Basic Botany and Microscopy for Young Beekeepers.

Daylight is just seeping into the sky at 05:30. By 6am a brief pink glow gives way to grey and another late summer day begins with uncertain weather ahead. Monday was glorious with hot sunshine, and all 9 colonies were working the Himalayan balsam. Tuesday was another kettle of fish with cold rain all day.

The robin is singing loudly again; claiming territory. More geese are coming south from Svalbard, and overnight temperatures are dropping to around 4 degrees Celsius. Badgers are foraging in the forest for sweet snacks and Connie’s family have rescued a bumble bee nest from attack and covered it with stones.

Bumble bee nest. Photo by Giles Ratcliffe.
Connie indicating the position so that I can find the nest myself. Photo by Giles Ratcliff.

Dissecting Flowers.

Beekeeping plans fell apart on Tuesday. Connie and I were to have checked if Queen Betty 2nd was laying eggs yet but the rain was relentless. Instead, we talked about pollen and nectar and their importance for bees. We opened up a couple of flowers to find pollen and nectaries.

I drew the basic picture of a flower showing the stamens and pollen- laden anthers with pollen. It showed the stigma and style leading down to the ovary and I explained briefly how pollination and fertilisation work to produce the fruit and seeds. Then the fun began.

Risk Assessment.

But first a word of warning about the sharp tools. Of course, I closely supervised Connie who is only 8. I told her that I didn’t want her cutting and hurting herself, adding that I would get into trouble too and we wouldn’t be able to do this sort of work again. She said “Oh no, you wouldn’t, Mummy would just say it was all my own fault”.

Connie was excited to taste the sweet nectar when she squeezed the crocosmia flower but I warned her never to go trying out different plants by herself. She already knew about poisonous plants such as nightshade and foxglove. She tells me that she washes her hands after touching foxgloves. What child has never picked foxglove flowers and stuck them on their fingers? Probably many who never get the chance to interact so closely with nature.

I grew up on a farm in the ’50s and wasn’t given sweeties very often so my friends and I used to suck the nectar out of sweet clover. Comparing notes with Carol from Caithness recently it was interesting to note that she did likewise, but in a later decade!

The Tools.

Connie’s sketched what she saw under magnification. Crocosmia top right.
A jeweller’s loupe gives magnification x10.

Connie fell about laughing about how large my eyes were when she looked at me through the head visor magnifier. This is a great tool for lots of things including grafting larvae in queen rearing operations.

Have you ever tried using the drawing tool? Not easy!

We identified the male stamens with pollen- filled anthers which Connie thought looked like slugs under the dissecting microscope. We found each female stigma and Connie was excited to see individual pollen grains near the openings.

Locating and slicing open the ovary.
The fertilised fruit (ovary) containing seeds.
Connie’s favourite pollen: fuchsia with viscous threads attached.


Microscopes open up a whole new world of fascination for all of us. I use a binocular compound microscope for looking at pollen or bee parts that require a high magnification from x 40 to x 1,000. For dissection, I use a stereo or dissecting microscope that gives a lesser magnification but a greater depth of view of the object allowing you to judge distance when using intricate tools.

Compound microscope.
Because I use microscopes often, I keep them out of their cases but they need protection. This cover’s made from an old skirt.
Dissecting microscope.
Homemade pollen slides.

How to Get Started.

Bob Maurer’s book is so informative and easy to understand that I highly recommend it. I bought my microscopes from Brunel but I telephoned them first for advice because I wasn’t sure how much to spend or what I really needed. Like cameras, the more you pay the better the quality. I chose the middle of the road with mine and am very happy with the quality.

Some of the Safe Edible Flowers.

Cornflower; dahlia; hibiscus; honeysuckle; magnolia; nasturtium; pansy; rose; scented geranium; cape jasmine; forget-me-not; sunflower; hollyhock; lilac; camellia; fuchsia; freesia; peony; alpine pinks.

Poisonous-The Top Ten of Several.

Daffodil; poppy; foxglove; oleander; clematis; bluebell; rhododendron; larkspur, hydrangea and Lilly of the valley.

Making Pollen Slides.

The next stage of our botany adventure will be making some pollen slides after school on another wet Tuesday.

8 thoughts on “Basic Botany and Microscopy for Young Beekeepers.”

  1. I’d really like to own a microscope one day, so that I can peek into the hidden world all around us. But also to check for nosema spores, and to identify pollen grains in my honey. Could your middle-of-the-road microscope do that? I’m curious, which model did you pick?

    I’m glad I stumbled across your blog, lots of interesting articles to read 🙂

    1. Welcome to Beelistener, Joakim. Thank you for subscribing. My compound microscope is the SP 40 and, yes, you can view nosema spores at x400 magnification.
      It can magnify x 1,000 using oil immersion. The dissecting stereo microscope is the BMX x10 &x30 rheostat click.

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