BeeSpace Exposes Students to Honeybees

November 17, 2009

Honeybee gathering nectar. (Image courtesy of National Geographic KIDS website.

MANY OF US have fond childhood memories of endless summer days, lounging in patches of fragrant clover that invaded our neighbors’ manicured lawns. Shuffled into those same memories are the equally vivid sightings of industrious and seemingly dangerous bees, which oftentimes abbreviated our lounging amidst said clover.

Still clinging to the generalization of bees as the probable source of burning pain, enlightenment has come to me in the form of BeeSpace, a University of Illinois program that focuses on Western honey bees (Apis mellifera) as a model for genomic research.

This endeavor is funded by the National Science Foundation and has far-reaching implications in how scientific work is carried out and shared.

It should come as no surprise that David Stone, Uni biology teacher, is at the heart of this innovative project that combines the talents of professors, graduate students, and other high school teachers.

Famous for leading his Field Biology classes on countless bug-gathering excursions, Stone has been a vital element of BeeSpace's cutting-edge accomplishments since its inception in 2004.

Surrounded by stacks of lab supplies and mysterious specimens suspended in mysterious fluids, Stone found time in his busy schedule to share with me the latest developments in the world of bee study.

"[BeeSpace] looks at bees as a model organism for the study of behavior," explained Stone. "After hatching, a worker bee spends roughly the first two weeks as a nurse bee. After the first two weeks, for the rest of its life, it is a forager.

"What they found is, genes are turned on and turned off at various times. [Honey bees] are probably one of the very best organisms for looking at the link between genetics and behavior."

A major component of BeeSpace was a weeklong workshop that took place in July of 2008. In it, a sampling of Uni students learned about the biological and economic aspects of honey bees.

An integral component of this workshop was its balancing of hard and soft science. After the students immersed themselves in heavy topics like Colony Collapse Disorder, they were allowed to escape to the fuzziness of baby bees (no stingers!) or the subtleties of honey derived from local blossoms (taste test!).

Stone's latest energies toward this project have centered on an online curriculum called Electronic BeeSpace. Primarily derived from the BeeSpace student workshop, the goal of the Web site is to disseminate previous and ongoing research to the worldwide beekeeping community.

Within this community, teachers are obviously closest to Stone's heart. A variety of user-friendly modules can be accessed on Electronic BeeSpace. Presentations are broken into digestible portions so that teachers can craft their lessons around handpicked, class-specific concepts.

Stone likes the flexibility of his program.

"It's customizable, and I think that that's the big plus of this project, because you can come in from a number of different ways and use it at a number of different levels," he said.

On Aug. 3, the Entomological Society of America featured Electronic BeeSpace as the "Buzz of the Week" on its own Web site.

Stone continues to pursue other venues for his work. He plans on incorporating materials from Electronic BeeSpace in the courses he teaches at Uni, but he's still in the process of determining exactly which lessons he will use and in what order. He said those decisions will be largely based on the reactions he gets from other teachers.

"[BeeSpace] was a nice opportunity for me to be involved in University things: to essentially focus on lab mission here at University High School. I think that this will be a bigger focus at the school as time goes on."

In the course of studying bees, Stone has combined his insect fascination with a love of photography that yields images both beautiful and educational. His photos elevate his work to an artistic level.

"It's been really cool for me because the lens and camera have allowed me to see things that I've known about forever. [Now I'm] actually able to see the small-scale movements and patterns in which organisms do things."

Stone's sentiments about his foray into natural photography can be applied to his involvement with BeeSpace as well. As he summed it all up, "It's been very cool."

Story by Elizabeth Innes, Communications Specialist, I-STEM Education Initiative.

More: 8-12 Outreach, Entomology, Funded, Uni High, 2009