Edinburgh International Science Festival;Little giants;Curriculum

26th February 1999 at 00:00
Douglas Blane follows the dance of the bee and discovers how honey is made

When a honey bee finds a new source of nectar she returns to the hive and performs an elaborate dance while waggling her behind, which tells the other foragers the precise location of the blossoms.

This waggle dance is a sophisticated language it has taken scientists many years to unravel. But although complex, the conversation of bees is strictly functional. They are much too busy to indulge in idle chit-chat.

So they say things like: "If you fly off at 20 degrees to the direction of the sun, you'll come to a stand of lime trees 200 yards away." But they never say: "I'm a honey bee and my name is Fuzzy."

Which means that the tall, black, winged apparition dancing round the assembly hall at Mosshead Primary School in Bearsden, East Dunbartonshire, is definitely not a honey bee. "You aren't scared of me are you?" he asks the Primary 3 class. There are a few hesitant noes, several yeses from the children and one from a teacher. So he pulls off his big head with the long antennae and fearsome mouthparts to reveal science communicator Jason Townsend.

Jason describes the multi-faceted eyes of bees, and passes around translucent bubbled squares of plastic to give an impression of the world through insect eyes. He talks about other insect senses, particularly smell, and with the help of his costume points out the different parts of an insect's body.

Suddenly Fuzzy becomes agitated as a masked figure clothed in white, net in one hand and smoker in the other, bursts on the scene and begins to chase him. The Beekeeper, Helen Knowles, pauses to tell the story of honey: "Bees in the wild make their nests in the hollow of a tree, but for at least 3,000 years people have been keeping them in hives, which nowadays look like this one.

"The top floor is called the super and is a bit like the kitchen, and the bottom floor is the nursery where the young live, and it's called the brood." She goes on to tell the children about the life-cycle of honey bees and the organisation of a hive, with its queen, male drones and female workers.

The highlight of the show is the temporary transformation of Mosshead Primary into a meadow on a hot summer's day, with children flying to flowers, sipping nectar and returning to the hive to perform the waggle dance.

"What does nectar taste like?" a teacher wonders. "A bit like orange juice," explains Andrew, giving a waggle and buzzing off. As the foragers flit back and forth, coloured dust under bare feet leaves a record of their travels in a rainbow of pollen.

The science show "Little Giants", aimed at Primary 1 to Primary 3, is part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival schools programme and runs until March 5. To book a performance call the EISF box office, tel: 0131 473 2070.

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