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Discovering the Wondrous World of Pollinators

Posted by Andrea Estey
Education Communications Manager

A mining bee on a highbush blueberry flower
A mining bee on a highbush blueberry flower in Burlington, Vermont. (Photo: Leslie Spencer)

Take a guess: How many species of native bees live in Vermont?

Did you guess 30? 100?

As of this writing, there are 356 species of native bees in Vermont! Often, when people think of bees, images of honey, hives, and someone in a big white beekeeping suit come to mind. While honey bees are important crop pollinators, they are domesticated, and not native to the U.S. There is a diverse world of native bees right under our noses! Many of these native bees are solitary; in other words, they don’t live in hives, and they don’t produce honey. And the world of pollinator insects is bigger than bees; it includes wasps, butterflies, beetles, and hover flies, too. 

With so much to know, where to begin?

Noticing pollinator insects, says ecologist Leslie Spencer, is the beginning. “You don’t need to know every species’ name to appreciate them,” she explains. Leslie, who is a researcher with the Gund Institute at UVM, studies wild bees in farmscapes, which means, in a nutshell, “I’m thinking about patterns and processes on these diverse landscapes, and how we can better manage and design these spaces for pollinators.” (She is currently doing her research on blueberry farms in Vermont.)

Leslie joined our Immersion in Education for Sustainability workshop last summer, and she offered these tips for educators on introducing students to pollinators and building a lifelong appreciation for pollinators’ important role in our world.

Two women look closely at a bee in a vial in an outdoor summer garden
Leslie (right) visited Shelburne Farms’ Market Garden last summer for a pollinator safari. (Video: Andrea Estey)

Go on a Pollinator Safari

An entry point for appreciation can be what Leslie calls a “pollinator safari,” a more creative name for a field walk.

Venture outside in May–October when the temperature is 60 degrees or above. For best results, pick a day with sunshine, or at least partial sunshine, and low wind. These are days when pollinators are most likely to be active in the northeast. “However, bumblebees are the hardiest and will likely still be out on chilly, even slightly rainy, days,” explains Leslie. 

Head to your school garden or a nearby natural area—anywhere with flowers in bloom—to watch and become familiar with your local pollinators. “Encourage your students to notice: What colors does each insect have? What patterns?” says Leslie. Part of this safari should also involve looking at the flowers these pollinators prefer and noticing plants’ various colors, sizes, and shapes.

This safari can be simple or sophisticated, depending on students’ ages. To support learning, Leslie recommends having illustrated field guides in hand specific to your area; for northeast educators, she recommends these free guides from the Tufts Pollinator Initiative. Seek by iNaturalist, a free, kid-friendly app, is another resource that helps with IDing all sorts of creatures. For older kids, sketching in a field notebook can reinforce close observation.

A large bee sits on a finger
A male bumblebee on Leslie’s finger. Fun fact: males don’t sting! (Photo: Leslie Spencer)

Bees and other flying insects, even those that don’t sting, can be scary for kids (and adults!). “There’s always at least one person in a group that's afraid of stings. As long as they are not allergic, I like to push them out of their comfort zone a bit,” says Leslie. “I equate a bee on a flower to me at snack time. I ask them, ‘Are you happy at snack time?’ The answer is usually, yes! I then explain that bees are just visiting a flower for snack time—they are at a flower in search of nectar for flight fuel and pollen to bring back to their young. Bees are so preoccupied with snacking, that the last thing on their mind is stinging you.”

Some tools that can help support safe yet close observations: a non-harmful, catch-and-release bug vacuum (“great for little kids especially,” says Leslie), or bug nets and collection vials. A crucial part of this activity, of course, is interacting with insects, flowers, and the more-than-human world with reverence and respect. Encourage students to make their observations and release their pollinator friends back into the wild as quickly as possible. Build up to these interactions by doing “sit spots” near pollinators: Invite each student to spread out in the garden for several minutes of quiet observation, without disturbing or touching flying critters.

A large bee in a collection vial
Collection vials are a great tool to support safe, close observations. (Photo: Leslie Spencer)

Talk About Why Pollinators Matter

Talk with your students about why we need pollinators. One reason pollinators are so important: They are a critical link in our food system. Most of our food comes from flowering plants, and more than one-third of human food crops need pollinators to reproduce. Fruits, vegetables, even chocolate and coffee all need pollinators. Additionally, crop pollination by wild bees can increase crop yield and even fruit quality! (See one such story from UVM researchers.)

Pollinators are under threat due to a combination of factors, including climate change, pesticides, habitat loss, invasive species, and disease. Growing a native, chemical-free pollinator garden with your students can be empowering, tying into several of the Big Ideas of Sustainability, including cycles, interdependence, and systems.

To reinforce the integral role of pollinators in our food system, try these activities for young learners: Pollination Parade and Flower Power from Project Seasons.

Two people look closely and point at flowers in a summer garden
Photo: Andrea Estey

Moving from Wonder to Action

If you’re curious how to channel this wonder into supporting pollinators, Leslie says one way to increase the number of pollinators in your area is by making conscious choices on what you plant: Focus on native species to your area. It can be so rewarding for people of all ages to help pollinators–and so joyful to watch them flit through your garden. 

Creating a welcoming slice of habitat can be as big as a school garden or as small as a few containers! Here are her tips.

  • First, get to know your site. Are the soils sandy or clay? Dry or moist? Sunny or shady?
  • Second, select plants that will thrive in your place. Choose a variety–think different colors, shapes, fragrances, and heights. You want something blooming the entire growing season—from when the ground thaws to when the frost falls. Different bees are active at different times of the year, so you want to ensure they have pollen and nectar resources throughout the growing season.
  • Remember, it’s bigger than “Save the Bees!” Many insects, and even some birds and mammals, are pollinators. And all kinds of plants attract hungry bees and butterflies that are seeking nectar and pollen treats, even “weeds” that you may not actively plant, like Queen Anne’s Lace.
  • Every garden counts! You don’t have to go big to help pollinators. We each have the ability to make a difference.

Leslie works with the Burlington, Vermont-based group Grow Wild, which is focused on planting natives for pollinators. Check out the resources they’ve compiled at

For more on native bees, watch this TEDTalk by Tufts pollinator researcher Nicholas Dorian, “We’ve Saving the Wrong Bees.”

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