Eight-year-old children publish bee study in Royal Society journal

By Ed Yong | December 21, 2010 7:00 pm


“We also discovered that science is cool and fun because you get to do stuff that no one has ever done before.”

This is the conclusion of a new paper published in Biology Letters, a high-powered journal from the UK’s prestigious Royal Society. If its tone seems unusual, that’s because its authors are children from Blackawton Primary School in Devon, England. Aged between 8 and 10, the 25 children have just become the youngest scientists to ever be published in a Royal Society journal.

Their paper, based on fieldwork carried out in a local churchyard, describes how bumblebees can learn which flowers to forage from with more flexibility than anyone had thought. It’s the culmination of a project called ‘i, scientist’, designed to get students to actually carry out scientific research themselves. The kids received some support from Beau Lotto, a neuroscientist at UCL, and David Strudwick, Blackawton’s head teacher. But the work is all their own.

The class (including Lotto’s son, Misha) came up with their own questions, devised hypotheses, designed experiments, and analysed data.  They wrote the paper themselves (except for the abstract), and they drew all the figures with colouring pencils.

It’s a refreshing approach to science education, in that it actually involves doing science. The practical sessions in modern classrooms are a poor substitute; they might allow students to get their hands dirty, but they are a long way from true experiments. Their answers are already known and they do nothing to simulate the process of curiosity and discovery that lie at the heart of science. That’s not the case here. As the children write, “This experiment is important, because no one in history (including adults) has done this experiment before.”

The experiment

The trick was to get the children to see the scientific process as a game – we play by a set of rules to discover hidden patterns and relationships in the world around us. It’s a viewpoint that Lotto firmly believes in and one that turns science education into “a more enlightened and intuitive process of asking questions and devising games to address those questions.” With games on their minds, the children started talking about how animals see the world, using everything from bug-eye lenses to videos of silly dog tricks. The conversation moved onto bees and how they forage for nectar, and the questions came thick and fast. In the childrens’ own words:

“We came up with lots of questions, but the one we decided to look at was whether bees could learn to use the spatial relationships between colours to figure out which flowers [to visit]. It is interesting to ask this question, because in their habitat there may be flowers that are bad for them, or flowers from which they might already have collected nectar. This would mean that it is important for bees to learn which flower to go to or to avoid, which would need them to remember the flowers that were around it, which is like a puzzle.”

The children designed a Plexiglas cube with two entrances and a four-panelled light box in the middle. Each panel had 16 coloured lights, illuminated in clear patterns of blue and yellow. Each light had a feeder that dispensed either delicious sugar water or repulsive salty water. Once the bees had learned to drink from the feeders, the kids turned the lights on.

At first, the outer lights on each panel were set to blue and held salty water, while the yellow inner lights contained sugary water, rather like a simple flower (image below, left). Every 10-40 minutes, the colours were swapped so that the inner blue lights were sugary and the outer yellow ones were salty. To ensure a sweet mouthful, the bees had to visit the central lights rather than relying on a single colour.

And they did. Without any actual water to guide their choices, they landed on the central lights over 90% of the time. But individual bees (marked with coloured paint) had learned to do this through different rules. Some flew to the central lights on each panel, regardless of colour. They still flew to the right lights even when the kids switched them to green (image below, middle). Other bees were more strongly influenced by colour; when faced with the green-centred panels, they visited the more familiar yellow or blue lights.

As a final test, the kids switched all the lights on each panel to the same colour, except for the four corner ones (image below, right). This time, the bees didn’t show any clear preference for the corner or middle lights. They weren’t just using a “visit central lights” rule, or a “visit least common colour” rule. Their selections were almost random, although some of them clearly still had a “favourite colour”.

In a commentary that puts the study in perspective, neuroscientists Larry Maloney and Natalie Hempel say that the bees can clearly “extract and flexibly recall different cues from complex scenes”. They use a combination of colour, location and pattern in a way that varies between individuals, and that rivals some back-boned animals.


The road to publication

While the experiments are “modest in scope”, Maloney and Hempel think that they’re “cleverly and correctly designed and carried out with proper controls.” They write, “The experimenters have asked a scientific question and answered it well.”

Their work is certainly unorthodox. There aren’t any statistical analyses and there are no references to past literature. Lotto doesn’t see that as a problem. He writes, “The true motivation for any scientific study (at least one of integrity) is one’s own curiousity, which for the children was not inspired by the scientific literature, but their own observations of the world.” The lack of context doesn’t weaken the study. “On the contrary, it reveals science in its truest (most naive) form.”

Not everyone agreed. The editors of several top journals, including Nature, Science, Current Biology and PLoS ONE loved the idea but passed on publishing the paper because it lacked references and was written in kid-speak. But Lotto was determined. “The aim was to not get it published simply as a kid’s project, but for its scientific contribution,” he says.

To that end, he asked four independent experts in vision to review the paper, and only one questioned its scientific merit. That helped to convince Chris Frith, an editor for Biology Letters. Frith agreed to publish the work after soliciting four more reviews (all positive) and the commentary from Maloney and Hempel.

Real science

While Biology Letters typically requires a subscription, the Blackawton bees paper will be free until the New Year. I’d strongly encourage everyone to read it for themselves. It’s full of warmth and humour. The methods includes, “We then put the tube with the bees in it into the school’s fridge (and made bee pie)”. One of the headings reads, “Training phase 2 (‘the puzzle’ . . .duh duh duuuuhhh)”.

Science teacher Alom Shaha loved the cheeky tone. He says, “What an inspiring bit of work. I feel strongly that there isn’t enough “real” science in schools… I suspect the students who participated in this will have a more positive attitude towards science than before the project.” However, he adds, “How long will that last for if they are not exposed to the same level of interesting science teaching in the future? How do we get more schools doing stuff like this?”

It’s a question for headmasters to consider. For now, Lotto is far from done. He has recently moved his lab to the Science Museum in London, transforming it into a public space “where children (and adults) from the around the UK come together to design experiments.” He says, “If we receive our long-term funding from the Wellcome Trust and others, then the space will become a permanent location for anyone (public, organisations, etc) to do real science.” Next year, he plans to apply for a similar project called “i,am…”, which will turn young, vulnerable people into real researchers.

To Lotto, this is about far more than just making young scientists – it’s about harnessing the values of science to improve people’s lives. He says, “The best science celebrates uncertainty, to be willing to make mistakes and learn from them, to take risks, to see situations – any situation (not just scientific) – from more than one perspective, to collaborate, to observe and play. In other words science is a way of being that, at its best, is natural, creative, adaptive and compassionate. It’s these latter qualities that the programme is attempting to foster.”

Reference: Biology Letters http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsbl.2010.1056

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Comments (34)

  1. Escherichia coli

    I love this! 😀

  2. Jon

    Neither link to the paper works at present.


    Comes up with a “This item has not been released to the Public” signin page


    Comes up with an “Error DOI not found” page.

  3. Yes, the paper’s not up yet. Try again tomorrow morning when the Brits wake up and get back into the office. (Yes, I’m a Brit and I’m up but I keep weird hours).

  4. natselrox


  5. Children scientists evaluated by so called neuroscientists? Boring. Boring I said? Uncanny. Who were the real bees? Who was the real object of the experiment? I would like to know how would it be if neuro scientists –so called– would design an experiment, and were evaluated by children. All the presentation is a Disneyland make-believe. It would be interesting to know if the children knew that they would be evaluated, and what are their feelings–their intimate and sincere feelings–about this mirror, second stage scene. The passion for evaluation for the new so called neuro-mambo-jumbo is a dangerous trend, and we need from our youngsters a fresh consideration of how they are being treated as hamsters.

  6. BeeBecF

    ‘It’s a refreshing approach to science education, in that it actually involves doing science. The practical sessions in modern classrooms are a poor substitute; they might allow students to get their hands dirty, but they are a long way from true experiments. Their answers are already known and they do nothing to simulate the process of curiosity and discovery that lie at the heart of science.’

    Without wishing to take anything away from the fantastic work these children have done, I have to take issue with this paragraph. I think ‘proper’ science goes on in primary classrooms all over the country. While the answers might already be known to you and me, they are not known by the children, who are taught the skills of planning, carrying out and interpreting an investigation.This involves creative thinking, allowing children to make mistakes and seeing what we can learn when things go ‘wrong’. I think it is disingenuous to suggest that science in primary schools is all about teaching facts. It isnt. While what these children have done is to be celebrated, I think the tone of the reporting on it (here and elsewhere) does a disservice to thousands of primary teachers with a passion for science. There is certainly a lot of celebrating uncertainty and creativity going on in my classroom!

  7. Well, the paper is there, but sadly the paywall seems to be firmly in place. I think they might have misled you about the paper being free to non-subscribers.

  8. Although BeeBeeF makes a fair point about the UK primary science curriculum, I do think there’s something to celebrate here.

    Investigations that teach such skills often use projects based in very basic and/ or established science. As a couple of social researchers studying science classrooms said back in the ’70s, investigations too often dress up “cold science” (decided knowledge, akin to Kuhn’s normal science) as it it was the “hot” science of cutting edge discovery. I don’t think school-science today is the same as the ’70s, but the basic point is worth keeping in mind.

    It’s really hard to share such “hot” science with non-experts, I think it’s something to celebrate when it’s possible (moreover, when it is possible, it should be). If it’s skills you want to teach here rather than particular scientific facts, why not use fresher science where no one at all really knows the answer? School science needn’t be make believe. Moreover, why not connect children to science as it is done at publication level? This isn’t the only project to do so, but there could be more.

    Ref, if anyone wants it:
    P. Atkinson and S. Delamont, “Mock-ups and Cock-ups: The Stage-Management of Guided Discovery Instruction,” in The Process of Schooling: A Sociological Reader, ed. M. Hammersley and P. Woods (London: Open Univ. Press, 1976), pp. 133 – 142,

  9. @Adam – I’ve just spoken to the Royal Society’s press office and they assure me the paper is *meant* to be open-access. They’re speaking to their publishing team about it to fix the problem.

    @BeeBeeF – Fair enough. I may be biased based on personal experience but obviously education has moved on since the 80s/90s.

    @Marco mauas – Perhaps we can get the children to teach you about reading comprehension?

  10. This made my morning. Nothing makes science awesome like doing some and getting it published. These kids will never forget they did this :)

    I worked in a lab as a post-doc where all the undergraduate projects were intended for publication and they were first authors; I’m going to do the same thing with my own lab now, and this is the reason :)

  11. I wonder who’ll be the first to cite their paper in a new study. That would be great to see.

  12. In fact, Athene Donald has just tweeted that the Royal Soc plans on making the paper open-access indefinitely! Bravo to them.

  13. Hurray! Well done to the Royal Society for finding a way to do this properly. They deserve to be congratulated, a lot, for this.

  14. DerekH

    As I was reading this, guess which science journalist appeared on the BBC News channel?…. [Clue: his initials are EY 😉 ]

    Oh, and well done to everyone involved in the experiment and article, from youngest to oldest!

  15. Merijn Vogel

    @marco: your mumbo jumbo sounds like total gibberish to me.

    The reason that neuroscientists looked at this was to evaluate the science displayed. They evaluated the research on the bees, which was neuroscientific in nature. Your suggestion seems to suffer from slight paranoia or you are just trolling.

    The research itself is interesting, but to trigger the scientific questions from children and being able to act them out is just great. Many kudos to Mr. Lotto for that. It teaches all of us that science still can be done by just asking questions and careful observation, something that gets overlooked in current mostly statistics-based science.

    It may even trigger some (neuro)scientists to redo this experiment and see if the conclusions from this experiment hold up statistically. It think one could already calculate the likelihood that the bees were showing more than random behaviour given the tables in the article.

  16. Marjorie Johns

    Ed, you quoted, “This experiment is important, because, as far as we know, no one in history (including adults) has done this experiment before.” But yet you neglected to include the next, killer line:

    “It tells us that bees can learn to solve puzzles (and if we are lucky we will be able to get them to do Sudoku in a couple of years’ time).”

  17. In fairness, I could have quoted virtually the entire paper, it’s so full of gems. This is why it’s great that everyone can read it. 😉

  18. I feel humbled – puts our secondary science club into perspective. My son is now dancing up and down next to me because he wants to watch the video. I suspect his next comment will be a complaint about the science club at his primary school.

  19. DrTV Venkateswaran

    nice one. congradulations tothe kids. Bye the way in India a movement is on called “national Childrens Science Congess’ wherein every year children are encouraged to undertake such types of studies and report their findings.. in fact the next oneis between Dec 26-31 and would be held at Chennai, INDIA… about 800 kids are presenting thier study reports !

  20. Ah splendid, the paywall has now been removed. Happy to see it was just a minor technical glitch.

    What a fantastic paper! I am so impressed! If this is the future of science, then maybe things aren’t so bad after all.

  21. Parents and teachers, I’d actually love to hear what your kids/classes are making of this story. Lemme know.

  22. Hi, the Royal Society seem to open up Biological Letters after a year http://royalsocietypublishing.org/site/authors/EXiS.xhtml so was this paper going to be open for the first month, and RS have extended it for the year, or had they paid for OA for the whole year, and the RS hadn’t updated it? Want to give the right credit where it’s due to encourage open access!

  23. wayne
  24. Kim Hannula

    I just sent a link to this article and the paper to the education director for the new science museum that’s about to open in town. I’ll let you know if they design anything based on this!

    (And I told my seven-year-old about this, and asked if he’d like to do something that nobody had done before. He said “yeah, sure.” But right now he’s busy obsessing about presents.)

  25. MeToo

    in the commentary noted, the commentors do not even reference the original story. yet people have criticized the kids for not having citiations.

  26. @Craig – You should ask @pointofpresence on Twitter. His tweets suggest that it’s the RS’s decision http://twitter.com/PointOfPresence

  27. Re: The kids’ paper lacking references because they didn’t have access to the journals, so they couldn’t read them – not having read papers doesn’t stop everyone else in academia citing anyway ;P

  28. Fantastic! Wish every paper was this fun to read. Thanks for the story Ed.

  29. amphiox

    The very coolest thing of all about this is that they got the kids to actually write the paper. (Did the peer reviewers ask for revisions, and did the kids get to be involved in that as well? And did the children get a chance to see the rejection letters from the journals that didn’t want to publish this? If so, that would be even more cool….)

    Frankly as well, a little more tongue-in-cheek, humorous tone would be a welcome addition to many other papers written by adults, too.

  30. Nice post Ed!

    @BeeBecF I see your point, but I would argue that what the children did here was different in that they created ‘new knowledge’. While in normal settings the children may not know the answer, the adults do (and the children know this). In this case, neither did (and the children knew this). I don’t think this is a small thing, if nothing else for the effect that this must have on the children themselves and on the teachers that guided the process. I agree with you that this should not undermine other approaches to teaching science.

  31. Absolutely great stuff. Thanks for this great post.


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