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Transcript for "Expedition Panama"

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With more than 1,000 species of flowering plants to choose from, bees in a tropical rain forest live in paradise. With so many choices, how do they tell the bees back at the hive where a particular food is? STRI's resident bee expert David Roubik has made some remarkable discoveries about Panama's stingless bees. Using a special "bee code," bees can tell other bees exactly where nectar is located -- even when the food source is at the top of a 120-foot tower.

Curriculum Links
Activity: Insects Rule!



social insects


scientific process

animal communication,


Using the sun as a compass, our familiar honeybees "talk" in a dance language to communicate the direction and distance of flowers to other bees.

Tropical stingless bees dance and also use a complex system of pulses to tell the other bees exactly where to find food. What scientists didn't know was how accurately the bees could pinpoint and direct other bees to the food. STRI scientist David Roubik and Cornell student James Nieh set up an experiment to find out. The experiment demonstrates the scientific process in action. After you catch or observe some insects (see the activities that follow), brainstorm a theory about insects and how to test it.

Entomologists, scientists who study insects, use several types of trap to collect insects so they can identify them later in the lab. We don't recommend capturing and numbering bees, even stingless ones, the way the scientists do on Frontiers. Instead, you can use some tried and true methods of trapping insects right in your own yard. By collecting insects from various locations where you live, you can get an idea just how diverse life on Earth can be.


Learn about biodiversity by collecting insects from different sites.

  • black light or flashlight
  • white sheet
  • baby food or other small jar
  • fruit or other insect bait
  • funnel

Use the following collection techniques to sample insects from a variety of habitats. Standardize your techniques by collecting at a specific time and for a set amount of time. Be careful if you handle the insects, as some can sting, bite or pinch.
  1. In this trap, place a piece of bait (a piece of fruit is good) at the bottom of a small jar. Place a funnel in the opening. Tape the funnel to the jar. Try setting the jar at different heights in trees as well as burying it with the funnel flush with the ground to sample insects from different habitats. How might you design experiments to test if insects are attracted to flower color or flower nectar?

  2. Set up a simple insect trap with an ultraviolet "black" light (this wavelength is especially attractive to insects) and a white sheet. (You could use a flashlight instead of the black light.) Shine the light on the sheet. This way, the insects have a place to land and you can identify and count the insects that visit your site without having to capture and kill them. Use a field guide to identify species.

    (Note: Some camping lights use black light. If you use any electric light outdoors, be sure to follow appropriate safety considerations.)

  1. Can you think of and design other traps that might capture insects for study?

  2. Why do you think height is an important issue in the tropics?

  3. At any given time, there are probably 10 quintillion insects on Earth. And they have been around for more than 400 million years, making them one of the most successful life forms on earth. Hymenoptera, the order that bees, ants and wasps belong to, is the most successful group of all. Why do you think this is so, and what are some of the adaptations that explain insects' success?

  4. Honeybees are in trouble in the U.S. See "Bee Blight" in the June 1997 issue of Scientific American. Have honeybees in your region been affected? For more about honeybee talk, see "The Sensory Basis of the Honeybee's Dance Language" in the June 1994 issue.


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