Bee Smart: Life Skills from the Hive

Honey bees need skills to fight off V. destructor.

Varroa destructor on a bee nymph (Wikipedia Commons).

Let’s face it, our students will forget much of what we teach them. But we hope that they remember those life skills which will guide them in everything they do. As with other matters, we can turn to the honey bee as an example of how to work together for the common good. 

Decision Making

Living in the information age, our brains are constantly bombarded with data. That can make it difficult to make even a simple decision. Bees are not confronted with the same amount of information as us, but they still need to make decisions and their brains are only the size of a sesame seed. So how do they make decisions with those little brains?  With a life skill commonly seen on the high school football field: head butts and waggle dances.

Take for example a swarm of bees looking for a new home. A few hundred of the oldest, most experienced bees, called scout bees, fly out to find a new place to live. When a scout finds a potential nest, it does a waggle dance to announce the location and the suitability of the site. This consists of first climbing on another worker’s back and shaking her abdomen to get attention. Then she runs through a small figure-eight pattern. The better the site, the faster she dances.  

The dancing bee will also head-butt scout bees coming from other locations to stop them from dancing. Once there’s a quorum of 15 bees dancing for the same location, they start to head-butt their own side to prepare for flight. Without these signals, the bees would likely reach a stalemate if they found nests of similar quality. 

Scientists liken the behavior of these bees to neurons in our brains. Just as the queen relies on the scouts to make a decision for the nest, our brains rely on neurons to determine what we are seeing and how to respond. To make a decision, our neurons recruit more neurons to their view of reality, just as scout bees recruit more scouts. 


Another life skill our students need to acquire is paying attention when someone else is talking. This is critical in the classroom but also essential in the workplace. Without the ability to use verbal language, bees use their waggle dance to announce key information like the location of a nectar source. The other workers need to pay close attention to receive the message. 

The waggle takes place on a special dance floor near the entrance of the hive. Other bees gather around waiting for news. The longer she waggles, the farther the nectar source is from the hive. According to, every 75 milliseconds she adds to the dance equates to another 330 feet in distance. The length of the dance, combined with how vigorously she dances, also shows the richness of the source of nectar. Perhaps even more amazingly, she indicates the location of the nectar source by the angle her walk deviates from an imaginary line extending from the dance floor to the sun. Bees can use this information to find a nectar source more than three miles away (Smithsonian Channel). Lastly, the dancing bee shares the odor of the nectar with the other bees who sample it with their antennae. 

Honey bees also do a shake dance when more foragers are needed and a tremble dance when more bees are needed to process the nectar into honey. 


Students who come from challenging backgrounds that have found success are known to have resilience. This ability to overcome challenges is a life skill that will continue to serve them far beyond their school years. 

For European honey bees, a big challenge is the varroa destructor. These mites first appeared in the Netherlands in 1983 and quickly became resistant to chemical and natural treatments. In 2008, scientists noticed that wild bee populations were more resistant to the mites, possibly due to natural selection. They did experiments where the mites were left alone, and observed as the poorly equipped hives succumbed to the mites and the more resilient ones survived. 

Varroa destructor on a bee nymph (Wikipedia Commons).

With resistant bees, each mite was only able to produce one offspring in each bee larva’s cell compared to two or three among the non-resistant bees. Resistant bees sometimes smell the mites in the bees’ enclosed cells and throw out the young mite along with the bee pupa.  

Coping With Stress

Research has shown that stress has an enormous impact on a student’s ability to learn. Stressed students have a hard time paying attention in class and are more likely to have behavioral issues. 

Honey bees are also impacted by a variety of stressors and have ways to reduce their stress levels. Just like humans are more likely to get sick when stressed, a stressed colony is more susceptible to disease. Anything that reduces energy flow into the colony, including the removal of honey by the beekeeper, can be considered stress. 

A major form of stress for honey bees is inclement weather. In spring and early summer, when the brood is consuming large amounts of brood (food), any restriction of energy into the colony, such as steady rains, causes stress to the hive. The bees respond by stopping brood rearing and reducing energy investment and colony growth. Beekeepers can help reduce this stress by providing food and a reliable water source and avoiding hive inspections when it is cold, rainy, or windy. Using a Beepods top bar hive also reduces stress because there is no need for smoke and by inspecting one bar at a time you disturb fewer bees. 

Decision making, communication, resilience, and coping with stress are just a few of the life skills demonstrated by honey bees. As we attempt to teach these skills to our students, we can turn to a superorganism like the honey bee for a sweet example of how to bee-have. Our students will learn that one of the keys to having a successful classroom, team, or family, is to communicate clearly, act swiftly, and make adaptations when things get difficult.  


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Bill Polacheck

Bill is a teacher, environmentalist, and freelance writer. If he's not out in nature, he's happy to be writing about it.'

Latest posts by Bill Polacheck (see all)'
Bill Polacheck
Bill is a teacher, environmentalist, and freelance writer. If he's not out in nature, he's happy to be writing about it.

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