Blackawton bees


The background

A project that was born out of a conversation with a head teacher in Devon resulted in not only an entirely new way to teach science in schools but also in a ground-breaking science publication that attracted media attention around the world.

For several years we have been blurring the boundary between the lab, studio and public spaces by performing real research on bumblebees in public – what we like to call Street Science – and this has stimulated tremendous interest in children and adults in understanding how the brain works.

Our plans for the Blackawton Bees project arose out of this work, and also out of our theories about how perception research has the potential to not only interest children in science – by showing them that science is about playing games and making puzzles – but also to help children learn about themselves – their capabilities, their creativity – in a context where there are no ‘right’ answers.

In turn, the project proved to be so inspiring for all those involved that it led directly to the creation of our i,scientistprogramme, with the view of repeating similar projects with other collaborating schools, based primarily at our lab in the Science Museum but with the same broad aims.

Visuals from experiment

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Click on image for slideshow.




A description

In collaboration with headteacher Dave Strudwick, previous headteacher of Blackawton School, near Totnes in Devon (and with the help of class teacher Tina Rodwellyn), we developed the idea of getting some of the children involved in some truly novel experiments. Except this time we completely removed all boundaries: the experiments were not devised by the ‘scientist’, but by twenty-five 8–10 year olds. The children devised the questions, they reasoned an answer, they designed the experiments, and they did all the data analysis.

The children came up with the idea of seeing if bumblebees could learn to recognise different spatial configurations of colour, which is important for bees in deciding which flowers to go to for foraging and was a relatively unknown area of science.

Mentored by Beau Lotto, the children carried out experiments using Lab of Misfits' own Bee Matrixwhich was installed in the local Norman church and drew great interest among the whole community.

The published paper

All 25 children contributed to the resulting paper, complete with figures that are hand drawn in crayon. The paper is deliberately written in ‘kids speak’, and even begins ‘Once upon a time…’

In the same way that Beau Lotto struggled to get funding for the project (‘It wouldn’t work!’ and ‘Not good enough benefit to cost’ were representative responses), he also struggled to find a scientific journal willing to publish the paper – primarily because the paper is not placed in the context of related research.

Nevertheless, in December, 2010, the prestigious Royal Society journal Biology Letters published the paper, thereby making it the first ever peer-reviewed scientific paper published in a top journal reporting a truly unique finding, in which all 25 authors are eight year olds... or younger.

To download the Blackawton Bees paper, click here

The paper has been translated into Estonian by Anna Galovich, click here

Some questions asked by the children about bees:

What if... we had a colour in the tube that connects the hive to the arena, and then they have to go to that colour on the flower wall?

What if... we could find out how much effort the bees will go through in order to get a reward? For instance, they have to move something heavy out of the way to get a reward.

What if... we could find out if they prefer warm or cold nectar?

What if... we could find out if they could follow a route of colour?

What if... we could discover if bees can learn to go to certain colours depending on how sweet they are?

What if... we could find out if some bees could learn faster than others?

What if... we could find out how many colours they could remember?

See also

Television, radio and press for press coverage of the Blackawton Bees project and scientific paper. More