Game of Drones: Learning From Bees

"At this very moment, about 20 feet behind me, female worker bees are ripping their male brethren to shreds," I tell the 7th graders. Fifteen pairs of eyes are wide and incredulous, and looking directly at me without the slightest trace of adolescent indifference. The massacre of the drones occurs every fall around this time of year in New York City, as honey bees reduce their populations in preparation for winter. A dramatic retelling of the carnage, and rationality behind it, never fails to transfix even the most distant teenager.

All season long, worker bees -- the infertile females that comprise the majority of the colony -- toil in the hive and in the fields, while drones -- male bees, whose sole purpose is to procreate with virgin queens -- subsist off the fruits of their labor. As days shorten, temperatures drop, and the nectar flow dries up, drones' days are numbered. There is only a finite amount of honey on which the entire colony must subsist through the winter, clustering around the queen and keeping warm through body heat. With mating season over, drones become expendable.

"Why can't they just sting the drones?" one of the students asks. "Why do they have to rip them apart?" I explain that when honeybees sting, their barbed stingers become embedded in their victim and detach from their bodies, ending their lives. "That's messed up," another student mutters. Hands shoot into the air.

"Why don't the drones just leave?"

"Who decides it's time to start the massacre?"

"How will the queen lay eggs without drones?"

Children and teenagers are captivated by honeybees, and I've noticed that particular facets of honeybee behavior spark the interest of different age groups. For example, 2nd graders are concerned with an issue of fairness -- why can there only be one queen, and who decides who it is? Bee monarchy is more palatable to these justice-seeking 8-year-olds upon hearing that she is part of a team comprised of workers and drones, and all contribute in equally important ways to the success of the colony.

6th graders want to know what happens when the queen dies, and are contented to learn that workers can replace queens at any point simply by feeding royal jelly to existing larvae. As soon as a virgin queen is born, she will fight the incumbent and fellow challengers to the death to claim the throne. And of course, there's the massacre of the drones, which captures the imagination of middle and high school students alike.

As an educator, I live for moments like these, when curiosity takes hold and the audience becomes spellbound. Lucky for me, my classroom spans 2.5 acres of rooftop farmland in New York City, so it's a pretty frequent occurrence. In addition to bee hives, the space I call my classroom is also home to a diverse group of chickens, grows 100,000 pounds of produce a year, serves as a high-volume composting site, and boasts some of the city's most compelling views of Manhattan. Children and teenagers can engage directly with life science by cultivating plants from seed to seed, and composting food waste to create rich soil. They can plant peas and harvest purple carrots. They can release ladybugs to eat aphids off of pest-ridden plants.

Hands-on learning incites a sense of wonder that text books and test prep fail to arouse, and rooftop farms provide innumerable opportunities for students to learn and grow. Imagine if every school building in New York City were topped with an energy-saving, water-retaining, intensive green roof farm, and every teacher could use these farms to support learning. Students could utilize them as science labs and art studios, job training sites and outdoor kitchens. Children could grow vegetables for their own cafeterias, increasing the nutritional value of school lunch and giving urban youth the rare opportunity to grow food from seed. The increase in green infrastructure across the city would result in cleaner water and air, cooler temperatures, and more vibrant ecosystems. And we would be supplementing our children's classroom curriculum with opportunities to physically interact with theories, equations, and concepts in action. We would enhance our children's education with opportunities for wonder.

The role of the beekeeper is not to force an outcome from the bees, but to help the bees accomplish what they are naturally inclined to do. Beekeepers provide the infrastructure -- the hive -- upon which bees can easily build their own complex structures and implement their own time-tested systems. In the same way, educators must create environments for students to thrive. In today's educational climate, it is easy to forget that children and teenagers are naturally curious, constantly seeking out ways to make meaning of their world. We owe it to our children to harness this curiosity by creating spaces where they can truly explore.

For more information on City Growers, check out their website and Kickstarter page.