/22/1/ [September 2009]*linkurl:Bee calamity clarified;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/55919/ [24th August 2009]*linkurl:Citizens and the art of maintaining science;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/54523/ [4th April 2008]
Beau Lotto deserves a Nobel nomination. The pathway into this research leads us to knowledge not just about bees but about the bee-havior of children who are embodying the true organizing pathways of learning. His passion and belief in the capacity of children to learn free of institutional manipulation and control may constitute the richest honey in the hive of children he created. Play is hardwired into the hearts and minds of the young. The drive to Play is unconditional. Kids are tuned in on the play wavelength. To the large majority of educators this would be viewed as fringe thinking, if not irrelevant--perhaps heretical. To Beau Lotto the scientist, play is to kids as honey is to the bee's productivity of honey, energy in its flight and purposeful attraction to the flower, in its dance--a form of social communication with fellow bees, in the geometrical engineering of the comb. Consider us humans without the bee. We inhabit the wider world of the bee and survive because of the bee?s productive capacity. Consider the isolation of our children in our classrooms, deprived of play, bred on a strict diet of academics. Without Play children cannot learn self-direction, self-navigation, self-regulation. In ignoring Play, we deny children the birthright to emotional and psychological nutrients required by their developing brains, and place the wider world we all inhabit on a path to moral hazard and cultural dysfunction.
I don't want to put off engaging children with science but let's be honest. The children did not devise the hypothesis nor design the experiments. They collected data -and that's OK and a good contribution but let's not exaggerate about intellectual input. Hasn't the question about color in insect recognition has been studied by entomologists for quite some time? How could the reviewers accept a paper with no references ... was there really no precedent for the ideas being examined? (Here's a review from 10 years ago: THE EVOLUTION OF COLOR VISION IN INSECTS Annual Review of Entomology Vol. 46: 471-510) Lack of citation to other's ideas (we DO stand on the shoulders of others) is identified as plagiarism by other journals...\nScience is about honesty not spin!
Beau Lotto is absolutely right in understanding how kids should learn at times. Creativity is a big part of learning and of science. Play and child belong together for finding that way toward a happier life. \n\nLearning by precept has its place, of course, but learning by conception is, by far, superior. \n\nWell done! May we all have learned something here!
This is a response to Dishonesty.\n\nAnonymous seems not to have read the paper produced by the experiments. The abstract includes this sentence:\n\n"The present study (on the vision of bumble-bees) goes even further, since it was not only performed outside my laboratory (in a Norman church in the southwest of England), but the ?games? were themselves devised in collaboration with 25 8- to 10-year-old children. They asked the questions, hypothesized the answers, designed the games (in other words, the experiments) to test these hypotheses and analysed the data."\n\nThe 10 years ago study referred to by anonymous does not address the questions the children and Lotto were exploring. \n\nThe publicly available abstract (http://www.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/annurev.ento.46.1.471) to that study begins:\n\n"We review the physiological, molecular, and neural mechanisms of insect color vision."\n\nMean spiritedness is as counterproductive as plagiarism.
There is nothing new in their hypothesis or findings at all. Color and pattern recognition in honeybees has been extensively studied in itself - as well as used as the basis for studying learning in general - in Germany and America for many decades as any superficial review of the behavior and physiology literature will show.\n\nIgnorance of past work is the only basis for the claims of originality here and that so many others should be swept up with enthusiasm over the display of this ignorance is a pity for science in general.
If you have citations demonstrating that the findings presented by Blackawton et al. are not novel, please leave a comment at F1000 where they can be discussed openly and accountably. Anonymous, unsubstantiated assertions aren't entirely helpful.