They are swarming, again!”

This was how the principal at Avalon Intermediate School in Lower Hutt greeted students as they arrived at school on a warm spring day late last year, when the school’s bees were literally a hive of activity. Students were excited at the prospect of watching the bees swarm their way out of the classroom-based observational beehive.

The kids’ questions ranged from “where is the queen?” to “will they come back?” to “what is going on?” Their curiosity was piqued as their brave principal placed his hands in the swarm; as they checked the four queen cells to see if a new queen had hatched, and as they watched a beekeeper carefully remove the swarm. The school was buzzing, and the opportunities for learning – not just about bees, but about big issues like sustainability, the environment, and maintaining living systems – were only just beginning.

We have been working with teachers and students at Avalon and Newlands Intermediate Schools, alongside Dr Jean-Pierre Martin of L’Abeilles in France, to explore how teachers can use an observational, classroom-based beehive, created by Jean-Pierre and called an apiscope, as a catalyst for differentiating teaching and learning. We are curious about ways placing a living system in a classroom might trigger differentiated teaching for learning about the life of a beehive – its genesis, the swarm, its death, and all the patterns of interaction that can be observed.

The bees are not ‘kept’ as a beekeeper might keep and manage a hive; they exist in a classroom as an independent living system, for observation and study by communities of learners – students, teachers, researchers, scientists, artists, beekeepers and bee enthusiasts. Placing a living system in classrooms creates multiple pathways and interconnections between curricula, through developing understandings of complex systems, because, as the swarm at Avalon reminded us, there are many structural, behavioural and functional relationships to observe and understand.

We are working with teachers at both schools to develop ways of exploring concepts like patterns, systems, relationships, communication and change, across the curriculum, but with a specific focus on STEAM – that is, the traditional STEM, with an injection of arts. For example, learning about the hexagon as a pattern that repeats itself in the hive, provides a platform for exploring many open-ended questions, such as:

  • Why do bees use a hexagon shape rather than other shapes, like a circle or square?
  • How and why do bees make hexagonal shapes?
  • Why are hexagons different sizes for different functions, like storing honey?
  • Why and how are groups of hexagons strong?
  • Where else do we see hexagons in nature?
  • How can we make hexagon sculptures and works of art?

Rather than simply asking Google these questions, as many students may be tempted to do, we are working to help them observe what happens in the hive and create their own experiments to solve interesting problems.

For example, when asked, how many bees do you think are in the hive?, the students responded with a range of suggestions, from trying to count the bees to plotting the number of wax hexagons, to weighing a bee and then weighing the observational beehive when it was empty and full of bees to compare the difference.

Two students created a grid on the window of the hive using tape and have been counting the numbers of bees in each square on a regular basis to determine the number of bees in the hive over a period of time. A teacher worked with students to take daily photographs of the hive to watch as its numbers increased – or declined, as in the case of the swarm.

Looking at bees through the lens of a camera triggers children’s imaginations and senses to explore the impact of human impacts on natural biological systems. The STEM to STEAM approach acknowledges the complexity and interconnectedness of all living systems, and the need for both scientific and aesthetic modes of investigation. Introducing art brings students’ sensory, imaginative and expressive capacities to the practice of observation alongside rational and analytical modes of study.

This infusion of expression is evidenced in the music videos created by Avalon Intermediate School students and their teacher Paasca Schaller, where we hear students rapping about “undercover flower lovers, planet protectors” and see bee dancers in gold and black suits with dark sunglasses moving pollen between blossoms.

The levels of depth and complexity of learning can be adjusted to a range of different abilities, strengths and interests, as these examples show, and this adaptation to learner needs is central to differentiation. Other key practices that are important to differentiation, like student choice, relevance, authenticity and learning preferences, can also be addressed through the study of bees.

This summer, with a summer scholar, Steph McKay, we developed a tool for analysing bee-related curriculum resources to determine their flexibility and adaptability for diverse learners. What we discovered was that there are a variety of different resources available to support teachers and learners in the study of bees, but many of these have not been developed with intermediate-aged students in mind (being either too simple or too complex). Also, we identified a gap in resources that reflect biculturalism and the growing importance of bees within our culture.

According to the National Beekeepers’ Association of New Zealand, our country may be “more dependent on pollination from the honey bee than any other nation on earth”. This bee dependency, by New Zealand’s primary industries and iwi who are investing in Manuka honey production, provides a strategic reason for studying the bee, so future generations can begin to address wicked issues like biosecurity, honey laundering, agrichemical use and nitrogen regeneration.

This project is evolving as a collaborative exploration of the potential of the apiscope to change the way teachers work with diverse learners. Newlands Intermediate School led the way with the first installation in 2014, and the hive has not only provided amazing differentiated learning opportunities, but also contributed to the school’s focus on its identity, vision and values under the leadership of principal Angela Lowe.

Working in partnership across two intermediate schools, traversing education, arts and science has us all a-buzz about learning. As a Newlands Intermediate student explained, “The apiscope gets greater learning because … you can actually get to see the bees, you get to have a look close up! The apiscope is not really a hands-on experience, it’s more of a viewing, looking, talking, discussing, learning …”

For resources to get your classroom buzzing, please visit this article online at

Tracy Riley is from Massey University’s Institute of Education. Anne Noble is from Massey University’s College of Creative Arts.


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