Twenty-five primary school students in the U.K. are the authors of a new study on how bees perceive color and patterns. In fact, the children devised the research, conducted the experiments, analyzed the data and wrote up the results. Led by neuroscientist Beau Lotto, of University College London, the students found that bees can use both color and location to remember where nectar-producing flowers are.
"It‘s an original discovery, quite apart from who did it," Lotto says.
As part of the U.K.'s National Science and Engineering Week, Lotto traveled to the Blackawton Primary School in Devon—approximately 320 kilometers southwest of London—to show the children exactly how science works. Lotto had previously studied perception in bees and knew that the insects lent themselves to simple but profound experiments, perfect for young investigators.
Lotto began the study by asking his 25 eight- to 10-year-old collaborators what questions they would like to ask of a buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris). The students discussed these questions with Lotto and collectively refined the questions they would like to ask the species. One of their questions—Do bumblebees use heat to help find nectar?—was the subject of a 2006 paper in Nature. (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group.) The students, however, were not aware of this; all they knew was that it seemed like an interesting question.
In the end the group decided to try and suss out whether the bees homed in on nectar-laden flowers using color or spatial cues. Although the students could not ask the insects how they locate food, they developed a series of games and puzzles for the bees. Seeing how well the animals followed the "rules" of the game would tell the students what clues the bees used to forage.
Lotto initially trained the bees to associate either yellow or blue Plexiglas circles (the "flowers") with sugar water (nectar). The group created a series of different panels with sixteen yellow and blue "flowers" arranged in a square. By altering the location of the colors, the students found that some bees used flower color to find nectar, whereas some used the location of the flower in the array.
After compiling results in hand-drawn tables, the students gathered to discuss their findings in the classroom and at a local pub with Lotto. Together, the group wrote up their findings in "kidspeak," which was ultimately published in the December 22 issue of Biology Letters.
Bees, the students wrote, could memorize and recall information such as nectar location. Having a variety of ways to find food could help the bees forage if some flowers became scarce or died off. These different strategies gave the bees "personality" and "preferences."
This study, Lotto admitted, was not sophisticated enough to be published in a top-tier journal. The students did not consult existing scientific literature or perform complicated statistical analyses. But as someone who had previously studied perception in bees, he knew that it was original, high-quality research. It also, Lotto added, flew in the face of some funding agencies that had turned down the project based on the idea young people cannot do real science.
"We thought this would be a fun thing to do," says Brian Charlesworth, a geneticist at the University of Edinburgh and editor of Biology Letters. "It's very unusual for schoolchildren to produce something that could be regarded as publishable in a scientific journal. We went to some effort to make sure that what they had written was a genuinely novel contribution."
With the success of the bee study, Lotto and Blackawton headmaster David Strudwick launched the "I, scientist" program. This program actively engages people ranging from the elderly to those in the criminal justice system in the act of doing science and "the process of discovery," Lotto says.