Bees Create a Buzz with Annual 4-H Challenge

students taking honey bee challenge

• 10,000 students in eight states to take Honey Bee Challenge this spring, summer

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Honeybees don’t just buzz. They dance.

And thousands of students in Ohio and seven other states will learn why that’s a vital aspect of honeybee pollination as they participate in this year’s 4-H Ag Innovators Experience, the Honey Bee Challenge.

The challenge was developed by specialists with Ohio State University Extension.

It’s the third consecutive year that OSU Extension has developed the challenge used for the annual innovators experience, sponsored by the National 4-H Council and Monsanto Company.

“There’s a lot of interest and concern about honeybees,” said Beth Hecht, grant manager for the National 4-H Council. “This topic seemed like a natural for our annual challenge.”

Ohio 4-H hosted the 2016 challenge kickoff in April with middle school students from Clear Fork Local Schools in Morrow County. Ohio 4-H is the youth development arm of OSU Extension, which provides outreach for the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences of The Ohio State University.

On May 7, 100 teens will come to Columbus to be trained to facilitate the challenge for an estimated 3,200 students in 19 Ohio counties this spring and summer. Similar efforts will take place in Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri and Nebraska to reach a total of 10,000 students across the eight states.

During the challenge, students learn about the behavior of honeybees and their role in pollinating crops. Working in small groups with the help of volunteers, they build “bee bots” from the head of a toothbrush, a small vibrating motor, a watch battery, a bee sticker and a piece of tape.

The goal is to use straws, paper cups and other tools to guide the bee bots around to different crops depicted on a Honey Bee Challenge mat. Sand, glitter or other material is sprinkled on the mat to mimic pollen; the piece of tape on the back of the bee bot picks it up so the bots can bring it back to the hive on the mat. Students are challenged to figure out how their bee bots can pick up the most pollen on each of three crops on the mat in the least amount of time.

Among the concepts students learn during the challenge is the honeybee “waggle dance.” When worker honeybees find a good source of pollen, such as a field of alfalfa or an orchard of blossoming apple trees, they return to the hive and signal to other workers the precise location of the food source. The orientation of the bee’s movements indicates the direction of the flowers, and the length of the dance indicates the distance.

STEM principles in action

“The big takeaway is modeling the bee behavior,” said Bob Horton, Ohio 4-H STEM education specialist who helped create the challenge. “These playful little bots sound like a bee and buzz around like a bee.

“A lot of the true learning is in that tactile experience, not us talking about it, but letting the students actually get their hands on it.”

In addition, while building the bots, the students learn a little about basic circuitry, said Kelly Staley, Clear Fork Middle School science teacher who brought 50 sixth- and seventh-grade students to the kickoff.

“This experience gives students a chance to practice STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) problem-solving skills, with the benefit of learning more about honeybees,” Staley said. “And as they make the bee bot, they learn about creating an electrical circuit.

“That’s a curriculum standard that I teach as a seventh-grade science teacher, and, in fact, it’s the next unit I’m teaching in the classroom. So this is perfect.”

Also at the kickoff was Jerry Hayes, Monsanto honey bee health lead and former president of the Apiary Inspectors of America. Hayes, who also served as chief of the Apiary Inspection Section for Florida’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services before joining Monsanto, is an alumnus of Ohio State’s Agricultural Technical Institute in Wooster.

“As a beekeeper, I’m excited about this project,” Hayes said. “I hope the kids who take part in the challenge learn a little bit about the importance of honeybees in the environment and in agriculture.

“But if you look at what the kids are doing, there’s some engineering and other STEM concepts they’re learning that will be important to agriculture in the future.”

Pollinators vital to food production

Honeybees are just one of about 4,000 species of bees and many more pollinators across the United States, but they play a key role in commercial pollination services, said Denise Ellsworth, director of OSU Extension’s Honey Bee and Native Pollinator Education program and co-developer of the challenge.

More than 2 million colonies of bees travel across the country providing commercial pollination of agricultural crops, with each colony having about 50,000 to 60,000 bees, she said.

They face threats from both pesticides and pests such as varroa mites, as well as a loss of native plants they traditionally use as food sources. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about one in three bites of food in the U.S. depends on honeybees and other pollinators.

The May 7 training will be led by Ohio’s Ag Innovators Experience Lead Team of Rebecca Helt, Gregory Howard and Wesley Sizemore, all of whom are 4-H teens from Clark County, and Patty House, 4-H Extension educator. 

The Honey Bee Challenge was created by Horton; House; Ellsworth; Denise Johnson, program manager with OSU Extension’s Master Gardener Volunteer program; and consultants Margaret Duden of SimplySmart Education Specialists, and Liz Kasper and Pete Sandvik of Northern Design Group.

Teachers and youth group leaders interested in the Honey Bee Challenge can learn more and download materials at the 4-H Ag Innovators Experience website,



CFAES News Team
For more information, contact: 

Bob Horton

Denise Ellsworth