Pollinator Pals in 2023
by Ethan Robison
Pollinator Pals Education Coordinator
2023 was the first full year of PPRV’s youth education program: Pollinator Pals. With the help of many volunteers, we have accomplished so much. For a brief rundown, check out our year-end report here.
In this article, you’ll find some of the highlights of Pollinator Pals over the past year. Since I am a sucker for organization, I’ve decided to break it up by seasons. As an added bonus, I’ll also throw in some pollinator facts along the way! These will also be organized by season, just for fun. Please take a moment to reflect on the past year of Pollinator Pals with me!
Winter: January-February 2023
Even while the baby bees and butterflies were sleeping amidst the fallen foliage, we were hard at work. Teaching during this time of year can often prove difficult due to the apparent lack of life outside, so the classes we did were all indoors. This didn’t stop us from pointing out that the winter landscape is actually littered with life - it’s just buried within “dead” plants or underneath the leaves.
During this time of year, pollinators are (for the most part) in their larva or pupa stage. Cavity nesting bees can be found in hollowed-out plant stems that may seem dead from the outside, but in truth are a cozy home for a growing pollinator. Butterflies will usually spend their winter underneath the leaves of fallen plants as a caterpillar or chrysalis, hence the popular “Leave the leaves” movement.
In our first class of the year, Kristina and I presented at Armadillo Technical Academy (now Armadillo Community Charter School), and taught two classes of students about native plants. This lesson focused on the amazing diversity of native plants in riparian ecosystems, and how pollinators depend on them not just for food, but for shelter as well. Even indoors, we managed to teach students the basics of Simple Random Sampling and using real-world surveying techniques to measure populations! Two of our Education Committee members, Sue and Sara, are adapting this lesson into a kit that will be available on our website!
Another class of this season was “Love Your Mason Bees”, where we ran a webinar on, well, Mason Bees! Kristina and I spoke about how you can create overwintering habitat for these spectacular builders, and how to provide food for the adults once they wake up.
Spring is (of course) the busiest time of year for us Pollinator-Educators. So to start things off, we held our biggest class of the year at Bellview Elementary School in Ashland.
In about 3 hours, we crammed in mini-lessons on native plants, gardening, flower biology, and pollinator anatomy. Intrepid members of the Education Committee, Sara, Kristina, Hannah, and Pete all ran stations, guiding kids through different outdoor activities. My favorite part of the day was showing students how to use a microscope, and seeing the world open up before their eyes.
The growing Pollinator Pals curriculum is aimed at 3rd - 5th graders because that tends to be an important time in the life of a student. At this point, they are seeing the world in new ways.
Similarly, the most important part in a Bumble Bee Queen’s life is early spring. During this season, the long-slumbering queens emerge from their overwintering site, and begin collecting pollen and nectar from the early blooming flowers. One such flower is Oregon Grape, our state flower here in Oregon. Next year, we plan on bringing students their own Oregon Grape plants so they can welcome the Bumble Bee Queens.
One of the biggest events of the year is Earth Day, when we have the chance to talk to hundreds of students. PPRV was invited to table at both SOU's Earth Day and Phoenix Industrial Studio's Earth Day celebrations. At both of these, our volunteers got into the groove talking with parents about the finer details of native-plant gardening, and then flipping around to teach kids all about our marvelous pollinators! This was the first major event where the Education Committee planned out activities and mini-lessons for kids. Check out our photo album from the SOU Earth Day event here to see kids and parents alike having fun with pollinator quizzes and games.
Early on in summer, we were invited to visit with the students at the Medford Montessori. Kristina read the book “ Am I Even a Bee?” by Felicity Muth. This story talks about how all bees are very different in some ways, but all alike in other ways.
While our program tends to focus on older students, we love to connect with kindergarten and pre-k students whenever we can. This is because environmental education is often focused on the negative impacts humans are having on the environment. However, we find it important to foster a sense of joy and wonder about the ecosystem. It’s difficult to care about the wonders of the world when your first introduction to them is all about how they’re disappearing and in danger! So while we find it important to teach people about how they can care for the pollinators in the world, we also think it’s important to teach people to care about them first.
Speaking of young kids, Summer is the time of year when pollinators of all kinds - bees, butterflies, flies, beetles, wasps, and even birds - are making babies! With bountiful pollen and nectar resources, pollinators are able to devote their time and energy towards collecting food and laying eggs. If their habitat is left undisturbed, some pollinators are able to put together their nests. Some do so underground, like Digger and Bumble Bees, or in tall trees/shrubs like hummingbirds or Mason Bees. Just like kids, pollinators need the room and resources to grow.
Towards the end of the season, we put on a class at the Jacksonville Community Center. We were elated to be joined by guest speakers, Lynn Kunstman and Dee Himes. Lynn ran an activity to show families the diverse native plants around the community center. Dee generously gave an entire presentation about how to take stunning pictures of insects with just your phone. And I explained how and why to use iNaturalist to identify and map the plants and pollinators you capture on our phone. These small events and lessons tend to create some of our most heartfelt relationships with the community.
As it cools down outside, we start moving a little bit slower. Just kidding. Fall is a pretty busy time of year for pollinators and for the Pollinator Pals.
Starting off strong, we had the privilege of creataing an exhibit for the Grants Pass Art Museum. Their concurrent theme of “Living in the Anthropocene” focused on the impacts of humans on the environment. Our corner of the Museum did show information on the decline of pollinators, but our main focus was on how humans can help fight against that trend.
With the help of volunteer Lexi Rogers, we built a model pollinator garden, showing off how you can create beautiful pollinator habitat all year long. That piece is still on display in our office. In addition to the exhibit, we ran an event where families got to build their own model pollinator gardens. Saving the native pollinators starts with learning, and these kids did just that! We can only hope that students of all ages take these lessons home, and someday work to adapt their own environments to be shared with native critters.
As I hinted at earlier, one way you can help the bees is by “leaving the leaves” and maintaining some undisturbed habitat for the creatures nesting out of sight. The fact that avoiding yard work is one of the best ways to support pollinators is one of my favorite things to tell people. Nesting sites is a major component of pollinator habitat, but food is also important. Late-blooming flowers are valuable assets to the cold resistant pollinators like flies. Even though your garden might slow down, there is still life going on, you just have to look close and be patient.
As we passed into the extra-rainy part of fall, we were thrilled to have the opportunity to teach at the beautiful The Crest at Willow-Witt. On a cold, rainy morning, Sam Inada (our new AmeriCorps member) and I introduced students to a bunch of bumble bees sleeping inside flowers in the garden. Bees (of all species) can't fly when it is too cold, usually below 45 degrees. Since male bumble bees don’t have nests to go to, they get to sleep in flowers! So the weather gave us the amazing opportunity to see about 8 bees peacefully awaiting the sun. Seeing everyone’s heart melt over sleeping bees was absolutely adorable.
Afterwards, students examined pollinators, seeds, and plant parts under the microscope, and then made seed balls in the barn. This class was a wonderful experience for us!
If you’re reading this blog shortly after we share it, then you can bet that we’re hard at work in the office, developing lesson plans, activities, kits, and events for 2024. The pollinators we love to look at are (for the most part) resting and growing, just like us.
Of course we’ve had a couple of classes and events, but for the most part, we are taking a step back to reflect on the past year, and plan for the future. Honestly, I can’t wait to show all of you some of the amazing things we have planned for 2024. We’re creating new materials, like a core pollinator-curriculum for elementary school students, but also looking back at the lessons and events we’ve done and thinking about how to improve them. Wish us luck!
I’ve certainly rambled on long enough, so I’ll make my ending brief.
There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that all of this progress wouldn’t have been nearly as successful without the ever-present help of our amazing Education Committee. Throughout this crazy year they have been consistently helpful by providing guidance, experience, know-how, and dedication. I would like to offer a sincere thank you to: Hannah Borgerson, Pete Gonzalves, Sam Inada, Sara Enriquez, and Sue Fthenakis, and of course, my boss, Kristina Lefever.
I also extend a heartfelt thank you to all of PPRV’s other volunteers, community partners, and funders - especially those who are partnering with us to make our Pollinator Pals program possible!
But none of this would be possible without the village PPRV has built up over the years, and personally, I have no idea what I would be doing besides this. So without further ado, our team here at PPRV wishes everyone a happy and safe holiday season! I can’t wait to see you next year!