Kids & Nature Connections: Love those spring wildflowers? Thank a pollinator today!

Submitted on Fri, 03/24/2017 - 13:41

This article originally ran in The Wenatchee World in May 2017.

I think we can all agree that spring in our corner of the world is pretty special. Our fields of wildflowers and blooming orchards combined with green hillsides and snowy mountains make my heart sing every day. What a great place to raise children to love nature.

However, we don’t often thank our pollinators (the tiny animals who help many flowering plants reproduce) for their job in keeping those fields of wildflowers and orchards blooming. Your kids might ask, who are these little guys? How and why do they help our blooming plants? We’ll learn about this – as well as a few ways to experience them up close and even help them out.

How it works

Just like it takes a male and a female animal to make a new baby animal, it takes male and female plants to make a new plant. Many plants create flowers in order to make new plants. The male parts (the anther) and female parts (the pistil) are located on the flower and are shaped differently from each other. The anther is covered in pollen, which looks like dust or powder. That pollen needs to get to the pistil, which has eggs inside, to be able to form a seed.

These male and female parts can be on different flowers or on the same flower. Sometimes these flowers are far away from each other, and flowers can’t really get up and walk around. If a flower doesn’t get this pollen, it will wither away without producing seeds. We need seeds to create new plants. So how does that pollen from the anther get to the pistil of a faraway flower to form a seed?

What a challenge! Plants have solved this challenge in a few ways. Many plants need the help of animals. Flowers contain nectar (a sweet liquid) and the pollen itself as edible rewards for visiting the flower. When the animal visits the flower for this delicious food, it gets some of the pollen on its body. Then, when the animal visits another flower, some of that pollen from the first flower falls off. If the second flower is the same kind as the first, some of that pollen might fall on the pistil (remember, this is the female part) and combine with an egg inside to form a seed. This is called pollination. Phew!

The animals that do this work are called pollinators. We have many native pollinators, plus honeybees, which were introduced from Europe hundreds of years ago. When we think of pollinators, we often think of bees, butterflies and hummingbirds, but ants, flies, beetles, wasps, moths, bats, and many other animals can be pollinators too – even humans! Each flower is shaped to work best with specific pollinators, which is why we have flowers of all shapes, sizes and colors.

Exploring pollinators with kids

Go on a pollinator hunt! Take your nature journal out. Listen for the metallic zip of hummingbirds and then try to find out what flowers they visit. Look out for honeybee hives in orchards, which keep our fruit industry going. Go for a wildflower walk and take a close up look at a wildflower. Record what you see and where. What kinds of pollinators visit what kinds of flowers? Why do you think that is?

Go pollinator shopping. We need pollinators to grow much of the food we eat. Next time you’re at the grocery store, try to find food that doesn’t require a pollinator. Have your kids pick a food, then check the ingredients list and compare it to one of the many online lists of foods that require pollinators (try pollinator.org).

Create a pollinator garden – they’re beautiful as well as beneficial. Help your kids design and plant a section of your yard with plants that are beneficial for pollinators, or talk to your school about creating one there. There are plenty of resources online to help you choose plants and create the design – Xerces.org is a good place to start. Whatever you do, don’t use pesticides!