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Bee pheromone molecules

Students smell bottles containing bee pheromone (signalling) molecules. They smell like bananas, lemon, blue cheese, fruit or nothing to us. Students can match the molecule pictures on the smell bottles with the pictures in the booklet/on the card to discover what each smell means to a bee.
Science content (2016 curriculum): 
Biology: Features, Adaptations of Living Things (K, 1, 3, 7)
Biology: Sensing, Organ Systems (4, 5, 6)
Chemistry: Atoms, Molecules (3-7)
Lessons activity is in: 
  • 4 Squeeze Smell Bottles/50ml tubes with tissue stuffed in the bottom, containing the different smells:
  • few drops lemon essence, containing the molecule citral
  • gorgonzola or other stinky cheese wrapped in tissue, containing the molecule 2-heptanone (heptan-2-one)
  • few drops banana essence, containing the molecule isoamyl acetate (isopentyl acetate)
  • (one bottle is empty)

Bees can talk to each other with smelly molecules, called pheromones. (Molecules are tiny particles that make
up everything around us, including things that we can't see, like smells.)

Smell some bee pheromone molecules and find out what they mean to a bee.
Squeeze and sniff each of the bottles. Each bottle contains one kind of bee pheromone molecule. What does the smell of each molecule make you think of? What do other people in your group smell?

When a bee smells these same molecules it thinks of something quite different than you.
Match the labels on each bottle with the drawings and find out what each of these molecules means to a bee.

This might smell like bananas to you (banana smell), but to a bee it means war. This molecule signals bees to attack an intruder.
This molecule says it's moving day to a bee (lemon smell). Bees smelling this molecule swarm and move to a new hive
Feel alarmed when you smell this? A bee would (cheesy smell). Guard bees release this molecule to call for help when there is an intruder.
Although we humans can't smell this molecule (empty bottle), it is a perfume for bees. Queen bees release this molecule to attract males.

[It may seem strange that other animals communicate with smell molecules. We mostly use our other senses to communicate.
Many creatures communicate with smell molecules. Have you seen these? Dogs smell pheromone molecules left by another dog. The pheromone molecules mark territories. Ants leave pheromone molecules for each other to show the way to food.]


Tested with family groups of all adult and child ages.

Grades taught: 
Gr K
Gr 1
Gr 2
Gr 3
Gr 4
Gr 5
Gr 6
Gr 7
Self guided
Teaching site: 
New York Hall of Science
After School Program at Elementary schools in New York City
Activity originally developed and delivered: 

New York Hall of Science. Image created at New York Hall of Science.