This spring I’ve been teaching kids the importance of pollinators at various educational events. Last week at our Kanawha County 4-H camp, my students constructed a model flower and discussed pollination and pollinators (pictured). It has been interesting to see how these youngsters take in the information and even change their minds.
Even at the mention of bees, many children react in fear and horror because they have been taught to do so. Understandably, those with actual bee allergies have cause for alarm, but it seems that parents these days have instilled a phobia of bees in their children.
Heck (and unfortunately) sometimes these phobias lead to fear of being outdoors at all. (Sometimes when I do programs involving planting or soil, some children nearly refuse to participate for fear of getting dirty — one of the seven deadly sins of childhood).
This fear, as with many fears, is a learned behavior. Sure, most parents want their children to avoid the pain of a bee sting, and there are some that are truly, life-threateningly allergic, but that comes with teaching children how to behave if they see a bee — not recoiling in fear and loathing or even seeking to kill the bee. So it seems to me that there’s a long way to go to teach the public about the importance of bees and other pollinators.
When I start my pollinator activity with kids, I always ask them to name their favorite fruit or vegetable. As we go around the circle, you’ll hear lots of variety, with a few common items repeated — strawberries, watermelons, carrots, peaches and so on. I’ll go beyond that and ask for favorite foods — pizza, spaghetti and tacos usually top the list.
I then reveal to them that 35 percent of the food we eat would not exist without pollinators, listing many of their favorites as we go along. As I list each item, you hear gasps of surprise when a favorite food is mentioned, getting louder until there are collective groans of terror when you mention foods like pizza or tacos.
Aside from the food we eat, many of the plants that fill the planet, from forests to meadows full of flowers, would not exist without a pollinator somewhere. Pollinators are important for our life here on earth.
So just what is a pollinator? Most people know that honeybees and butterflies are pollinators, as are hummingbirds. But there are others — beetles, flies, moths, bats and even all of those other bees, some of which cause us problems.
Those carpenter bees that drill holes in your deck or siding — pollinators. Those tiny sweat bees that seem to hurt worse than other stings — pollinators. Those giant bumblebees that look like they defy the laws of aerodynamics — pollinators.
In the end, I tell kids to respect pollinators — don’t try to hurt the bees, just be quiet and let them pass, they’re less likely to sting you if you don’t try to hurt them first. We also talk about the difference between wasps (including yellow jackets) and bees (parents teach the children that there isn’t a difference). Wasps really aren’t effective pollinators (the ones that do feed at flowers do not have hairs on their bodies to collect pollen like bees do) and they are territorial (they’ll sting you just for getting to close to their nest).
Next, I tell them to plant a variety of flowers at home to feed the pollinators. It really is that simple.
Many of our pollinators have been in decline during recent years for several different reasons. Some of it is due to weather and loss of habitat. Some could be pesticide. There are also diseases and pests that affect many of our pollinators.
The issue is complex, and there isn’t an easy answer. That’s why I tell people the best thing you can do is plant flowers to feed the pollinators.
There are some really good resources offered by the Pollinator Partnership for folks wanting to plant for pollinators. They have a Bee Smart pollinator garden app that you can use when buying flowers at the store (available on both Apple and Android) and offer lengthy guides to plants for each specific region based on zip code.
In general, bees like flowers where they can land and feed on both pollen and nectar. Preferred colors are blue, purple, white and yellow (they aren’t attracted to red).
Hummingbirds prefer trumpet-like flowers where they can sip nectars with their long beaks. Their preferred color is scarlet or red, with some other bright colors such as orange.
Butterflies also prefer bright colors, including red, orange, white and purple. You also have to keep in mind that many butterfly larvae feed on certain plants, so having those in the garden will be beneficial as well.
According to the pollinator partnership, the following list of plants will grow in most places and will feed a wide variety of pollinators. It is a good list for general gardening (see the app or the guide for more specific plants): lavender, rosemary, oregano, sage, catnip, Echinacea (coneflower), sunflowers, redbuds, Penstemon, Lamb’s Ears, Verbena, Phacelia, asters, Black-eyed Susans and yarrow.
These simple additions can help feed a multitude of hungry pollinators. Here’s hoping that you’ll set out the pollinator buffet and join the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge.