Kids' bee study published in science journal

A scientific paper written by British schoolchildren about bees' ability to recognize colour patterns and spatial characteristics has appeared in a prominent journal.
The paper was produced by 28 children from Blackawton Primary School in the village of Blackawton, England, between the ages of eight and 10. ((Beau Lotto/University College London))
A scientific paper written by British schoolchildren about bees' ability to recognize colour patterns and spatial characteristics has appeared in a prominent journal.

The paper, published Wednesday in Biology Letters, includes handwritten data tables and coloured-pencil diagrams.

"We discovered that bumblebees can use a combination of colour and spatial relationships in deciding which colour of flower to forage from," the paper said. "We also discovered that science is cool and fun because you get to do stuff that no one has ever done before."

The paper was prepared by 28 boys and girls, ages eight to 10, at Blackawton Primary School in the village of Blackawton, Devon, England, under the direction of their head teacher, Dave Strudwick, and Beau Lotto, a researcher at the University College London's Institute of Ophthalmology.

The paper includes handwritten tables and diagrams coloured with coloured pencils. ((Biology Letters))
Lotto's eight-year-old son, Micha, was among the children who asked the scientific questions, designed the experiments using Lotto's equipment and analyzed the results.

"The aim was to get it published because it was an original finding, not because it was written by kids," Lotto said Wednesday. "I wanted to challenge the idea of science and who can do science and who can make a genuine contribution to science."

The research found that bumblebees looking for food seem to take into account colour patterns and the placement of food sources representing flowers. It showed that some bees chose the "flowers" based on a familiar colour pattern while others chose them based on where the food sources were located after taking both colour and location into account.

The pupils also found that bees can apply what they have learned about colour patterns when visiting flowers with similar colours that are arranged differently.

Lotto and Strudwick explained scientific procedures to the children, and Lotto trained the bees as part of the experiment. He had previously done experiments with bees in public places using similar equipment and procedures and has recently been helping other children participate in science.

 How the experiment worked
  •  A lightbox with arrays of different-coloured lights representing "flowers" were set up inside a Plexiglas cube. 
  • Food, salt water or nothing could be placed at the centre of each light.
  • Bees were trained to find food in the lights. Later, the food was only placed in certain patterns relative to the lights.
  • For example, it was only placed in the blue centre lights, while the yellow surrounding lights contained salt water.
  • After the bees learned the pattern, their knowledge was tested with lights containing no salt or sugar water.
  • Next, the colours of the centre lights were changed to green, while the surrounding lights were remained blue or yellow.
  • That was to test whether the bees would rely on colour or location.
  • Finally, the bees were tested with a completely different pattern of blue and yellow lights.

Once the experiments were complete, Lotto took his laptop and four of the children to a pub, where he explained to them the structure of a scientific paper and transcribed each section. Most of the paper uses the children's vocabulary and phrasing.

"Before doing these experiments, we did not really think a lot about bees and how they are as smart as us," the article concludes. "We discovered how fun it was to train bees. This is also cool because you do not get to train bees every day. We like bees."

Took 18 months to get published

Lotto spent 18 months sending the paper to Nature, Science, pLOS One and other prestigious journals trying to get it published.

He insisted that because the paper was written by kids, it was something the scientific journals needed to take into account when evaluating it. Unlike other scientific papers, it doesn't include any detailed statistical analyses or references, but Lotto believes those are not crucial elements.

Finally, he got the paper reviewed by four independent researchers, and submitted the reviews and the paper together to Biology Letters. He suggested publishing the paper with a commentary from two of the reviewers.

Brian Charlesworth, editor of Biology Letters, admitted it was difficult to persuade scientists to review the paper, but he believes the journal's extra efforts were worthwhile.

"We did feel that it's something we want to involve people in — seeing that science is something that's fun to do, not just something you read about in text books," Charlesworth said. "We feel quite pleased for having done this."

However, he acknowledged it would have been far more difficult to get the paper published if an academic researcher like Lotto were not involved.

"Because we wouldn't have been sure that someone was vouching for the science," he said.

He was quick to add that the journal didn't rely on Lotto's word alone.

The commentary accompanying the article was written by New York University psychologist Laurence Maloney and University of Exeter psychologist Natalie Hempel.

"The experiments are modest in scope but cleverly and correctly designed and carried out," it said. "The resulting article is a remarkable demonstration of how natural scientific reasoning is for us."