The Bee Box

Last weekend, I was a part of the Tufts University Biology Union of Graduate Students (BUGS) booth at the USA Science and

Engineering Festival. The theme of our booth was “Life is Communication.” To prepare for the festival (we started preparing about a year ago), we formed committees to create various interactive activities to showcase.

My committee: Team Honey Bee (surprise!). Our activity: The Bee Box.

Our activity helped Festival attendees to see for themselves how bees see. Like us, bees have three color receptors (each peak on the graph represents a different color receptor; graph from Life, Birds, and Everything by Sheri L. Williamson). But, in bees, those three color receptors are responsive to different wavelengths on the electromagnetic spectrum. Overall, bees can see shorter wavelengths than we can—this allows bees to see in UV!

Festival attendees who visited The Bee Box hit the “How we see” button to illuminate a “garden.” Then, attendees held down the “How bees see” button to illuminate a representation of how this “garden” looks to a bee. The patterns that are brought to life by the blacklight in our “garden” exist on real flowers—they’re called nectar guides. Nectar guides are basically what they sound like—the UV patterns on real flowers guide bees to the nectar and pollen. Bees find food, flowers get pollinated. A classic case of co-evolution.

Birds can also see in UV (they have four color receptors so things get a bit more complicated). Though they can see nectar guides, birds also use UV patterns for mating purposes. To us, many birds are sexually dimorphic. This is fancy science for when the males and females of a same species look different. For example, male peacocks have beautiful jewel-toned tails. By comparison, female peahens are brown and drab. There are also birds that are not sexually dimorphic in our visible spectrum (like crows), but they are sexually dimorphic in their visible spectrum (i.e. they have UV markings that we can’t see!).

My original idea for The Bee Box came from a Kids and Bees event I attended while at the American Beekeeping Federation 2015

Conference. Kids picked a flower, examined it, and then put the flower at the bottom of a plastic tote. They were then given a blacklight flashlight and instructed to stick their head into the tote (covered with a black cloth to block out light), and use the flashlight to examine the flower. Voila—nectar guides!

When I discussed this concept with Team Honey Bee, they took it and ran with it. Elizabeth Landis (left, with The Bee Box) is responsible for building and laser etching the gorgeous Bee Box and Marcus Lehr (top left below) helped with the wiring. Aside from conceptualizing, my role was helping to put the “garden” together. I could not have done it without the rest of Team Honey Bee!

The take-home message from The Bee Box (aside from the fact that bees are awesome)? There’s a whole world out there that we can’t detect. When we do science, we have to take this into account.

One girl who visited The Bee Box gasped, “This is how I would imagine a fantasy world.” To us, it might be fantasy. To bees, it’s just life.