Native Plant Sale
|Sharing the Buzz
|By Alicia Springer
Bumblebee with loaded pollen baskets, photo US Dept. of Agriculture
“Naturalist” is a calling that a dedicated layperson can pursue without a formal license, certification, PhD program, or boundary. It’s a vocation, not necessarily a job description. One such impassioned naturalist, Oakland’s May Chen, has extended her love of our region’s natural wealth beyond her own forays and field studies to teach and inspire about her favorite subject: pollinators.
“About 15 years ago, I took a whole series of natural history classes through College of Marin,” says May, who describes herself as a “career volunteer” and was, at the time, serving as a docent at the Audubon Canyon Ranch in Stinson Beach, a duty she happily shouldered for more than 20 years. “When I took the class on insects, I fell in love with the Hymenopterans,” the order comprised of bees, wasps, and ants. “I attended a couple of insect workshops at the San Francisco State Sierra Nevada Campus over the summers and really enjoyed the field-oriented approach. I went to a week-long class on pollinators run by the Jepson Herbarium in Carmel Valley. The teachers were two of the most knowledgeable bee experts in our area—Dr. Gordon Frankie and Dr. Robbin Thorp of UC Berkeley. The workshop really opened my eyes to a broader view of pollinators and their habitats.” May is likewise conversant with California native plant communities, having studied plant families and taxonomy at the Regional Parks Botanic Garden with Glenn Keator, and in other study settings.
“I’m not an expert on insects, and I’m not an expert on botany,” says May, though she qualifies as a very well-informed amateur in both fields, “but I’m fascinated with how they are interrelated. That became my focus.”
Male long-horned bees sleep in groups. Photo by Debbie Ballentine, CNPS
After so many years of carpooling from the East Bay to Marin, in recent years May has looked closer to home for volunteer work, helping to propagate at the Native Here nursery in Tilden Park and the Friends of Sausal Creek nursery in Joaquin Miller Park in the Oakland hills. Her attention has also turned to sharing the buzz about bees with school classes and adult groups.
“An entomologist friend of mine approached me in the spring of 2012. He said ‘May, the East Bay Regional Parks is doing a wildflower festival in Sunol, and they want me to set up an information table about pollination. I don’t know what to do—I’m not a plant person!’ Sometimes it seems like botany and entomology are two separate worlds—botanists don’t know much about insects, and insect people don’t know much about plants. I suddenly saw a niche for myself, where I could fill some need.”
Pollination games at the Sunol Wildflower Festival. Photo by May Chen.
May whipped together a simple, child-level introduction to pollination for the Sunol Wildflower Festival. “I made some silly insect antenna headbands and stuff for children to play pollination games, brought some big Stargazer lilies because they have such obvious sexual parts, and demonstrated pollination with a Q-tip. A parent came up to me afterward and was so excited to see close-up photos of the bees with full pollen baskets on their legs. “She said ‘Really! You can actually see that?!’ It reminded me of how it blew me away when I started paying close attention to bees. I love to give that same experience to others.”
Along with other volunteers, May has helped bring back to thriving life an undertended plot of land that Friends of Sausal Creek had planted as a habitat garden for pollinators and birds. “We’re restricted to using only plants native to the Sausal Creek watershed, so it limits us as gardeners, but as the native plants flourish we see native bees following.”
The Friends of Sausal Creek Wildlife Pollinator Garden, a work in progress. Photo by Kathleen Harris.
May and her co-volunteer Kathleen Harris have developed a fledgling program for a local school’s sixth graders, who walk from school to the garden in groups of ten to learn about insects, anthers and stigmas, and the differences between ground-dwelling solitary native bees and hive-making domesticated honeybees. “Just being outdoors and observing things is great for the kids,” says May, whose tricks of the trade include a toy “bug gun” perfect for vacuuming up insects and whisking them into clear containers for viewing. “The insects don’t get banged around as much as they do when they’re caught with a net, and of course the kids love it.”
Friends of Sausal Creek recently purchased ten pairs of close-focus binoculars for May’s program, which will help hone the schoolkids’ observation skills. “You can focus on an insect within 18 inches without disturbing it,” she explains.
Second and Third graders from Joaquin Miller Elementary School on a pollination field trip. Photo by Michelle Krieg, manager of the Friends of Sausal Creek nursery.
The program is expanding to include local second graders. “After we present a brief lesson on bee and flower anatomy, I ask ’Who wants to be a bee?’ The eager volunteers are instantly transformed into bees when they put on their insect antenna headbands—then these bees joyfully buzz around looking to pollinate the Stargazer lilies with their Q-tips. They seem to know what to do!”
May Chen’s tricks of the pollination-teaching trade: a mason bee nesting house; close-focus binoculars; a bug vacuum gun; and more… Photo by Alicia Springer.
May recently gave a more grown-up pollinator talk at the Oakland Museum to help train docents for the Museum’s current hands-on bee exhibition. “There are two important messages I always try to get across to adults and home gardeners: Avoid pesticides and avoid over-mulching. People don’t realize that most native bees are ground dwelling, and they need areas of bare ground to excavate their nests.”
Solitary nesting bees overwintering at different life stages: top row, leafcutter bee nest cells constructed out of leaf pieces; middle row, resin bee pupae; bottom, mason bee cocoons. Photo by Margriet Dogterom, Beediverse Blog.
May’s activities are truly Citizen Science at work. “I love working at this grassroots level,” says May. “Changing people’s ideas can make a difference—so many people fear insects. There is definitely room for people like us, nonprofessionals who can educate. A lot of biology has been taught as “nature, red in tooth and claw,” focused on predators and prey, but I like to shift that focus to mutualism. And there’s no better way to talk about mutualism than pollination.”
May Chen, ready to share the buzz about pollination. Photo by Alicia Springer.
Alicia Springer is co-editor of the monthly Friends of the Regional Parks Botanic Garden e-newsletter.
Lady Beetles En Masse!
Swarms of convergent lady beetles (Hippodamia convergens) were observed in late January massing in the Regional Parks Botanic Garden. Look out, aphids! Photo by Rosie Andrews.
|Click here for full descriptions of the classes as well as the class registration form.
||Drawing Native Plants
||3 Spring Wildflower Field Trips starts March 30
||Tending a Native Garden
||Vegetative Propagation of California Native Plants