Nature Nearby: For National Pollinator Week, Learn More About The Birds And Bees

Nature Nearby: For National Pollinator Week, Learn More About The Birds And Bees

Monarch on milkweed. A hungry monarch caterpillar chowing down on its host plant, common milkweed, at Tekakwitha Woods. (Photo by Lauren Holmer)

  • Nature Nearby is written by Naturalist Valerie Blaine, environmental education manager for the Forest Preserve District of Kane County. You may reach her at

What would shortcake be without strawberries? A BLT without tomatoes? A morning without coffee? A margarita without tequila? Halloween without pumpkins? Life would be boring at best, impossible at worst. This is what our world would be like without pollinators.

Pollinators provide lots of the things in life we need, and many things we simply enjoy. But pollinators are in trouble, and if they’re in trouble, we’re in trouble. What gives?

Birds And Bees Primer

Let’s start with a birds-and-the-bees primer. A pollinator is an animal that transfers pollen from one flower to another. Pollen is the key to plants making more plants. When pollen, produced by male structures in flowers, reaches female flower parts, seeds are produced and — voilà! More plants.

Erythronium and andrenid bee. This is a native bee (called an andrenid bee), pollinating a native spring wildflower at Tekakwitha Woods. (Photo by Valerie Blaine)

Pollinators come in all shapes and sizes and live in all kinds of habitats. Most are insects (think bees, flies, moths, butterflies, wasps, and beetles), but mammals and birds do their share of pollinating.

What’s the first pollinator that comes to mind? Most people say “bee.” And by “bee” they mean anything that’s yellow and black and buzzes menacingly.  But there are hundreds of kinds of bees, and not all of them buzz.

The bee you typically see on clover in a field, or flowers in your garden, is the European honey bee. Although this pollinator is a major player in United States agribusiness, it’s not native to North America.

The species was brought to Virginia in the 1620s, as colonists were settling in the New World. Not long after their introduction, honey bees escaped domestication and spread readily across North America, sometimes in advance of the settlers.

It is said that Native Americans dubbed the honey bee the “white man’s fly.”

Honey bees are prodigious pollinators of food crops. Like the crops they pollinate, honey bees and beekeeping fall within the jurisdiction of the United States Department of Agriculture. Apples, oranges, lemons, limes, blueberries, broccoli, onions, cherries, cranberries, cucumbers, cantaloupes, almonds, carrots, avocados — all depend on honey bees.

Colony Collapse Disorder

Honey bees are social insects, living in colonies, or hives. About eight years ago, beekeepers noted a precipitous drop in honey bee populations.

A puzzling phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder seemed to be the culprit.

A log of research has been devoted to CCD, leading to numerous theories about its causes. Pesticide use is one of a half a dozen explanations of honey bee die-off.

Although colony loss is still a great concern, the number of CCD kills has declined somewhat, and beekeepers are keeping their fingers crossed.

4,000 Species

What about the native bees that thrived here before the “new kids on the block”? According to Beatriz Moisset, biologist and author of Bee Basics: An Introduction to Our Native Bees, there are some 4,000 species of bees indigenous to North America.

They range from small to big, and come in all kinds of colors and patterns. As a whole, native bees are an “unappreciated treasure (that goes) unnoticed by most of us”

Native bees, like honey bees, pollinate crop plants. Bumble bees, in fact, are the primary pollinators of tomatoes, potatoes and eggplant. It turns out that many plants are picky about pollination, and they will only release pollen if they’re shaken. Bumble bees are just the bee for the job, due a unique skill they possess: buzz pollination.

Catch The Buzz

That buzzing sound you hear when a bumble bee is on a flower? That’s the special vibration of their wings. It’s just the right vibration to cause pollen to explode from the flower, and onto the bumble bee’s hairy body. The bumble bee, thus baptized in pollen, visits another flower and transfers pollen in the process.

(Factoid: Scientists have determined that bumble bees buzz is the beginning note of “Hey, Jude” by the Beatles. That would be the tone of middle C. So thank Paul McCartney when you eat your next tomato.)

Native bees have co-evolved with our native flora over millennia. Like many of the plants they pollinate, native bees suffer from habitat loss, intensive agriculture, pesticide use, competition with invasive species, and a warming climate.

The rusty-patched bumble bee is a close-to-home endangered species. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the numbers of rusty-patched bumble bees has dropped by 87 per cent in just 20 years.

This species is now the focus of habitat restoration and natural areas management throughout its range. You’ll be hearing more in this column about the “rusty-patched” and efforts to bring this native bee back from the brink of extinction.

Pollinators are critical for anyone who likes to eat. Native pollinators are critical for native ecosystems. To learn more, check out the activities in the Kane County Forest Preserve District during National Pollinator Week.

National Pollinator Week Events & Programs

Monarchs & Milkweed Festival

Celebrate and learn about native pollinators and plants at our family-friendly festival! We will be giving away milkweed plants! There will be guided hikes in the prairie, crafts, butterfly house kits, live music and food trucks .Admission is free.

To learn more, visit or call 630-444-3190.​

The Pop-up Naturalist

The Pop-up Naturalist tent will appear at forest preserves throughout the week. The Pop-up will feature everything pollinator! It includes hands-on activities for children, information about pollinator plant gardens, posters, and take-home treats for all.

Look for it in a preserve near you! We’ll post the locations of the Pop-up on our Facebook page daily.

Creating Healthy Habitat for the Rusty-Patched Bumblebee

Discover the life history of this important pollinator species in this class for adults. The class will be held from 1 p.m. to 2:30 p.m.  Sunday, June 17, at Creek Bend Nature Center in LeRoy Oakes Forest Preserve, 37W700 Dean St., St. Charles.

Presenter Fayette Aurelia Nichols is active in the restoration of habitat for the Rusty-patched Bumblebee and will share her extensive knowledge of the bee’s habitat requirements, challenges in management of natural areas for this species, and how to recognize potential habitat for species recovery.

After a presentation indoors, we’ll head out into the prairie to find native pollinators. We’ll observe the differences between the European honeybee and several species of native bumblebees.

Fee: $10. Advance registration required. Please call 630-444-3190 or email

Bee Blitz!

The Forest Preserve District’s Natural Resources team will provide an introduction to monitoring local bee populations via photography, from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, June 17, at LeRoy Oakes Forest Preserve.

After instruction in general bee identification and monitoring protocol, we’ll go out into the prairie to get data. You’ll be assigned a pre-determined monitoring spot for photographing the bees. You can use the camera on your phone, a digital SLR, or any “point-and-shoot” camera. The district ecologist will then download all the data collected.

This “Bee Blitz” will provide baseline data that will help guide future management decisions. The program is free, but advance registration is required. Please call 630-444-3190 or email

New Pollinator Exhibit!

Bee sure to stop by Creek Bend Nature Center in LeRoy Oakes Forest Preserve, and check out our new pollinator exhibit. This exhibit, along with the all of the displays in the Nature Center, are interactive, educational and fun for all ages.

The Nature Center is open from from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Thursday and from noon to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. For information, call 630-444-3190.

  • Feature Photo Caption: Mertensia virginica and Bombus auricomus. This is a black and gold bumble bee (that’s it’s name!) going for the goods in a Virginia bluebell blossom, at LeRoy Oakes. Both are native species. (Photo by Valerie Blaine)

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