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Saving our bees — Unit/Topic

Learning Intentions:

    Big intentions

Students will be able to:

  • describe what bees are
  • explain the importance of bees
  • conduct good observations of bee behaviour and body structures
  • conduct practical investigations into aspects of bees and their relationship with plants and pollination
  • describe threats to bee health and numbers
  • describe and implement ways to help bees.

    Foundational Science Capabilities

    The five Foundational Science Capabilities are a key focus within the Nature of Science strand and should be emphasised within this unit. It is suggested that one component of a given Capability is foregrounded at any one time. However, most of the five Capabilities are inherent within most activities.

    Key science concepts

    • Bees are insects.
    • Bees are important pollinators.
    • Bees need plants for their food sources — pollen and nectar.
    • Many plants need bees for pollination.
    • Pollination is the process of moving pollen from one flower to another of the same species.
    • Pollination is the first step in the production of seeds which are baby dormant plants.
    • Humans and other animals eat many types of seeds from bee-pollinated plants, e.g. peas and beans.
    • Bee pollinated seeds are needed to grow a huge range of plants we and other animals eat.
    • There are many reasons for the decline in New Zealand's wild bee populations (e.g. bumble bees and native bees), but habitat loss is the most important. Honey bees too, need help through access to better quality food sources and less competition from introduced pests.
    • In a practical way, by creating suitable habitat and growing varied flowers over most of the year, we can help bolster bee populations.


    • Warning: Keep at least 1 metre from bees that are foraging on flowers. Mitigate any risks associated with potential stings and allergic reactions by being prepared with a risk assessment plan, appropriate caregiver permissions, medicines, and adult supervision.

    Word list

    • antenna
    • beekeeper
    • behaviour
    • biodiversity
    • bumble bee
    • exotic
    • floral
    • flowering
    • foraging
    • habitat
    • honey
    • honey bee
    • native
    • nectar
    • pollen
    • pollen basket
    • pollination
    • proboscis
    • propolis
    • wax

    All photos: Copyright Peter E Smith, NSIL.

    Honey bee
    Bumble bee
    Native bee


    This unit/topic strives to engage students in and enhance their awareness of bees as: living creatures; important plant pollinators; crucial for food production; and, important links in the web of life in natural and modified landscapes, including farmland and gardens. It also looks at why many types of bees are under threat due to human practices, and how we can help locally to increase bee numbers and support their health.

    Mix and match the following ideas that are most relevant to your school, community and local environment.

    Curriculum levels

    Science strands

    Overarching learning intentions

    • L3
    • L4

    • Living World
    • Nature of Science

    • Understand the key roles of bees in natural
      and modified landscapes
    • Understand their importance to our food security
    • Learn how to investigate aspects of bee biology
    • Understand and action steps to bolster bee numbers and health.

    Achievement objectives

    Localised curriculum

    Nature of science

    Investigating in science

    • Build on prior experiences, working together to share and examine their own and others’ knowledge.
    • Ask questions, find evidence, explore simple models, and carry out appropriate investigations to develop simple explanations.

    Communicating in science

    • Begin to use a range of scientific symbols, conventions, and vocabulary.
    • Engage with a range of science texts and begin to question the purposes for which these texts are constructed.

    Participating and contributing

    • Use their growing science knowledge when considering issues of concern to them.
    • Explore various aspects of an issue and make decisions about possible actions.

    Living World


    • Explain how living things are suited to their particular habitat and how they respond to environmental changes, both natural and human-induced.


    • Begin to group plants, animals, and other living things into science-based classifications.

    Local bees

    • What species of bees are found in your area? They will probably include honey bees, bumble bees (there are four species, but they are not all present across the country), different species of native bees and perhaps leafcutting bees. See NZ's main groups of bees and Pollinator profiles.

    Local habitats

    • Visit local habitats that might host a variety of insects, especially honey bees, bumble bees, and native bees. These could be in the school playgrounds, a wasteland area, a reserve, gardens or a farm. 

    Local beekeeper visit

    • Invite a local commercial or hobbyist beekeeper to visit the classroom and talk about bees, beekeeping and the importance of honey bees to farm and horticultural crops. See Apiculture New Zealand for contacts.
    • 'Taste sample' different types of local honey brands. Conduct 'blind' taste tests to see which are preferred. 
    • Find out about the main local floral sources and the types of honey that bees make from their nectar.
    • Find out about the threats to bees and how we can help.

    Local trees

    • Find out which local native and exotic trees are great for bees. Where are they found and what do they look like? How can we protect them and increase their numbers?

    Local farmers and horticulturalists

    • Find out how farmers and horticulturalists are working to increase the nectar and pollen sources on their properties through boundary and stream-side (riparian) plantings. Find out about the multiple other benefits these plantings have to the environment.

    Local planting working bee

    • Participate in local 'biodiversity restoration' plantings. Learn about the plants and which ones have particular importance to bees.

    Suggested learning path

    What are bees?

    Engage students:

    • Show pictures of insects and discuss which are bees, and why. What features do bees have in common? (see KEY IDEAS box below). 
    • Baking with honey, e.g. share rice bubble slice (a key ingredient being honey). 
    • Age appropriate stories, articles and poems about bees. Examples: School Journal: Making honey by Annette Seear, Year 5 : Part 02 No. 4 : 2000 : Pgs 8-11 and Connected Series: The buzz of bees (whole booklet), Year 3, Connected No. 2 : 2012. Poem by Muhammad Ali “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. The hands can't hit what the eyes can't see.”
    • Sayings, e.g. "Busy as a bee" and "Make a bee line". What do they mean?
    • Music, e.g. violinist playing Flight of the Bumblebee by Rimski Korsakov Youtube video.


    Features of bees include:

    • They are insects, having six legs, three main body parts (head, thorax and abdomen), two antennae and two pairs of wings.
    • They are fluffy and often have dark stripes and bright colours like orange and yellow.
    • Female bees can sting.
    • They are pollen and nectar feeders, collecting these foods from flowers.
    • Some make honey which they store in their nests or hives, e.g. honey bees and bumble bees.
    • Some live in colonies, e.g. honey bees and bumble bees, while others are solitary, e.g. native bees and leafcutting bees.

    Importance of bees

    Discuss why bees are important. Where do we see them? What are they doing? 

    Bees are very important for life on this planet:
    • They are the main pollinators for a huge range of flowering plants. And, pollination is needed so plants can produce seed.
    • Without them many plants would struggle to reproduce.
    • Many of the plants that supply our food rely on bee pollination, e.g. fruit trees such as apples and peaches, berry fruit such as raspberries, and vegetable plants such as carrots, onions and cabbages.
    • Honey bees supply us with honey, wax, pollen and propolis.
    • All bees are a part of the web of life, fulfilling important roles in nature and serving as food for other creatures.
    • They give us pleasure through watching and listening to them.
    • Bee products: Bees supply us with honey, wax, pollen and propolis. Demonstrate each of these products and find out what they are used for. Make some products from beeswax, e.g. Christmas candles.
    • Where does our food come from? Activity. In this activity learn about where some of our important foods come from, for example: 1)  honey bees give us honey; 2) bees in general are also needed for pollination of oranges, strawberries and coffee flowers which in turn give us those foods; 3) They are essential for production of meat patties and milk too, since they are needed to pollinate clover flowers that produce clover seeds that grow into the forage plants that sheep and cows eat.
    • Bees are important in the web of life. Discuss examples and draw a food web. For example, this might show how: 1) bees are eaten by spiders, wasps and some birds; 2) when they die, bacteria and fungi feed on their bodies; 3) they have parasites that feed on them while alive, e.g. varroa mites; and 4) they feed on pollen and nectar from flowering plants.
    • Find out about how bumble bee colonies are used in hothouses to pollinate tomato crops.

    Plants and bees need each other


    Many plants need bees because:

    • They need some way of moving pollen to flowers on other plants of the same species in order to achieve fertilisation (and seed formation). This enables the plant to reproduce and the species to survive.

    Flowering plants:

    • Attract bees with scent and colourful flowers.
    • Benefit from bees inadvertently moving some pollen from flower to flower as they forage, and so achieving pollination.

    Bees need plants because:

    • Nectar is a high energy food used for flight and movement.
    • Pollen, which is high in protein and vitamins, is used for body repair and growth, and for feeding developing grubs (larvae).


    Threats to bee health and survival


    Bees are threatened by:

    • Habitat loss — removal of trees, clearing of wild areas and loss of flower variety in the landscape due to human activities.
    • Use of insecticides on plants that are in flower.
    • Diseases and parasites of bees.
    • Competition for food from introduced pests such as German and common wasps.
    • Discuss what habitat loss means. 
    • On paper design a habitat that would be ideal for honey bees and wild bees to live in. [Ideas might include: varied floral sources for a balanced bee diet; flower varieties available year round, but especially in spring when colonies are growing quickly; trees, shrubs and smaller flowering plants for shelter; access to water; nesting sites for bumble bees and leafcutting bees, suitable soil and aspect for native bee nest holes.]
    • Find out why insecticide sprays are used. Discuss why it's important to void using them on plants that are flowering, e.g. when spaying citrus trees to kill scale insects when the trees are in flower.
    • Find out about varroa mite infestations and how they affect beehives. How are they controlled?
    • Find out how honey bees feed on honeydew on beech trees, and what produces the honeydew. Why are German and common wasps a problem for honey bees in these places? Students could create a poster or some other way of communicating their findings.

    How to help bees

    The most practical way that young people can help bees is to grow flowering plants that are favoured by bees. This could be as a school planting project and/or in their home gardens. Plants could include trees, shrubs, perennials or annual plants, either native or introduced. See below.


    Bees need:

    • A wide variety of flowers to supply them a range of nutrients and minerals in their pollen and nectar diets.
    • Flowering plants available for foraging over most of the year.
    • Control of diseases and parasites that might affect them.
    • An environment containing a minimum of insecticides.