What is a pollinator?
Does it have something to do with flowers? Yes. Bees? Correct! But there is so much more to pollinators than just bees buzzing around flowers each spring. Although 88% of pollination is done by honey bees, 20% of Minnesota plants are pollinated by native species like mason bees and the tri-colored bumble bee. In fact there are more than 3,500 species of native pollinators, which are key to increasing soybean and apple crop yields. “One out of every three bites of food we eat exists because of pollinators,” said Elaine Evans, assistant Extension professor and researcher at the University of Minnesota’s Bee Lab.
A group of youth from southern Minnesota took on the challenge of advocating for the pollinators of Minnesota. In partnership with Corteva Agriscience, 4-H is supporting these youth to build their own knowledge, increase habitat biodiversity and educate Minnesota youth on the importance of pollination. They are the inaugural members of the 4-H Pollinator Ambassador Program.
Ensuring fertile soil
Just as COVID-19 was shutting down our state, nation and world, the 4-H Pollinator Ambassadors were opening up and getting to work! A team of youth development Extension educators consisting of Dianna Kennedy, Randi Schwartz, Michelle Klinkner, Patrick Jirik and Michael Compton launched the program in February with the help of Corteva’s Brian Merten. “Our goal is to teach youth the importance of pollinators and the various ways to sustain them,” said Jirik. “And we want to be sure youth could apply what they learn in a real world setting, like public presentations or a creative project.”
The ambassadors, ranging in age from 11-17 years old, meet monthly in person and virtually to connect with professionals whose work is connected to pollinators in the field. Karen Wright, a University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardener, was one of those professionals. She taught a session on native plant restoration surrounding Lake Washington and how such efforts can positively impact both water quality and pollinator habitat.
In addition to shared monthly educational sessions, youth are using gardening kits to deepen their learning and are each working on independent projects that will positively affect pollinators in their part of the state.
Planting the seeds
17-year-old Grace Moeller from Blue Earth County is one of the 4-H Pollinator Ambassadors. Her motivation to join was to better understand the commercial beekeeping effort located on her family’s land. “There are many species of bees out there and important information to learn about them, said Grace. “For instance, did you know that the bumble bee is endangered? The fuzz on their bodies overheats them due to climate change making it too hot for survival.” Grace has learned so much as an ambassador that she’s taking her learning on the road (so-to-speak). In partnership with Evans from the Bee Lab, she’s developing a presentation for youth on how climate change affects pollinators. The presentation will be delivered by South Central Service Cooperative and the Minnesota Board of Education.
11-year-old Chloe Johnson from Brown County took a different approach to get people of all ages involved in pollinator care. “It all started with a homework assignment on the bee population going down,” recalled Chloe. “I thought doing something to help the bees would be a fun 4-H project so I mentioned it to my club. They agreed and gave me $100 to create my houses.” The houses, affectionately known as Bee & Bees, are homemade bee hotels in gardens across the greater Sleepy Eye community. Her goal is to provide Mason Bees and other native pollinators more safe places to reproduce. With the help of her mom, Chloe uses a Facebook page to educate members of her community and invite them to host Bees & Bees for the spring and summer months.
Learning in bloom
The 4-H Pollinator Ambassadors have high ambitions for 2021. They will collaborate with Pheasants Forever to design and plant a three quarters of an acre pollinator habitat that will also serve as an outdoor classroom for youth and visitors. They will continue to work on their individual advocacy projects and eventually recruit the next crew of ambassadors.
This experience, like most 4-H programs, is about the project, but even more about the positive development of Minnesota young people. “We’re not just teaching youth the importance of pollinators, said Jirik. We are also providing youth the change to develop invaluable skills for their future careers. Goal setting, public speaking and project development is what our ambassadors are practicing every day.”
Learn more about how you can support pollinator health in your community.