Thrilling video footage of bees extracting pollen from flora with sound waves and vibration.

Video footage of bees extracting pollen from flora with sound waves and vibration

On Saturday, January 31, the Oakland Museum of California’s newly renovated Gallery of California Natural Sciences will present Bees: Tiny Insect, Big Impact, a multimedia, family-oriented exhibit that will run until Sunday, September 30, 2015.

Family-friendly fun

The current installation covers a multitude of topics surrounding California’s approximately 1,600 species of bees. It was developed with an eye toward educating families on the rich history of the species native to California and the Bay Area, including methods of pollination, hive construction, reproduction and the current ways in which these tiny creatures face colony collapse and perhaps even extinction. The exhibit hopes to educate young and old alike on the challenges facing these creatures that are vital to our food production. It also aims to provide methods for the family to participate in various preventative measures against Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), including exposure to practical hands-on cultivation of bees as an exercise in “collective” togetherness.

Hands-on learning

Hands on microscope allows visitors up close views of various species of California's native bees.

Hands-on microscope allows visitors up-close views of various species of California’s native bees.

One of the most engaging features of the exhibit is its constant interaction with the visitor. Even the words and phrases along its colorful wall displays have been crafted to be accessible to an 8-year-old reading level, keeping the young visitors engaged on their journey through the world of bees. As we are taken through each of the seven or so rooms of the exhibit, opportunities abound to get up close to the displays and absorb the topics through captivating interactive play. Along one wall is a video display demonstrating the interaction of bee sounds and flower pollination. The display includes a keyboard, allowing visitors to play melodies using only the notes actually generated by pollinating bees.

Another section contains a large magnification table, which provides the guest an opportunity to see the various methods bees might use to reproduce, to build a hive and otherwise “make things bigger.” In another room, children and adults alike are encouraged to don beekeeping garb and experience for themselves the equipment used by actual beekeepers in the fight to keep our bees plentiful and our food harvest intact.

The threats

In “Section 3: Life Without Bees,” visitors will learn what threats are facing this most

Various threats to the tiny workers are available for study.

Various threats to the tiny workers are available for study.

critical of actors in the food chain of California and the world at large. Some of these threats, which are collectively called Colony Collapse Disorder, include the harmful effect that pesticide use on crops has had on the bee population, a variety of mites, and the viruses some of these insects pass on to bees. A most impressive feature of this exhibit is the depth of knowledge to be had within each brightly colored and engaging display. The more time spent examining the displays, the more informed one will come away.

Bees in our food chain

The danger to bees of extinction, or mass death, is frighteningly real. In China, bees have gone missing from huge segments of the country, forcing farmers to pay workers to painstakingly hand-pollinate crops. It is a stopgap in a system that cannot be sustained indefinitely. Over-farming globally is beginning to show cracks in the food chain, and pollination problems illustrate one of the best examples of how our disregard for protecting the environment proactively is beginning to take a toll on our food supply. It is important to note that most pollination necessary to our harvest is done by wild bees. Large segments of food groups are dependent on bee-driven pollination. Should the bees die off, we would certainly lose much of our fruit crops, including apples, pears, blueberries, grapefruit and cherries. The chain of foods dependent on bee pollination is laid out for the visitor, along with examples of those foods that are wind-pollinated, such as cacao (chocolate) and olive oil.


Display allows kids to discover which foods are threatened by risks to bee population pollination.

This challenge to our food ecosystem is a serious one. Colony Collapse Disorder is killing off a high percentage of our natural bee resources – so high in fact, that we currently face a shortage so critical “that we are one poor weather event or high winter bee loss away from a pollination disaster,” according to Jeff Pettis of the USDA. China’s reliance on hand-pollination is perhaps, the future of crop pollination, should bees be lost altogether.

Rather than educate without hope of remedy, this exhibit has tasked itself with getting families engaged in the solutions to the “beepocalypse” crisis, which run the gamut in the level of commitment required. Whether you and your family are interested in actively becoming beekeepers and raising bees yourselves, or would prefer a project that involves a lower level of effort, such as creating livable spaces for swarming bees to land and form new colonies, there is an abundance of ideas to help you with any task that may appeal to you.

Be a zombee hunter!

Recently, John Hafernik, professor of biology at San Francisco State University, ran across a parasite that may be at the root of the problem. While looking for deceased bees to feed to another test subject, he inadvertently left a vial of bees sealed on his desk, only to discover that the bodies had hatched fly pupae after about a week. The fly he found was Apocephalus borealis. This parasite deposits its eggs into a bee’s abdomen, slowly killing its host, after which the newborn flies eventually push through the head of the bee to escape. What Hafernik also discovered was that, once infected with the larvae, bees began to exhibit profoundly unnatural and destructive behaviors. Abandoning their natural tendencies to fly in daylight only, the bees infected with these parasites began to fly at night, and are fatally drawn to light like moths. They also were observed to walk aimlessly in circles and, just before death, to become partially paralyzed, “stretching their legs and attempting to walk, but finding themselves unable to do so,” according to Hafernik. While observing their ineffective stumbling, he thought they looked a bit like zombies and thus he christened these diseased bees “Zombees.”

At the conclusion of the exhibit tour, there is a “Learning Lounge” where one is invited to examine this phenomenon, or any other topic about which one might have a thirst for more knowledge. There are tools provided here that enable individuals and families to become data miners for the professor’s research, or “Zombee Hunters,” a concept which will no doubt have much appeal to children and parents alike. The directions provided include instructions for creating a “Zombee trap,” and are accompanied by the contact information for registering as a participant in Hafernik’s experiments to examine, and hopefully cure, this disturbing phenomenon. Given the amount of our food supply that is threatened if the bees do not survive, we should all be motivated to engage in the prevention of the coming beepocalypse.

BEES: Tiny Insect, Big Impact

Runs: Jan. 31 – Sept. 20, 2015
Where: Oakland Museum of California
1000 Oak Street, Oakland
(510) 318-8400

Mon-Tues: Closed
Wed-Thurs: 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
Fri: 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
Sat-Sun: 10 a.m.-6 p.m

About The Author

Angela F. Lazear is an Oakland native and the author of EAST BAY FOOD SCENE: Essays on the Ritual of Dining ( Launched in 2007, East Bay Food Scene was established to pay homage to Oakland’s fascinating history, while chronicling the city’s rebirth through a vibrant, ever-changing landscape of food offerings. Many of Angela’s fondest childhood memories involve accompanying her grandparents to Oakland’s finest restaurants and sitting with them at the “grownup” table. Twice a month her grandparents would take her out for shrimp cocktail and filet of sole, at what was then The Sea Wolf, on Jack London Square. It was on these occasions that Angela discovered that collective dining brought with it the opportunity to make lasting memories. To this day, a perfect “old school” shrimp cocktail will bring to mind one of her grandfather’s fascinating and colorful stories of Prohibition, bootleggers, and run-ins with “wise-guys” seeking to get alcohol to the masses. These colorful stories were a kind of live theater. When Oakland began its dining renaissance, Angela saw an opportunity to honor both her family’s legacy and the city of her birth. Contrasting Oakland’s past to its present, her essays focus on how sharing great food experiences with loved ones can enrich one’s life immeasurably. Food is more than sustenance, it serves as a landmark for recalled experiences with loved ones and family. It is this connection between food and family that drives Angela to experience and chronicle the current generation of chefs and restaurateurs, as they re-invent cuisine and elevate it to an art form. Her mission is to share with her readers the stories of an Oakland that was, and to connect them to the Oakland that is becoming, that its inhabitants might remain in touch with the City’s past, as they inevitably meet with its promising future. The ritual of dining is an experience so entrenched in our collective personal history that we run the risk of missing the point if we fail to savor the experience as much as we do the myriad of flavors. Each morsel has the ability, at a later date, to recall moments from our past as vividly to the senses as if actually captured on film. A self-titled “Philosophoodie,” she would encourage her readers to savor every bite as it comes, take the time to engage with one another over every meal, and “make a lasting memory of your own.” Twitter: @foodaprecianado; Instagram: Foodapprecianado Facebook: EastBayFoodScene

One Response

  1. Benjamin Vogt

    This exhibit sets a terrible precedent — that we need honeybees — making no mention of superior native bees and restoring / preserving the habitat they need. Honey bees don’t pollinate tomatoes, and bumble bee are far more efficient at blueberry pollination. The issue is not about honey bees at all, a dangerous monoculture supporting other dangerous monocultures. If you want to save the food system, ensure native bee habitat, as the Xerces Society is working toward. Read more about native bees and why we don’t need honey bees at:


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