World of Bees Exhibit
By Louise Lynch
Bees. They have buzzed about Earth’s angiosperms for millions of years. They are nature’s agriculturalists, carpenters, architects. They contribute to the pollination of one third of the foods we eat. They pollinate many of the bobbing and aromatic wild flowers that pepper our landscape. They visit our gardens and individually appreciate each blossom. While many people celebrate these industrious creatures, bees can simultaneously illicit fear and panic in many others. “The World of Bees” is an interactive children’s exhibit with the mission of opening up people’s minds to the beauty, diversity, conservation and biology of bees.
Since the age of dinosaurs, bees have visited flowering plants to collect nectar and pollen. Visitors to the exhibit can admire a small amber specimen that holds a stingless bee captured 17 to 25 million years ago. Thousands of years ago, humans were familiar with the honey produced by the honey bee, as evidenced by a famous Paleolithic cave painting of a honey hunter scaling a cliffside to gather from a wild colony. A muralist’s rendering stands on one of the exhibit walls.
An important goal of “The World of Bees” is to introduce visitors to bee diversity. Connecticut alone has more than 320 species. The United States boasts a modest 4,000+ species, compared to the estimated 20,000 bee species worldwide. While the honey bee is the world’s best known bee, it is one sister in a very large family. Bees come in all sorts of colors—blue, green, yellow, black, red, purple, orange. Many are named for behaviors associated with the way they build their nests—mason bees, leafcutter bees, carder bees, carpenter bees. Sweat bees, on the other hand, are so-named for their attraction to human sweat! Visitors are welcome to get a close look at a large, 3-D metallic blue mason bee mural, a child-sized stuffed bumblebee, pinned bee displays and preserved specimens.
Everything about a bee’s body caters to their pollination behavior. They are furry with an electrostatic pull in their fur to capture pollen. Even their eyes are hairy! Bees have a very special relationship with flowers and see them very differently. And just to clarify—bees have five eyes! Three, small simple eyes sit on top of their head to help them detect light and dark. Their two large compound eyes, composed of thousands of eye units, see a world vision that is very different than ours. Bees, while red-blind, see past violet visible light rays, into the ultraviolet (UV) spectrum. Flowers often have UV nectar guides, invisible to us but useful in helping bees find the nectaries of a flower. Visitors can see how flowers appear to humans and bees, side by side in the “Bees Eye View Box.”
At the heart of nectar and pollen collection is pollination, the method by which flowering plants procreate and produce seeds. Carbohydrate-rich nectar and protein-rich pollen are the rewards produced by flowers to get bees to pass along pollen for them. Their colorful petals, sweet aromas and tasty nectar bring bees in. But flowers only give a little nectar reward, encouraging a visiting bee to seek out other members of the flower’s species thus increasing successful pollination. It is this flirtatious game that produces many of our fruits, nuts, vegetables and seeds. Exhibit visitors are invited to partake in the “Pollination Picnic” activity in which many foods available wouldn’t be so without bee pollination. Apples, almonds, alfalfa, onions, broccoli, carrots, coffee beans, sunflowers, cantaloupe, avocados, tomatoes, herbs, cherries, grapes, macadamia nuts—the list goes on, including even many meat and dairy products that are affordable because of the cheap alfalfa feed pollinated by the Alfalfa Leafcutter Bee. Younger visitors can help move chunky pollen balls from a big bumblebee to a flower.
It is the honey bee that tops the charts when it comes to popularity, agricultural pollination and, of course, honey production. Exhibit visitors are able to enjoy the excitement of an indoor observation hive, dress up like a beekeeper with Walter T. Kelley-donated apparel and inspect a Langstroth hive with a plush smoker and hive tool. One of the most awe-inspiring honey bee behaviors is their ability to communicate using dance languages. Visitors are able to learn about the different components of the waggle dance and try out the steps themselves on a Waggle Dance rug. The core of the exhibit is the 12-foot wide, hexagonal “Hive Castle” that serves as a maze and activity center. Inside, children can dress up as a bee and take on different worker bee rolls (from queen bee to nurse bee to drone and more!), playing with child-sized egg, larva and pupa plush toys.
Many visitors have heard about bee declines in the news. Information about pesticides, pests, predators and parasites that can harm bees is provided along with different things people can do to help pollinators. Try keeping bees, whether they are honey-, bumble-, leafcutter or mason bees. Keeping a garden is a fun and rewarding way to help. Visitors can see examples of some simple native bee houses to try at home. Also, leaving some weeded, untidy areas on one’s property provides nesting habitat for ground nesting bees and overwintering habitat for bumblebee queens. Having these bees nearby only helps garden productivity and provides an opportunity to observe these incredible creatures in their element.
“The World of Bees” was my Master’s Project, developed under the auspices of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. It received its first run at the Hudson Highlands Nature Museum in Cornwall on Hudson, New York. The exhibit was redesigned and reconstructed as a Bees Louise L.L.C. project for the New Canaan Nature Center in New Canaan, Connecticut where it is on exhibit as “The World of Bees: Pollination, Conservation & Communication”. For more information and a virtual tour, please visit www.beeslouise.org. For directions and hours, go to http://www.newcanaannature.org/.