Vera and I stand in my butterfly garden. Bees and butterflies flit from flower to flower, avidly sipping nectar. The Joe Pye Weed is in full bloom, tall billows of pink waving in the breeze.
Today is the Great Georgia Pollinator Census [Aug. 21-22]. Vera and I wait for the O’Dell family from down the street. Like thousands of other citizen scientists around the state, today we will watch a flower for precisely 15 minutes and count the number of pollinators who visit, submitting our results online to be used for research and conservation efforts.
The O’Dells come trooping down the hill – Britten, Stephanie, and their three sons and daughter, ranging in age from 10 to 4. Molly, the youngest, is wide-eyed in a rainbow sherbet striped dress.
I hand out tally sheets and pens, and explain the drill. Review the pollinator categories, make a mark for every pollinator. Don’t move aggressively or suddenly, and the bees will not bother you at all.
We wait, anticipating – what will we see?!
Butterfly Garden for Learning and Adventure
Splitting into three teams, we start the timer. Britten pairs with his oldest son, Peyton, Stephanie with Jack and Sam. Clinging to Stephanie’s legs is little Molly, impatiently pushing aside the tall flower stems around her.
Vera and I begin counting at our flower. A large carpenter bee: Vera makes a mark. A big ant, then another, running down the flower stem. A little green sweat bee! A bright yellow swallowtail, fanning his wings as he drinks. Three huge carpenter bees crowded on one flowerhead. A buckeye butterfly, glowing eyespots on his wings. Finally, a fierce-looking Scoliid wasp, wings shimmering iridescent blue, ignoring us as he sips steadily.
Surrounded by insects with stingers, we stand and count unharmed. In 20 years, I’ve gardened for hundreds of hours and have never once been stung.
Fifteen minutes – time’s up! We add up the tally marks and gather the sheets to enter the data online later. Vera and I counted 29 pollinators total – butterflies and bees, ants, flies and wasps.
The O’Dells get ready to leave. Stephanie has just begun to home school all of them, so I invite them to visit the backyard whenever they want – to consider it their private biology lab.
Vera and I remain. I have an idea. “Hey, do you want to pet a bee? I heard you can pet big carpenter bees when they’re feeding – and they don’t even care!”
Vera is game. I go first. Carefully, I reach my finger out to a nearby bee and … lightly stroke its fuzzy back. Unconcerned, the bee continues to feed, literally not showing an ounce of alarm. Now it’s Vera’s turn – slowly, she extends her finger – and touches the bee’s fuzzy midsection. She’s done it!
Vera and I high five, impressed with our experiment. Another successful backyard adventure.
Sharing a Hopeful Message About Nature with Children
Children receive many scary messages about nature – either that we are destroying it, or, alternatively, that we are in constant danger from it: bacteria in the dirt, snakes just beyond the lawn, bugs poised to bite or sting. Most children spend little time exploring outside, and are instead shepherded from one over-landscaped outdoor spot to another in adult-organized activities. It is no wonder if they form the idea that nature is found only in outdoor science centers or distant national parks, and not right under our noses.
I am hopeful that in sharing this little garden with these children, they leave with a trickle of interest, a picture of how a small backyard can shelter tiny fellow creatures when restored with native plants and flowers.
BioBlitz in the Park
The Parks for Pollinators BioBlitz is an annual national campaign through local parks and recreation agencies to raise awareness and community involvement in the pollinator crisis. A local event was held Sept. 5 at Dupree Park. Community members used an app to take pictures of plants, insects and animals to see what wildlife was present in the park on the day of the event.
Pollinators are a vital component of our ecosystem, and an essential link to the world’s food supply. According to the White House’s Pollinators Health Task Force, over the last 30 years, the United States has experienced a steady decline of pollinators (such as bees, bats and butterflies) at an alarming rate of 30% annually. (www.inaturalist.org)
Identifying local pollinators and what plants may be supporting them is key to understanding how to protect them. Through citizen science events like a BioBlitz, community members and parks agencies can work together to document, analyze and protect local pollinators.