"High powered" science journal Biology Letters is publishing a paper about the way bees use color and space to navigate between flowers. It was written by 25 co-authors, all of whom are between the ages of 8 and 10.
Really: The 25 kids, all from the Blackawton Primary School in Devon, England, designed the experiment from the ground up, and wrote every word in the paper. Based on the excerpts published by Ed Yong on his blog Not Exactly Rocket Science, it sounds like a pretty fun read:
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)".
Here's its conclusion:
We also discovered that science is cool and fun because you get to do stuff that no one has ever done before.
The students who published the paper were participants in "i, scientist," a project set up to engage kids with science in a hands-on way. A very hands-on way. With help from neuroscientist Beau Lotto (whose son is in the class), the 25-person team began by thinking about the way animals—in particular, bees—perceive the world. (The girl in the picture above is wearing "bee glasses" to see the way bees might.) From their abstract:
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.
To execute their experiment, the kids designed their own materials: A Plexiglass cube filled with colored lights, each connected to a dispenser tube filled with either sugar water (good) or salt water (gross). By observing the bees' behavior over the course of several "runs," during which the lights' colors were switched, they were able to record a remarkable variety of behaviors, and "rules"—demonstrating the complexity, and individuality, of bees' perceptive faculties. In the paper, they recorded their patterns in colored pencil.
It wasn't a groundbreaking study, and the paper was written without statistical analysis or reference to past literature. But the science is sound (and the writing is charming). Lotto submitted the study to Nature, Science, and Current Biology, all of which passed thanks to the, uh, unorthodox writing and lack of references. But after consulting five independent experts—only one of whom "questioned its scientific merit"—Lotto won over Biology Letters editor Chris Frith, who then asked adult neuroscientists Larry Maloney and Natalie Hempel to write a commentary that would accompany the paper in publication.
The paper is theoretically available to the public for free until 2011, but the link doesn't work yet. You can read more about the "Blackawton Bees," and Lotto's other projects, here. Here's a video about i, scientist: