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How do we revive our beehives?

South Auckland schools have been investigating why a cold snap killed their bees and how to stop this from happening again.

Looking at a honeycomb

Students in Ōtara, Māngere and Takanini are using monitoring electronics and apps to track their bees’ health as part of a high-tech apiary project.

The rangatahi gathered at Tangaroa College for an after-school session in the next step of the South Auckland Bee Project following its launch almost six few months earlier.

“This project is a world first and is going to be able to help us learn about hive health in our city,” says Sarah Smuts-Kennedy, artist and Director at For the Love of Bees, a living social sculpture that imagines Auckland as the world’s safest city for bees.

Students with beehive

Sadly, the session started with an announcement from Sarah and Tangaroa College’s Head of Science Chandar Dewan that the vast majority of the bees in their hive had died over winter.

In Sarah’s explanation about why this had happened, she first asked the students if they had noticed anything strange about the weather. 

When the students replied that they hadn't, Sarah said: “Yesterday was weird, wasn't it? It was pretty warm in the morning but then there was icy hail in the afternoon.

“Too many days like this means that the bees don’t get a chance to fly out and get food.”

Sarah told the students that the queen bee had actually laid her eggs too early in the year, due to an abnormally early heatwave. A cold snap after this warm blip means that the worker bees can’t collect nectar and pollen for the larvae, so they end up starving to death once they run out of their honey stores.

Fortunately, there were enough adult bees left – including the queen – to try and revive the colony in time for summer.

To help the students bring their bees back from the brink, Julian McCurdy at BeezThingz showed them how to read recordings from the five sound and temperature detectors in the hive.

Julian first revealed what the sensors looked like and how they worked. Then he got the students to compare graphs created from different hives' sensor readings. They saw that unstable hives have a big difference between the lowest and highest hive temperatures, while healthy ones have a constant average temperature with less range between lows and highs.

Looking at hive temperature trends

The students also learnt that as the outside temperature changes throughout the day, the bees in the hive need to either increase or lower the hive's core temperature with their body movements. When the bees are doing this well, they create a constant average temperature throughout the day. A poor hive has big changes through the day as the bees are not able to maintain a constant hive temperature.

Being able to interpret the sensor readings means that the students can spot when the beehives are unstable due to changing weather and when they need to feed the bees sugar until conditions get back on track.

“I liked learning about monitoring the hive’s temperature and how bees need to stay warm,” says Nadia, 13.

Thirteen-year-old Te Anau adds, “I enjoyed finding out how the bees live and what they do depending on the weather.”

Making balm

The students also explored what products they could get from beehives, through creating a balm from beeswax, kawakawa and olive oil. They found out from Sarah that beeswax is actually more precious a product than honey because it takes several kilograms of honey for the bees to make a kilogram of beeswax.

First some of the students first grated part of a large chunk of beeswax into a bowl, while others cut kawakawa leaves into pieces. They then soaked the leaves in a small amount of olive oil, so that the healing chemicals from the kawakawa ended up in the oil.

After a few minutes, the leaves were removed from the oil and then the oil was added to the grated beeswax. The wax and oil melted and combined together when heated in a large tray of hot water. The students then added food colouring and flavouring to the mixture before pouring it into small tins and leaving it to cool.

John, 14, tells us, “I enjoyed making the balm ‘cause I liked seeing how the wax changed as it got hot and cold.”

Closeup of balms

The project involves Aorere College and Kauri Flats School alongside Tangaroa College. Read the latest on Aorere College's Beehive blog.

Read more on the South Auckland Bee Project website.

You can also contribute to this research with your own hives. Contact or visit the Buzztech website for more information.

Photo credit (top two): Chandar Dewan

About the project

Tangaroa College logoAorere bee project logoKauri Flats logoThe South Auckland Bee Project is supported by funding from the SouthSci Participatory Science Platform (PSP) managed by Sarah Morgan at Comet Auckland.


Scientists and locals collaborating around a table

Participatory Science Platform

The Participatory Science Platform supports collaborative projects that bring together communities and scientists or technologists on research investigating a locally-important question or problem.

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