‘Me & My Bee’ – an energetic romp through a huge issue, with some big problems
Reviewed by Mim, LCWO Leadl Programme Manager, climate communicator, mother of two and founder of Kids’ Climate Action Network (KidsCAN, http://kidsclimateaction.org/)
This weekend, I took my daughters, aged 4 (and ¾!) and 10, to watch ThisEgg & Oxford Playhouse’s 45-minute play ‘Me & My Bee’, in Florence Park. This is one of three outdoor stops the play is making this summer, complete with its funky tent and powerful sound system (the last being 2 daily performances a day – Tuesday through Sunday – this week at Blenheim Palace).
The play tells the story of a bee who loves, then loses a beautiful flower. It has some really good things going for it (cast, songs, energy, a buzzing tour through types of bee, imagination-catching facts and more), plus it is free, which is always a good thing. However, whilst we enjoyed it, it has some issues which need thinking through, to make it safer and more empowering for children. Here is what I thought worked well and what needs to be done better.
The good stuff:
Cast and characters. A fab team of three young actors on stage with oodles of energy, charisma and chemistry, playing three endearing characters. ‘Zephie’ is the bossy ‘Bee Party leader’ with a wonderful voice; ‘Hettie’ an eager-to-learn second-in-command, who makes a lovely flower in a great pink costume; and ‘Tom’ the confused, vulnerable and loveable bee.
Fun. A good dollop of bee-based slapstick, fun games like ‘pin the sting on the bee’. Show me a child, or adult for that matter, who doesn’t love a blindfolded person trying to stick something to a constantly moving and wiggling bottom.
Music. Cracking, loud music, some songs we know, and some we don’t. The solitary bee song was particularly good.
Audience participation. Each attendee gets a slip of paper at the start with the name of a species of bee (e.g. wool carder bee), so they can participate in a bee roll call. My ten-year-old said she had not realised there were different types (beyond ‘queen’ and ‘worker’) before. The audience also tried (and failed) to flap our wings at 200 times a second.
Facts. Delivered neatly at a high pace that was completely lost on younger audience members, but a great chance to find out more for the older ones. We learnt that bees fly at 25 km/hour, flap their wings 200 times a second, live an average of 6 weeks and fly 500 miles in their lifetime (cue enjoyable Proclaimers singsong at this point in the show)… Also, I did not know that male bees don’t sting. This particular fact caught my ten-year-old’s imagination and she said she liked bees more as a result.
Explanation of some important words. The cast translated some important words, for example “misconception means mistake”. However, there were still a lot of complex ideas and long words, which flew by at the speed of a bee.
Props and costumes. Funky costumes (had me googling ‘high vis fashion bomber jacket’ without success – team, if you are reading this, I’d love one! Apparently I missed the memo that high vis is fashion gold). Props were simple but effective, the bee experiencing abdominal rupture after a sting particularly so, eliciting sounds of disgust from the audience. (Photos here).
Things to take home. Everyone got a nice bee sticker and a packet of seeds to take away. What’s not to love? Plus, through the Playhouse website, I discovered a nice and simple show website (https://meandmybee.co.uk), which has downloads and games to print, though this was not mentioned during the show itself.
Covid safety. Good space under the canopy for groups to be seated at a safe distance and still fully enjoy the show, in contrast to the close seating we experienced at a completely different play and venue on a different night last week.
The less good:
Largely lost on smaller kids. Things moved so fast, and the cast used complex language, leaving smaller audience members behind. This morning, as my four-year-old was negotiating the perils of bee-laden lavender falling across the garden path, she said “I wish bees were DEAD”. She seemed to have taken near zero from the play, and she is a child who learns easily. Smalls did enjoy the slapstick and music, but there were a lot of befuddled faces – but thinking about the next point, that was probably a very good thing…
It failed to look after children’s mental health.
“Imagine us dying out; that’s a real possibility if you don’t look after bees”
Ah, ‘extinction chat’. I really hate it when the possible end of the entire human race is dropped into entertainment for a young audience. In this particular case, given the pace and quick return to jolly singing and dancing, most children probably didn’t even notice – my four-year-old certainly didn’t, though I suspect the older one did, and another mother witnessed her six-year-old’s eyes widened in shock. If any did, that’s a serious problem. Why? Possible extinction is a deeply distressing and emotionally challenging concept for an adult, let alone a child. It is not the subject for a ‘family comedy’, as this is described in its marketing. It is likely to cause all manner of emotions, fear and anxiety being at the top of the list. And if you really are going to introduce a young person to something like the death of their species, you need to do it really, really carefully. Over the last four years, I have read a lot about child psychology and the communication of climate change, in my quest to learn how best to communicate with children regarding the environmental crises we face. I have learned that two things need to be in place:
- The opportunity to explore feelings and process scary information with an understanding adult
- Clear access to realistic, effective and achievable actions to mitigate anxiety
This production guaranteed neither.
First of all, when doing a whistle-stop and frankly overwhelming tour through the human-created threats to bee life, very little related to things children have power over or can even understand. Donald Trump punching a bee? That got a laugh, but what’s it going to mean to most children? My ten-year-old had no idea, and she is pretty ‘up’ on Trump. Perhaps this section (like the extinction chat bit) was aimed more at the adult spectators than the children, so in a sense, aiming to tell adults important information by stealth. That said, most things on the list were things that even adults have very little power to change on an individual level e.g., overdevelopment. And if this is a family-friendly play, with children its primary target audience as school visit and publicity suggest, it all needs to all be done in a child-friendly way.
Children have very little power to change things in our society. As psychotherapist and climate communicator specialist Ro Randall says,
‘[…] children have very little power. Of all the sections of society who might make an impact on climate change, they have the least influence, the least agency, the least leverage. There is a real risk of raising levels of anxiety amongst children that will not only cause distress in the immediate term but will in the long-term lead to those children turning against the environmental causes we hoped they might espouse.’
Providing a list of things humans (namely adults, big business, governments etc – systemic things) are doing wrong could cause what child eco-anxiety expert Caroline Hickman describes as ‘double distress’: there is the distress caused by the damage to bees in the first place, and then a second layer of distress caused by the lack of effective action by adults to sort out the problem.
Second, in forty-five minutes of performance, approximately one minute was devoted to what children can do to help bees, right at the end of the show: plant seeds. Throughout, there was repeated mention of joining some sort of fictitious pro-bee political party. The audience was even asked to put their hands up if they would like to join. But when it came to it, that did not really exist.
A list of worthwhile actions does exist on the website (e.g. ‘build a bee hotel’, ‘leave out snacks for the bees’ etc), but as I said, I discovered the website by chance, and it was not mentioned at the performance.
Third, if you are going to mention the death of the entire human race – and I don’t believe this should be a given, as I would argue urgency and importance can still be communicated to a young audience without going into worst-case scenario territory – then there needs to be some time given over to exploring some of the emotions that might go with hearing this and actually taking it in, which older children are quite capable of doing. To be fair, one of the cast did mention feeling sad, but again, this was lost in a speedy return to singing and dancing. The line, “if we’re not worried, we should be”, particularly rankled. A March 2020 BBC survey of 2000 8- to 16-year-olds found that nearly three quarters (73%) are worried about the state of the planet, with more than one in five (22%) feeling ‘very worried’ and a similar proportion saying climate anxiety has affected their sleeping and eating habits. One in five children reported having nightmares about climate change. Lack of concern amongst the young is not the problem. Telling anyone how they should feel about anything is inappropriate, especially if the suggestion is to feel bad.
What the production team could do better
Leave extinction out of it. The play’s creators should aim to steer clear of tabloid-style sensationalism. This is not to pretend extinction is not a serious risk, but urgency can be communicated without telling children we might all die. Plus, please remove the ‘save the world’ language from the games on the website; let’s make sure the kids know the burden of change is not on their tiny shoulders.
Make space for feelings. As psychotherapist Jo McAndrews says, “safety comes not in hiding stuff, but in being accompanied”. To do this, there could be a pause in proceedings for a few minutes of chatter about what we might all be feeling, and how it is ok to be feeling all sorts of things. In addition, children should be told they can talk to adults if they need to (straight after, or at a later date; whenever they feel they need to). Access to well-resourced adults who are able to have such conversations with these children after the play should not be assumed. The bee-searching-for-its-flower-love-who-has-been-killed-by-a-building narrative is an upsetting one. I would like to see both Zephy and Hettie, with their different personalities, explore a few of the different feelings they are going through – and explain how they might look for support from others (e.g. parents, carers, teachers…) if they need it. Consideration of the adults in the tent would also be great – providing them with a leaflet about where they can get information and support if they need it would be a good idea. I know I felt anxious too!
Provide a selection of accessible and realistic actions for all levels. It is not enough to end the play with one action and a packet of seeds, especially when the causes of bee decline got a lot of time. Sure, the free packet of seeds are a nice touch, but why stop so short? Taking a few more minutes to dance their way through a few other things children could do would be fab, and at the very least, highlight the action sheet on the website and/or linking up to well established existing campaigns and sources of information (e.g. Friends of the Earth’s ‘Bees: fun facts and activities for children’).
What we as the parents and carers of children who saw the play can do to ensure they are ‘accompanied’
Talk to children about it. Ask questions. Find out what they did and didn’t understand. Check if anything was confusing and needs clarification. And most important: talk about your feelings and let them talk about theirs.
Facilitate engagement and foster love. Look up some realistic, bee-friendly activities (there are lots online) and continue to help your child engage with and enjoy the natural world, bees and all.
This play has a lot going for it. However, it could be much better and safer for its young audience members with a few tweaks. We need to do all we can to avoid damaging children with well-intentioned but badly packaged information. I hope those involved in its production get a chance to read this, and can hear it with an open heart and mind: what you are doing is good in many ways, but you could make it much better.
 A fellow mum who took her kids did sigh and say she needs to clear a patch in her garden as her kids keep being given seeds!
 She also asked me if bees make jam as well as honey, which I enjoyed. And a friend just pointed out in conversation that of course bees essential do make jam, as there wouldn’t be fruit without them.
 ‘Should we be working with children about climate change?’, Ro Randall March 23 2011 https://rorandall.org/2011/03/23/should-we-be-working-with-children-about-climate-change/
 ‘For children, whilst they can feel very anxious and upset about environmental destruction, what makes this even more painful, unacceptable and frustrating is the fact that the people with the power to do something about this are failing to act (adults, governments, big business, fossil fuel companies, anyone who has a vote). This can be experienced as a betrayal, abandonment and lack of care for the impact of climate change on children. And so there is a double distress, that towards the planet and then the other towards the failure of others to act to protect children’s futures.’ Guidance on Effective Climate Change Communication with Children, a guide commissioned by Globe International and prepared by Caroline Hickman for the Schools Summit of London Climate Action Week 2021.
 McAndrews, 2019. ‘Primary & Early Years teacher training with Jo McAndrews – Supporting children in the face of ecological crisis’, workshop 12 November 2019. More info: https://www.lowcarbonwestoxford.org.uk/event/primary-ey-teacher-training-with-jo-mcandrews-supporting-children-in-the-face-of-ecological-crisis/