Protecting pollinators

Sunflowers are ideal flowers for bee observation because of their large “platform,” bee researcher Elaine Evans says. (submitted photos)

Betty Dawson snapped this photo of honeybee enjoying a wildflower at the Maplewood Nature Center.

A few minutes watching a sunflower could help save area bees

Though the weather hasn’t been very sunny recently, the Maplewood Nature Center is encouraging residents to plant “Lemon Queen” sunflowers in their gardens this year.

Not because these flowers will lure out the sun, but because they make excellent settings to observe bees.

Maplewood naturalist Oakley Biesanz explained that this summer, the nature center staff will be promoting learning more about pollinators, such as bees, in an effort to help support the nation’s bee populations.

“We are thrilled to help educate people about bees, which are in decline, and other pollinators, with several programs this spring and summer,” Biesanz said.

Encouraging participation in “The Great Sunflower Project” is one way the nature center is helping preserve bee populations in the U.S.

“(The) Great Sunflower Project is a science research project that we are working with this summer which relies on citizen scientists. Anyone can help scientists figure out how to save the bees by reporting the bees that they see online,” Biesanz explained.

The project calls for residents to plant bee-friendly flowers, especially sunflowers, and count the number of bees that visit the flower in 15 minutes on a warm, sunny morning. While watching, observers should also record the type of bees that visit the flower, and submit the results on the Great Sunflower Project website.

The organization, which was started in 2008 by a group of California researchers, then compiles the data and tracks the populations of the specific types of bees, noting growth or decline from year to year.

Visit for more information and to start recording data.

Vital to food, flower crops

Upon spotting a yellow-and-black-striped insect in the vicinity, many people’s first reaction is to kill it or run away. Though the fear of bees is common, honeybees and bumblebees are generally not aggressive unless provoked.

In fact, these insects are actually responsible for making flower gardens beautiful, and fruit and vegetable produce abundant.

University of Minnesota bee researcher Elaine Evans, who is working with the nature center this summer, explained that bees are responsible for pollinating many of Minnesota’s signature plants.

“In Minnesota, many wildflowers depend on insect pollination, including our state flower, the showy lady’s slipper,” Evans said. “We also use bees for pollinating many crops such as apples, strawberries, greenhouse tomatoes, sunflowers and more.”

In fact, about one-third of the nation’s food supply relies on bees for pollination, and about 75 percent of all flowers require an animal or insect to move their pollen in order to reproduce, Evans added.

Pollen sticks to bees’ hairy bodies while they collect nectar from flowers, and is then transported from flower to flower, helping with reproduction. Most gardens with bees are filled with vibrant, strong plants.

Urban beekeeping grows

While keeping a hive of honeybees in your backyard may not top your list of home improvement projects, many metro-area homeowners have begun exploring the idea of maintaining a backyard beehive.

This practice, known as urban beekeeping, has been on the rise for several years, as people realize the benefits of pollinators and follow the trend of consuming more locally grown foods.

In fact, an urban beekeeper may be closer than you think. Arturo Leyva of Maplewood has been a backyard beekeeper for the last five years. His neighbors support his hobby and many tell him they love the effects of the pollinators on their gardens.

Leyva says his interest in raising his own honeybees began during his childhood.

“I was lucky to have local honey growing up in Mexico,” Leyva said. “Also, as a young boy with my friends, we managed to take honey from wild hives in trees. Getting stung was part of the thrill.”

Leyva describes the honey harvest in Minnesota as frenetic.

“The season for harvest ... is quite short and frantic. It’s frantic for the bees, the plants and the beekeeper,” he said.

Both Leyva and Evans explained that keeping a hive of bees is not as easy as it looks, especially if you factor in a southern “vacation” for the bees.

“Winter settles fast (in Minnesota) and all activity stops. It is a challenge to maintain hives alive in this cold weather, even for experienced beekeepers. Many of them ship their hives south (by truck) and it’s not a cheap option,” Leyva explained.

“Many become fascinated with honey bees and just want to do it for fun or to help the bees,” Evans added. “If people aren’t careful with how they do it, they can end up doing more harm than good.”

Leyva said the best way to learn how to keep bees is to gain a comprehensive knowledge about pollinators.

“Take a class if you can, and read as many books as you can about beekeeping before getting your first hive,” Leyva said.

The benefits of urban beekeeping include homegrown honey and a well-pollinated, beautiful flower garden.

For tips and more information about urban beekeeping, visit the University of Minnesota Bee Squad at or the Minnesota Hobby Beekeeper’s Association at

Search for a rare species

Both Biesanz and Evans note that even “wild” bees face challenges, citing the rusty-patched bumble bee as a species that once was common in the Twin Cities area, but nearly disappeared in the 2000s.

A petition is currently filed with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to grant the species a “threatened” status.

However, all hope is not lost for this rare insect, named for the reddish brown-colored stripe on its back. Biesanz said that the rusty-patched bumble bee has been seen in the city in the past.

“The rare rusty-patched bumblebee...was once spotted here in Maplewood at Jim’s Prairie Neighborhood Preserve,” Biesanz said. “Now we are attempting to find it again.”

Evans added that she had noticed the metro area population of rusty-patched bumblebees has been slowly increasing for the past two years.

“I am seeing them more frequently each year since (2011), but I am still concerned about their recovery,” she said.

To help with Evans’ search for this type of pollinator, the Maplewood Nature Center will be hosting a class called “Befriending Bumble Bees” July 12, 20 and Aug. 2 from 10 a.m. to noon, where adults and children age 5 and older will join the quest for the rusty-patched bumblebee at Jim’s Prairie Neighborhood Preserve.

For information on how to identify a rusty-patched bumble bee, visit the Xerces Society, a bumble bee conservation group, at

If you spot a rusty-patched bumble bee, snap a photo and send it to

Johanna Holub can be reached at or 651-748-7814.

Learn more about pollinators

The Maplewood Nature Center will present a series of classes about pollinators geared toward adults and kids this spring and summer.

A limited supply of “Lemon Queen” sunflower seed packets, information and pollinator posters will be available for free to nature center visitors and class participants.

The first in the series will be from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Wednesday, May 8 at the Maplewood Library, 3025 Southlawn Drive. Participants will learn about garden pollinators from University of Minnesota Horticulture Extension educator Karl Foord. This class is free and geared toward adults.

The next event in the series is a free butterfly and pollinator garden tour at the Maplewood Nature Center at 2659 E. Seventh St. from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Friday, May 31, from 6:30-8 p.m. This class is free and geared toward adults.

To register or learn more about the bee programs, call the Maplewood Nature Center at 651-249-2170 or visit


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