There is a buzz in the air as a chorus of young, excited voices greet Jocelyn McBride and her team of three volunteers at 9am on the first day of school after the week-long Eid break. ‘Are you happy to be back in school?’ she asks, and gets a resounding ‘yes’ from the bunch of beaming Year 3 students.
We are at the Arbor School in Al Furjan, Dubai, and Jocelyn, who also previously co-founded the UAE Beekeepers Association, is here to hold a ‘Plan Bee’ hands-on, interactive session to drive home a message of sustainability.
Her roving classroom, the Beebus – a bright, sunny yellow bus covered with images of bees and honeycombs is today parked in the driveway of the school. But that’s not where the session is being held. Instead, it is at one of the biodomes of the Arbor School – a space often used for engaging students in a deeper understanding of their ecology and environment – that she decides to share with the young ones the key role honeybees play in our ecosystem.
Hands go up the instant Jocelyn asks the class for their favourite honeybee fun fact. ‘They take pollen from flowers and suck nectar’; ‘They make honey’; ‘They make a buzzing noise.’ The responses fly one after the other and little Berk points out that ‘honeybees kill themselves if they sting someone’. Yes, confirms Jocelyn, explaining that a honey bee loses her life as soon as it stings.
Jocelyn McBride, whose ‘love for bugs and bees and their funny ways’ sprang from her childhood days in Ireland, says what she finds most amazing about bees are the many ways in which they are different from humans.
‘Look at their eyes,’ she tells the children, pointing to a large picture. ‘They have two huge eyes and three little ones that sit on top of their head. With five eyes, you can rest assured that they can spot the best flowers to forage from.’
Loud cries of "eeks" and "yewww" are heard when Jocelyn reveals that honeybees have hairy eyeballs. ‘That’s gross,’ says a little girl, crinkling her face in disgust. And when Jocelyn further states that these tiny creatures have two stomachs, the children are curious to know more. ‘One stomach is to digest their food,’ she explains, ‘while the second stomach or ‘crop’ is used for storing nectar from the flowers which is then brought to the hive by the busy bees.’
What do they use the nectar for? asks Jocelyn, and pat comes the reply: "to make honey". She elaborates that while nectar provides energy for the bees, they also collect a yellow sticky substance called pollen that is found on the flowers. ‘Pollen is the primary source of protein for the hive,’ she adds.
The children go into a guessing frenzy as they try to estimate the number of flowers a bee visits in one nectar-gathering trip. It is around 100 flowers per trip, explains Jocelyn who then enquires about why the honey bee is so important to the environment, our ecology and for the survival of the human race.
When the bees go about gathering nectar and pollen for the hive, they are also spreading pollen from plant to plant in a process called pollination, she explains.
To describe the process, she brings out a large model of a flower and demonstrates how when a bee lands on the petals of a flower to collect nectar and pollen, some pollen from the stamen – the male reproductive organ of the flower – sticks to the hairs of its body.
All flowers have male and female parts, and bees have special pollen baskets on the sides of their legs, she says. When the bee visits the next flower, some of this pollen rubs off onto the female part of the flower, the pistil. This makes fertilisation possible, without which, new plants or flowers would not grow, she explains.
Although this transfer of pollen can be done by other insects, wind, birds, bats and mammals, bees are the perfect pollinators and an estimated one-third of every bite of food we take is dependent on pollination by bees.
Engaging the entire class in another activity, Jocelyn and her team of volunteers distribute colourful laminated pictures of common fruits and vegetables – from luscious strawberries, blueberries and raspberries to crisp, fresh tomatoes, green beans and cucumbers. ‘Which of these foods are fully or partially pollinated by bees?’ she asks the children, instructing them to pile up in two separate sections the foods they think are pollinated by bees and the ones that are not.
Berk is certain that his chart containing the image of a coffee bean cannot be pollinated by bees simply because ‘bees wouldn’t be attracted to something like coffee’. Joining this pile are the hairy kiwis, bulbous onions and spicy chillies while mangoes, watermelon, apples, pears, pineapple and carrots make it to the pile likely to be pollinated by bees.
Jocelyn takes the chart featuring an orange and asks: Who likes orange juice? As the children shout out, "me, me," she tosses aside the chart saying, ‘no bees, no orange juice,’ or ‘no bees, bye bye strawberry jam.’ Loud screams of "noooooo" rend the air each time she sets aside a favourite fruit or vegetable. And the children soon learn that all the foods on the charts reach our plates thanks to the work of the bees and other important pollinators.
By demonstrating how these little insects help provide many of the micronutrient rich fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and oils we eat, Jocelyn McBride also drives homes the message that safeguarding bees is critical for the survival of the entire human race.
‘So, do we need our bees?’ she asks. ‘Yes,’ shout the children in unison but there is pin drop silence in the biodome when Jocelyn describes how honey bees are disappearing globally at an alarming rate often due to the widespread use of pesticides, outbreak of disease and habitat loss.
‘A recent scientific study cited that 41 per cent of insects are now threatened. This includes 41 per cent of our lovely butterflies and nearly 50 per cent of the 25,000 different species of bees,’ she tells the stunned children. ‘Beetle populations and caddisflies are also going down along with several other pollinators.
‘The slow disappearing bees is a reminder that our survival as humans on this planet is interdependent. We have to collaborate with other species to continue our life here on earth.
‘So, do you think we should save our bees,’ asks Jocelyn, and the children wholeheartedly agree, curious to know how they can save these precious creatures.
‘You are my future Earth Guardians and you can fix this problem,’ she exhorts them, encouraging them to plant more flowers to create a habitat for bees or even set up a bee bath, a simple water feeder for bees and other insects.
It is time now for more hands-on exploration and the children are quickly split into two groups. One group follows Jill to explore a real bee hive. Little Yamen is excited to observe the bees as they go about their hard work. They do not seem to rest at all, he says.
Jill points out how ‘every bee in the hive has a vital job to do and they work together in a coordinated manner as a team. They are very organised and systematic.’
The children learn that there are three types of bees in every hive: a queen, female workers and male drones. ‘The hive is ruled by the queen,’ explains Jill, ‘and all the daily work is carried out by the female worker bees. Males have no role apart from mating with the queen, following which they die.’
The children move on to the next table to explore how a tiny egg is transformed into an adult bee over the course of 21 days. Here, Rigie shows a slide depicting the various stages of the lifecycle of the bee and explains how the young larva is fed abundantly by the nurse bees in its cell until it is closed with a wax cover. After eight days, the larvae, swollen with food, become pupae and their organs are formed. Twelve days after the closing of the cell, a young bee is born.
Some of the children talk excitedly about how they have seen a chick hatch from an egg, and they are saddened to hear that although the queen bee lives for two to four years, the worker bees only have a lifespan of six to eight weeks.
Meanwhile, students also take turns to get into the protective beekeeping suits while others continue to hover around the glass-cased hives.
As the children share with their friends what they have just seen and learnt about the bees, Jocelyn draws their attention by holding up a large section of a honeycomb and also demonstrates the use of a smoker that aids in calming the bees.
It is time for an amazing fun fact again, and Jocelyn wants to know how bees make their buzzing noise. With their wings, with their mouth, come the responses. ‘Honey bees beat their wings up to 230 times per second, creating their trademark buzzing sound,’ she explains.
Apart from honey, Jocelyn tells the kids that each hive also produces beeswax and royal jelly, a milky substance that the queen feeds on throughout her life and which is produced in special glands located in a worker bee’s head.
Do you know honey bees can travel up to 6 kilometres from the hive in search of nectar and pollen, she asks. ‘And how do they know where to find the best flowers to gather nectar? They perform a special waggle dance when a bee wants to inform other bees of a nectar source she has found,’ explains Jocelyn, breaking out into a dance movement which the kids instantly imitate, laughing aloud as they do so.
If the worker bees are constantly at work producing honey, what is the role of the queen, asks a young boy. What keeps her busy? ‘The queen lays 1500 to 2000 eggs a day,’ she says as the children gasp in surprise. ‘This is because the queen has to maintain the hive’s numbers due to the short lifespan of the worker bees. Since there can be only one queen in a hive, a newly hatched queen will sting her unhatched rivals, killing them while they are still in their cells.’
The drones, she adds, mostly do little but eat or mate with the queen after which they die. ‘That’s because boys are so lazy,’ quips Zunairah, as she sits down to roll up a beeswax sheet into a candle. Following Jocelyn’s instructions, she neatly places a wick on its width and rolls the sheet into a round, smooth shape. Others have made rectangular and diamond-shaped designs too.
‘I learnt today that we need to take care of our bees as they help the environment, and produce different kinds of honey,’ says the little girl. ‘They also shake their bodies in a waggle dance to talk to each other!’
Although she has now developed a fondness for bees, ‘I am still scared of them as they bit my grandpa a long time ago,’ says Zunairah.
As the session gets to a close, Jocelyn asks the kids how they will fulfil their roles as Earth Champions. ‘Do not kill bees; do not use pesticides or chemicals on flowers and plants; plant more flowers and save the bees’ they say, as they walk back to their classrooms.
‘Young children have a natural love and affinity with nature,’ says Jocelyn, who founded the Beebus by combining her passion for beekeeping and the desire to create a more sustainable world by bringing about a shift in mindsets. ‘Children can easily grasp the concepts of protecting our pollinators and why it is important to do so. Their minds are open and that allows them to take the steps necessary to become ‘Earth Guardians’. They, in turn, educate their parents.’
The Plan Bee sessions are tailored based on the age groups and curriculum of the children, she says. ‘Apart from pollination and lifecycles and a honey tasting session, other topics we introduce include details of honeybee biology and society, honeybees and honey of the UAE, role of the native Arabian dwarf bee in the UAE, sustainable living and eating, amongst others.’
She leads us to the Beebus, an upcycled vehicle that seats 14 which has already travelled to remote schools including near the Saudi border in a bid to raise awareness and spread the message of bee conservation. ‘The Beebus A/C will be entirely powered by a solar panel roof before September. We also run on environmentally friendly bio-fuel thanks to Neutral Fuels Support. Come September, the Beebus will also introduce Virtual Reality to enable students to follow the bee on its journey inside the hive.’
Jocelyn, who was inspired by Sherlock Holmes’ love of beekeeping while reading Arthur Conan Doyle’s books as a child, says, ‘The main reason I do this is to persuade people on the need to protect our native pollinators, especially bees. They work hard to provide us with honey, bees wax, propolis and, of course, pollinated crops. 75 per cent of our food crops depend on the actions of pollinators and without the humble honey bee and other pollinators, the earth and all its living entities will suffer greatly.’
To learn more about the Beebus, or to make a booking for your school or community, call Jocelyn McBride on 050 655 4329 or visit beebus.me.