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Beeing enriching

One of the irresistible areas of Nature’s Neighborhood is the (much) larger-than-life beehive that encourages young visitors to climb, explore and “be bees.” Nestled within this interactive play area is a real honey bee hive, complete with a speaker so kids can hear the hum of bees at work. This is more than a fun play site, though; it’s a focal point for conservation education. As bees worldwide fight for survival, educating the public about their value and plight is part of the Zoo’s mission.


When the hive is restocked, the queen bee and her escorts are transferred first. Mitch Magdich jokes, “Here she is; we built a little throne for her.”
Photo: Andi Norman

The smoker distracts the bees from stinging and encourages them to focus on eating.
Photo: Andi Norman

Raw honeycombs await their “second life” as nutritious enrichment objects for the Zoo’s animals.
Photo: Kandace York


Periodically, the Zoo's hive needs to be restocked with new bees. This is a process that the team at Nature’s Neighborhood completes with care and caution. It involves paying special attention to two big factors: low stress to the bees and low risk to the humans helping them.

Pointed perspectives

The bees don’t know they’re part of an important education and outreach effort. From their viewpoint, being transported and then – even gently -- shaken out into a new place is a massive attack against their community.

Their instinct, of course, is to defend themselves against their “invaders.” This is something no one wants; besides the dangers of being stung, each sting is a bee fatality, and bees are too precious to risk.

To encourage the bees to think less about stinging and more about eating, the Nature’s Neighborhood team takes a few precautions.

First, the restocking is scheduled for a time when the weather is warm and sunny (prime eating temperatures). Second, a mister bottle sprays them lightly with sugar water which encourages them to grab a tasty snack rather than focus on the humans handling them. Third, a smoker tricks them into reacting to an apparent “forest fire” and sends them into a feeding frenzy (eating honey to save their hive).

Just in case any rogue bees escape all these precautions and try to sting someone anyhow, everyone involved wears protective suits.


This story doesn’t end with the new bees.

When the team transferred new bees into the hive at Nature’s Neighborhood, they also removed the honeycombs from the old population.

What to do with 10 pounds of raw honey? Share it with the other animals at the Zoo, of course.

In the wild, many animals seek out honey. Besides being tasty, it’s nutritious and highly digestible. It also offers far-ranging health benefits.

But providing it in a Zoo environment is often cost-prohibitive. This is what makes the beehive at Nature’s Neighborhood so valuable; it educates visitors while providing a terrific, affordable product for the Zoo’s animals.

“The honey is made from what the bees collect on grounds,” Steve Oswanski, manager of Nature’s Neighborhood, explains. The Zoo's beautiful landscaping across the grounds is more than "just" pretty -- it provides resources the bees need to survive.

This year, Zoo staff shared the honeycombs with the gorillas, orangutans and sloth bear.

“Working with the Mammal department, we determined that the bear and primates would benefit from this item as enrichment,” Steve says. “The honey substituted some of their sweet/sugary fruits for the day.”

The value of the honeycombs lasts far beyond the animals’ initial discovery. “The novelty and strange texture of raw honeycomb keeps our animals ‘interested’ and engaged in their food for the day.”

Nature’s Neighborhood has a few more honeycombs set aside for future enrichment. And good news -- so far, the new bees are settling in well and already hard at work building their hive to make more honey.

story by Kandace York
April 19, 2012




A sloth bear stretches to reach honey while balancing on a log in the exhibit.
Photo: Kandace York


The Zoo's adult orangutans are curious but reserved about finding and eating the honey. The younger orangs are more enthusiastic (and, like many kids, a bit "messier").
Photo: Kandace York


Two of the Zoo's gorillas examine the honey-crested cardboard sheets that keepers scattered in the exhibits for them to discover and interact with.
Photo: Stacy Burhart


Banner photo, top of page: golden northern bumble bee (Bombus fervidus), by John Baker/creative commons license


For more information about any of the Zoo’s programs or services, please call 419.385.5721 or visit toledozoo.org.

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