Planning for Pollinator Study: Best Practices in Lesson (and Garden) Design

Pollinators are all the rage in garden circles these days, and for good reason.  Not only do humans rely on pollinators for many delicious foods we eat (almonds, blueberries, and chocolate, to name a few), but bees, butterflies, birds, bats, and beetles also provide critical ecosystem services. Pollinators help maintain biodiversity by supporting plants to carry out their reproductive function.

Even Cheerios brand cereal has jumped on the “Save the Bees” bandwagon (albeit with some controversial success, according to this article). With the barrage of information, it can be difficult to know where to start when planning for pollinator study.  Good garden design and good lesson design go hand-in-hand. Here are a few best practices to support pollinator study in your school garden.

Lead with grade-level standards. Whether your aim is to connect to literacy, math, science, agriculture, economics, or geography, having a few focused standards will make pollinator study more manageable. Some standards are more explicitly tied to the concept of pollination than others. For example, if you’re teaching second grade science, a life science standard is “Develop a simple model that mimics the function of an animal in dispersing seeds or pollinating plants” (NGSS 2LS 2-2). However, if you’re teaching fourth grade social studies, you might instead focus on importance of pollinators to California agricultural economy. 

Narrow your focus, but keep the big picture in mind. There are nearly two hundred thousand different kinds of pollinators in the world! You’ll never be able to study them all. It’s wise to choose something you’re sure to see in the garden, so kids can observe pollinators up close. Ladybugs are a quick and easy choice, especially because you can purchase live ladybugs from a garden center or nursery. If you go this route, be sure there are enough plants to support ladybugs throughout their life cycle, not just nectar plants for adults. Chances are, there will be a few dead ladybugs in the container you purchase. These can be used for sketching and identification activities. Alternatively, you can place a few live ladybugs in the freezer for a few minutes to slow them down for close observation. Whatever route you decide to go, be sure to link activities back to the big picture, such as how humans impact pollinators.

After counting 63 Harlequin Bugs, this third grader made a chart to track insect sightings.

Have a compelling driving question. Start with questions that can be answered in just one or two visits to the garden, but then introduce more complex questions that require more refined firsthand observation or data collection over time. Try to involve students in coming up with a question and select something other than “look up” questions. How long does a ladybug live? is pretty simply answered with a quick Google search. How many different kinds of ladybugs live in our garden and where? is a much more intriguing and authentic question for pollinator study. 

Be flexible–we can’t control nature. Any school garden lesson is subject to factors beyond our control. Maybe it rains on the day you’re scheduled to count bees or spring break falls during the best time of year to see hummingbirds. Don’t fret! Supplement firsthand observation with photos, videos, and preserved specimen. Engage students in sketching of flower shape as a way of prompting questions about structure and function in plants. Use lessons to propel your evolving garden design. Do you have an area that doesn’t do well growing food? Plant some pollinator plants instead. Did you put in a plant that was supposed to be in bloom in time for pollinator study? Search the campus for other flower blooms instead. Learning to adapt lessons to natural systems and processes will make lessons more meaningful in the long run. 

There are so many emerging resources to support pollinator study. Be sure to check out a few of these:

  • The Pollinator Partnership is a nonprofit dedicated to the protection of pollinators. They sponsor Pollinator Week, which is June 19-25, 2017.
  • Bee City USA is a campaign to raise awareness and increase bee habitat in urban areas.
  • The Xerces Society is a scientific conservation organization involved in advocacy, education, and outreach.
  • USDA houses a Natural Resource Conservation Service pollinator page, which provides information about the relationship between biodiversity and agriculture.


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