Help us thank the birds and bees (and bats, moths and flies!) during National Pollinator Week

For the next several paragraphs, we’ll be talking about a few very special flying creatures (and some others) that are called pollinators — to whom we owe huge thanks for providing much of the food we eat! 

Without these pollinators to carry their pollen from flower to flower, plants could not form fruits or seeds to reproduce themselves and feed our whole ecosystem of hungry animals — including humans. Did you know that at least one of every three bites you take is thanks to a pollinator? (More if you are vegetarian.)

Although the world’s pollinators include many of the animals you’d expect and more (e.g., also butterflies, beetles, monkeys, even some rodents and lizards), the most important pollinators of our fruit and vegetable crops are insects, particularly bees. Unfortunately, today many pollinators are in danger due to habitat loss, overuse of insecticides, and other factors. To learn more about the threats facing pollinators and what you can do to help, visit the Pollinator Partnership’s webpage at pollinator.org.

National Pollinator Week, June 16-23 this year, was initiated by a group of biologists calling themselves the “Pollinator Partnership,” whose goal was to bring the public’s attention to the vital ecosystem services provided by pollinating bees, butterflies and moths, beetles, birds, and bats — and to make people aware of the urgent issue of their declining populations. 

Seven years ago, the U.S. Senate voted unanimously to designate a week each June to commemorate the importance of pollinators. Pollinator Week has now grown to be an international celebration.

From feasting to beekeeping, learn more about the efforts of these hardworking — and essential — animals in three special events planned for National Pollinator Week. 

Behind-the-Scenes Tour of the Cockrell Butterfly Center
Tuesday, June 17, 6 p.m.

In addition to the Butterfly Center and Insect Zoo, you will visit the containment room and rooftop greenhouses — areas not open to the public where staff cares for the Museum’s butterflies and other insects. Kids 5 and above welcome! Click here for ticket info.

Beekeeping Class
Wednesday, June 18, 6 p.m.

From the tools and techniques needed to start your own apiary to tips of daily life with bees, beekeeper Shelley Rice will share the basics of starting your own beehive and how to harvest wax and honey naturally and safely. Participants will meet at Shelley’s private apiary. Advance registration required. Click here for ticket info.

Cultural Feast: A Culinary Cultivation — All About the Birds and the Bees
Sunday, June 22, 6 p.m.

In the perfect kick off to summer, join the staff of the Cockrell Butterfly Center at Haven for a five-course meal showcasing the contributions of bees and other pollinators to our food sources prepared by chef Randy Evans. Culinary historian Merrianne Timko will discuss the culinary history of these pollinator-focused ingredients. Advance reservations required by June 16. Click here for more information and to purchase tickets online. 

Na na na na na na na … BATS, man!

For bats being amazing examples of evolutionary resilience and fascinating, intelligent creatures with complex, long lives that perform invaluable ecological roles, we humans don’t seem to appreciate them very much. They’ve had a bad rep in cultures around the world due to their association with the night for millennia, but what’s this based on, really? Fear of the dark? Jealousy? Our imaginations — which can make almost anything out to be our “enemy”?

Like many other things deeply ingrained in our social consciousness, these feelings have been added into our speech patterns. We often use an association with bats to point out odd or unfavorable behavior.

Take for instance:

“Without my glasses, I’m blind as a bat.”

“From his erratic behavior, we were sure he had bats in the belfry.”

“She ran away like a bat out of hell.”

Well, how about this:

“Without my glasses, I’m blind as a bat. No, really I’m fine — I don’t need them. My sense of smell and hearing are better than using sight anyway. Oh, and I’ve been around for 50 million years, so I’m pretty sure I know the lay of the land anyway, so NBD. By the way, I provide an invaluable service to humankind by eating the insects which seem to cause them so much trouble.”

OK, a bit wordy, but you get the idea – bats are freakin’ awesome. They’re the only mammal that legitimately flies – having developed wings out of what used to be hands (look at their skeleton and you’ll see how crazy this is; it would be like having webbed fingers that go the length of your body!).

And they live nearly everywhere on earth, except for some small, isolated islands. Now that’s what I call evolutionarily resilient.

Bats are native to the orange areas on the map. (Which is pretty much everywhere.)

In spite of all this awesomeness, bats in America are under threat from a new disease called White-Nose Syndrome. This disease is caused by a fungus which is taking hold in caves along the entire northeast corridor. It infects bats while they’re hibernating, so their bodies have essentially shut down and can’t fight it. The fungus causes their flesh to deteriorate as the spores take hold and suck the water and nutrients out of the bat. This causes them to wake up and search for food (which they can’t find, because it’s winter), wasting the rest of their fat reserves and leading to starvation.

The fungus appeared in New York in 2007 and has since killed millions of bats who seem to have little to no way to fight it. It came to New York from Europe; however, the bats across the pond don’t seem to mind nearly as much as American bats. This leads some to believe that they’ve evolved to be resistant to it (think Black Plague resistance in European populations — or lack thereof when smallpox came to America).

White Nose Syndrome by found county

But that’s not to say all hope is lost! Scientists across the country are performing research to learn more about the fungus — mapping where it’s been found, how it takes hold, and performing experiments to prevent the onset of the disease.

(You can learn more here, here, here, here, and here.)

But one of the best ways to help save the bats is having a well educated population that’s invested in the little furry flying guys. Lucky for YOU, there’s an exhibit at HMNS Sugar Land opening on Sat., Jan. 18 all about bats! Come to Masters of the Night: The True Story of Bats and learn all about these amazing creatures (and, come spring, you can check them out in Houston under the Waugh St. Bridge).

 

Nota bene: Baby bats are super adorable. I hereby submit that they should become part of the never-ending flood of baby animal pictures shared around on social media as to better their public perception.

Don’t believe me? Just check these out.

Educator How-To: We’re batty for ornithopters

Bats have frightened, awed, and inspired for millennia. Leonardo da Vinci used the bat’s amazing wing structure as inspiration for his version of the ornithopter — a machine which flies using flapping bird-like wings. No one knows for sure if he ever built or tested his invention, but Cardanus, a contemporary of Leonardo wrote that he had tried, “in vain”, to get the orinthopter aloft.

A sketch of Da Vinci’s ornithopter

Here is a version of Leonardo’s creation that you can try your hand at constructing and flying. Our version is technically a glider, but looks much the same as Leonardo’s ornithopter design.

Materials:

  • Cardstock copy of orinthopter template
  • Large plain craft stick
  • Paper clips – large and regular size
  • Craft glue
  • Scissors
  • Scotch Tape ™
  • Markers
  • Thin hemp-type string
  • 18th inch hole-puncher
  • Bat specimen or pictures of bats
  • Picture of Leonardo’s orrnithopter

Building the Ornithopter:

  • Display the picture of Leonardo’s ornithopter and discuss how he came up with the design idea after spending a great deal of time observing birds.
  • Study the bat specimen and/or bat pictures. Compare and contrast the bat wings with the ornithopter wings: Are the wings more bird-like or bat-like?
  • Color a large craft stick using a brown marker.
  • Color the wings and tail on the orinthopter template and carefully cut out the pieces.
  • Give the wings shape by closing the small V-shaped notch on each wing so that both pieces touch and then securing on the underside with transparent tape.
  • Using craft glue, attach the wing and tail pieces to the craft stick as illustrated by the picture below. Allow time for the glue to dry.

Bat Orthinopter 2

  • Next, bend the wings up along the large V in the wing pattern and carefully crease.
  • Use a 1/8th inch hole-puncher to make small holes just to the inside where the wings were taped to give them shape.
  • Use a piece of thin string to create a loop through the holes with a loose knot to secure it in place. This serves to keep the wings from spreading too far and to adjust the wings up when tightened.

Bat Orthinopter 1

  • It’s time to test the ornithopter! Make different sized paper clips available. Use these to properly distribute the weight of the ornithopter for better flight.
  • Spend time re-engineering the after the primary test flight.

I Heart Pollinators!

Magical Farfalla
Creative Commons License photo credit: WTL photos

For those of you who didn’t know (guilty!) last week, June 22-28th was officially pollinator week! I will need to mark my calendar in the future because pollinators are animals that we would have a tough time getting along without.

The best known are, of course, bees and butterflies – but hummingbirds, moths, bats, beetles, flies, wasps, and many many more are all pollinators. We owe so much to these animals and they deserve no less than a whole week of celebration! They are responsible for one out of every three bites of food we take and, if you’re like me,  none of those are from foods you would like to even imagine living without. If not for pollinators, I would not have been able to make such a fabulous vegetable lasagna last night!

Not only that, but animal pollinators are responsible for the reproduction of 80 percent of all flowering plants that contribute so much to our general happiness and state of mind. Can you imagine a world with few or no flowers? Well, we certainly could not exist in it – these plants are essential to maintaining a healthy and well-balanced ecosystem as well.

Hover
Creative Commons License photo credit: aussiegall

Important native pollinators are always in danger of losing habitat and crucial food sources. So, if you would like to help, grab your shovel and gardening gloves – don’t forget the sunscreen! – and get outside. We can all help by doing the easiest things in our own backyards! Here are some quick and easy tips from the National Wildlife Federation. Just click on the blue text for more details!

- Always think native. Exotic plants may look nice, but they don’t belong here and they do more harm than good. Native plants are meant to survive in our environment so they require much less maintenance and will make things cheaper and easier. Check them out – just as I am sometimes surprised at which insects are native to Houston, you may be surprised to see the variety of plants that are native to our semi-tropical environment.

Anna's Hummingbird in Flight
Creative Commons License photo credit: Noël Zia Lee

 – Hang a hummingbird feeder. Hummingbirds are absolutely gorgeous and fun to watch. Feeders are super simple to make and will attract these important pollinators to your garden.

- Build a bee house. Honeybees are not the only ones that pollinate. Houston is home to dozens of bee species, many of which are solitary and non-aggressive. If you provide shelter for them, they’ll want to hang out in your garden.

- Plant a butterfly garden! We are always promoting butterfly gardening, especially during our spring and fall plants sales. It is easy and fun, and if you use the right kinds of plants, the butterflies will come to you! The bonus is that all kinds of beneficial insects enjoy butterfly gardening plants. If you love insects, your garden will love you and you will be rewarded! Be sure to stop by the Cockrell Butterfly Center and pick up one of our butterfly gardening brochures. It is full of all the information you need to get started.

-Finally, certify your yard with the National Wildlife Federation. You may already meet all of the requirements. If you follow the simple steps above, you will get there faster than you realize. The National Wildlife Federation is a wonderful organization dedicated to preserving native plants and animals. Anything you can do to help, big or small, is fantastic!

hummingbird
Creative Commons License photo credit: Monica R.

Luckily, my home is a wildlife sanctuary with many plants that are attractive to pollinators and my yard is constantly buzzing with activity! My very favorite of these is Hamelia patens, also known as flame bush, fire bush, hummingbird bush, butterfly bush, you name it! It attracts a lot of attention! The fiery red tubular flowers are a wonderful addition to my colorful garden.

I hope you will find these resources helpful, but if you’d like to speak to someone in person, feel free to contact the Cockrell Butterfly Center – or just leave a comment below. Our knowledgeable and friendly staff members are always happy to help however we can! Until next time, happy nature watching!