This is sort of a brainstorm post for me, and my bee-knowledgeable friends can contribute ideas as well. I found myself having a bit of trouble mustering facts about bees that would be interesting, relevant and digestable to the preschool mind.
(1) The hive: I have a woven skep and a modern white langstroth hive box. I opened by asking them what the easily recognizable skep was and of course many little hands went up accompanied by yet more little childern voices yelling out of turn -- "a bee hive!!" I next asked what the white box was and somewhat more hesitantly I'd get "a beehive?"
"Anyone know why we use this modern one now?" and I ask, and of course I'd just get wild off-the-wall guesses. So I'd explain how in the old style the hive would be destroyed to harvest the honey but in the modern one, and I show them how I can take off the lid and remove a frame (and they always think its about to be full of bees), and explain how this allows us to inspect the bees and remove honey without destroying the hive. And then this segues nicely into...
(2) "and why do we keep bees in boxes?" The first group of kids seemed to think the answer to everything was "because bees sting!!" So in answer to this I got "so they don't sting you!!!" to which I smiled and said "well, sure, but if we wanted to avoid getting stung surely we could just avoid the bees altogether" Some more hands are up, I call on another kid who looks like they are waiting patiently. "because they sting!" So I take a deep breath and soldier on, asking if anyone had honey at home they maybe put on toast or in tea, and explaining we need to keep bees in boxes to make that honey; as well as wax for candles (cue visual aid); and so bees can pollinate all the farmer's plants. Which segues nicely into...
(3) "how do bees make honey?" and "why do you think bees visit flowers?" ("because they sting!" -- seriously they were obsessed with this). And I explain that they get nectar and pollen from flowers and mix it up back in the hive "like cooking!" to make honey, and this pollination is good for the plants. And of course I ask "why do bees make honey?" and someone inevitably says "for people to harvest!" And I explain that well no its their food storage. "You know how if you leave food out too long it might get green and smelly, unless you put it in the refridgerator? Well bees don't have refridgerators, but they invented honey, which stays good forever even without a fridge! Because the flowers aren't always blooming, so in winter, you know, around christmas-time [I suppose this use of a holiday could be un-PC but it was a presbyterian preschool], they wouldn't have any food if they didn't have sometihng that stored really well.
(4) The Queen -- when I've exhausted the above line of discussion I break out the large photo (which my boss refers to as a "colorplate" -- I'm not sure if this is a word that's still in circulation or is something akin to Mr Burns referring to gyrocoptors and velocopedes) with a queen bee (and some workers) on it. "What do you think is in this picture I ask?" "oh oh oh they have stingers!" "well yes but does one bee look larger than the rest?" "oh that's the queen bee!" "Yes, who knows what she does?" "oh oh oh she stings!" (dead serious it was like this), "well, in theory she can yes [aside, I've handled plenty of queens and their ability to sting seems to be pretty theoretical. I know they'll sting rival queens but they've never seemed interested in me], but that's not her job," "she tells everyone else what to do!" is finally the wrong answer I was looking for, and I explain that many people think so but its not actually correct -- that the queen only lays eggs and no one tells the workers what to do -- they all do what needs to be done without anyone being in charge.
Problem: I'm still having trouble figuring out how to convey the very large numbers of bees involved in a hive to the childerns -- numbers such as the 1200 to 2400 eggs a queen can lay per day seem to be beyond their comprehension and the 60,000 bee equilibrium population of a hive is right out. It would help I suppose if I had a jar of beads or marbles or plastic BBs or sometihng with the requisite number in it. I had them guess how many bees were in a hive -- "100?" "higher!" "101?" "higher than that!" "16?" "a lot more than that!" .....
(5) Smoking the bees -- the problem with this question is that why blowing smoke on bees calms them down is still not fully understood, and the best answer I've heard is still kind of inexplicable -- I believe I heard Dr Mussen say its something with the way something specific to ash triggers their scent receptors. There's the folk answer I don't like very much, that "it makes the bees think the hives on fire so they gorge themselves with honey and then can't fly" -- except that one can readily see them not gorging themselves with honey upon being smoked and it would be dumb for them to render themselves unable to fly when the hive's on fire anyway. So the explanation I go with is that because a lot of their communication is via "pheromones" -- scents ("like you know how sometimes you know breakfast is ready because you can smell toast or bacon all the way across the house? That's how bees communicate all the time!"), "but when you blow smoke in the hive it blocks the smells, so they can't talk, its like someone turned off all the lights, so they just sit tight."
(6) The girls -- and of course at some point I work in "do you think the bees are boys or girls?" and make the point that they are almost entirely girls (no thanks to the impression that reprehensible Seinfield movie gave everyone, ugh), and talk about how there's all these different chores that need to happen inside the hive, cleaning it, taking care of the young, making food ... and the going out and foraging is only a small part of the work being done.
A teacher asked me to explain swarming and I did it as best I could in simple ways but I really felt it was a more complex concept than the childerns were ready for.
During both sessions a teacher asked about bees visiting pools so I explained that "just like you sometimes need a glass of water, so do bees! So in addition to visiting flowers, the foraging bees will also visit pools and fountains and bring back water for the bees back in the hive"
And of course we covered that bees really only sting to protect the hive or if you make them angry -- so you shouldn't poke around an active beehive if you find one but you don't need to be terrified of bees visiting flowers -- and you shouldn't step on bees for no reason (one little girl raised her hand to tell me how she likes to stomp on bees ): ), because it releases the alarm pheromone automatically and will make nearby bees angry.
Anyway it was hard to proceed in any kind of structured or coherent manner of course since they kept asking off the wall random questions and their attention span was what you'd expect of preschoolers.
Any other ideas for good ways to illustrate bee facts for preschoolers would be greatly appreciated!