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Getting to Know a Honey Bee under the Microscope

Honeybees are facinating insects for students and parents alike. We all enjoy the sweet natural (and healthy) taste of honey on our cereal or a slice of bread in the morning. When children go to the grocery store, they often want to look at the honey that is in the jar with the honeycomb. Looking at all those cells in the honeycomb is interesting and shows how these insects live and store their food.

Equally interesting for the student and kids is how honey bees carry their pollens from flower to flower and bring it back to their home. This process of transporting pollen is critical to food production in most countries and critical for the reproduction of so many botanical species. In this microscope activity, we will get to answer that question and get to know more about a honey bee under the stereo microscope. The first thing we have to do is to capture a honey bee. This may be a little challenging especially when looking for places where honey bees might visit to gather their food. Another challenge is to avoid being stung by one.

What we need is a stoppered jar that is sprayed with a small amount of ether. Once you find a potential bee, you must approach it as quietly as possible and scoop it with the jar. Immediately enclose it with the lid and wait until the fumes take its effect.

Take the lifeless insect out and observe its hind legs. You will then see that it carries a yellowish sticky substance. This is the pollen dust that the bee has gathered from the flowers. Remove it carefully with a small brush. Sever the leg from the body with a small knife. Many microscope kits come with small dissecting tools that can be useful in this exercise. Place the leg on a microscope slide.

Viewing the severed leg under a low power stereoscopic dissecting microscope, you will see that the leg has three regions. These are called the femur, tibia and the tarsal segments. If you take a look at the tibia, you will see that it is shaped like a basket. This called the corbiculum and it is in here that the bee puts its harvests.

It is interesting and at the same time educational to know that we can learn about how the bee gathers its food with just observing its legs alone. If you look at it closely with the stereoscope, the legs are covered with hairs. This is the same as with the rest of its body. These hairs capture the pollen grains. To transfer the pollen grains to the corbiculum, the bee has a special structure called the pollen combs. These pollen combs sweep the grains from the hairs and transfer them to the baskets while pressing them down to the bottom altogether. We might as well try to find out how the bee gets to remove the pollen from the basket using the stereo binocular microscope. When bees transfer their gathered pollen from their baskets, they do it by thrusting their hind legs into a cell and a spur shakes it off. The spur can be found at the apex of the middle tibia.

Now we know how a honey bee goes about with its food gathering with the help of our low power stereo dissection microscope. Kids and students can also try observing the honey bee at work with inexpensive lenses such as a magnifying glass, otherwise know as a simple microscope. We move on with examining the honey bee’s stinging apparatus.

We all probably know that a bee’s sting is its double-edged sword. While it proves to be a defence and offense mechanism for the insect, using this weapon will cost the poor insect’s life.

We do not need to catch another bee to perform this experiment. The one which we dissected and removed the hind legs from is enough. However, dissecting and removing the stinging apparatus is rather tricky. Taking the dead insect, you have to hold it between your thumb and finger and press the abdomen gently. You will see the stinging apparatus. Again, if you have a microscope kit, look for tweezers, or find some in your bathroom closet. Use tweezers to pull out the stinger. Do this carefully so that you will be able to pull out the duct and poison glands with the stinger.

Place the stinger on a microscope slide and put it under a compound light microscope. This type of microscope is higher power and different from the dissecting microscope we used earlier in the experiment. You may also use the stereo microscope if you don’t have a compound microscope handy, but be sure to change it to the highest power magnification. You will see that the stinger looks like a miniature needle. Beside the stingers are two hairy appendages called the feelers or palpi. The sheath holds the stinger and palpi. Up the sheath is a balloon-like structure called the reservoir and attached to this is the poison gland. Beside the reservoir is an accessory gland. The stinging of the bee starts with the palpi selecting a suitable spot on the victim’s body. When the spot is found, the sheath opens up a wound and a couple of barbs darts are thrusted forward. The poison glands secrete a poisonous fluid in the reservoir and is mixed up with another secretion from the accessory gland. As the sheath lunges deeper in the wound, the mixture is passed into the channel of the sheath and into the wound.

Under a high power compound microscope, each of the barbs has a set of barbed teeth. When a bee stings, these barbed teeth find its place securely in the flesh. The only way the bee can free itself is to leave the stinging apparatus altogether. In doing so causes fatal internal injuries and eventually death of the bee.

Only worker bees have barbed teeth on their stingers and therefore the only ones affected by the consequences. If you happen to get hold of a queen bee or wasps, you will observe that they do not have these teeth. This is why they can sting as much as they like. Through this microscope activity, we learn more about one of nature’s wonders. Honey bees provide us with its delectable harvest and it is our responsibility to understand how they work. Elementary students and children can also use a child microscope or kid microscope for this science microscope activity if they don’t have the higher grade student microscopes available.

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