Pollinator ecology provides a charismatic and accessible system in which to explore multiple core subjects in biology, provide opportunities for learning authentic scientific practices, and engage in place-based learning. Pollinator ecology can be studied in rural, suburban and urban landscapes, as pollinators and the flowering plants they depend on for nutrition are abundant in a diversity of landscapes.

Below we provide resources for K-12 educators on how they can incorporate pollinator ecology in their classrooms. These resources were developed as a partnership between the Penn State Center for Pollinator Research and Center for Science and the Schools.

Creating a pollinator garden.
Creating a pollinator garden on your school grounds can provide an outstanding opportunity to learn about the diversity of pollinators and plants in your region, explore landscape design principles, and learn about soil and water management, biological cycles, and integrated pest management. Pollinator gardens can be large or small, and even container plantings can provide multiple educational opportunities.

  • The Penn State Master Gardeners have created a comprehensive pollinator garden certification program, which provides a detailed outline of how to create a pollinator garden.
  • The Snetsinger Butterfly Garden website also provides many guidelines for creating pollinator gardens, include sample garden plans.
  • If you are in Centre County Pennsylvania, your school can participate in the Snetsinger Satellite Garden program.
  • Through the Pennsylvania Game Commission's Seedlings for Schools program, you can obtain native, pollinator-attractive shrubs and trees. There are also linked resources for lessons and curricula.
  • Not in Pennsylvania? The Pollinator Partnership has created a series of eco-regional planting guides that can help you select the right plants for your garden.

Which plants are most attractive to pollinators?
Pollinators and plants represent one of the most important mutualisms on our planet. Nearly 90% of flowering plants use pollinators to move pollen among flowers and individual plants, allowing them to set seed and fruit. Pollinators obtain nectar and pollen from plants, which provides them with their carbohydrates (nectar) and proteins and lipids (pollen). However, for pollination to be effective, it is best if pollinators visit the same species of plants during a foraging trip. Plants have evolved to attract different kinds of pollinators (bees, flies, butterflies, hummingbirds, bats) and have traits that will be more attractive to certain types of pollinators (flowers that attract bees are typically sweet-smelling, flowers that attract flies are typically not). These are called "pollination syndromes". Note, however, that pollinators are very smart, and they can learn to visit other types of flowers, particularly if there are not many flowering plant species available to choose from. Recent scientific papers discussing pollination syndromes include a review from Junker and Parachnowitch 2015 and Kantsa et al 2018.

You can easily compare the types and numbers of pollinators attracted to flowering plants on your school grounds, and explore with your class the diversity of pollinators, the diversity of plants, and the traits of both plants and pollinators that coordinate these mutualistic interactions.

You can also collect pollinators and flowering plants in your landscape and sample the pollen, to determine which plants pollinators are visiting, and if they are visiting more than one plant species. This provides an excellent opportunity to develop skills in creating collections, databasing, taxonomy, and microscropy.

How do plants compare in terms of their nutritional quality?
The amount and nutritional quality of both nectar and pollen can vary dramatically between different plant species, and they can vary depending on the growing conditions of the plant. For example, cucumber plants grown in vermicompost soil produce more pollen with more protein and are more attractive to bumble bees than plants grown in soil with chemical fertilizers (see Cardoza et al 2012). Additionally, protein content of goldenrod pollen decreases as atmospheric carbon dioxide levels increase (see Ziska et al 2016), and nectar content of a flowering perennial decreased with increasing temperature (Mu et al 2015).

Protocols for evaluating the protein, carbohydrate and lipid (fat) quantities of pollen can be found in Vaudo et al 2015. The amount of sugar in a sample of nectar can be measured using a hand-held refractometer. Nectar can be sampled and quantified using a microcapillary tube.

Pollen or nectar and nectar can be collected directly from flowering plants in your area. You can also purchase single-source pollen from commercial distributors (here or here, for example), or partner with a local beekeeper to obtain honey bee-collected pollen. Pollen traps placed on the entrance of honey bee colonies will scrape off the pollen balls from the honey bees' pollen baskets, and the "pollen balls" can be sorted by color, which roughly corresponds to the different floral species (see Conti et al 2016).

Is my habitat good for pollinators?
Pollinators need to have abundant nesting and food resources to survive in a landscape (see Figure 1 in this review). Even if you do not have a pollinator garden in your school, you can lead your class in a habitat assessment, to explore the resources available for pollinators and the diversity of pollinator species present in your landscape.

Virus transfer through plant-pollinator foraging networks.
Bees are infected with many different viruses. These viruses are shared among multiple bee species. They can be transferred to a flower when an infected bee visits the flower, and then picked up by bees that subsequently visit the same flower. When honey bees bring back virus-contaminated flower to the colony, it can be fed to other bees and developing larvae in the colony. This paper describes a classroom activity to model the transfer of viruses from flowers to honey bee colonies.

Citizen Science Projects.
There are several citizen science projects which your class can participate in. They include:

The Pennsylvania Pollinator Protection Plan (P4).
The P4 provides information on the pollinators of PA and steps we can take to conserve and expand our pollinator populations. There is information on best practices for establishing and maintaining gardens and habitat for pollinators, best practices for pesticide use, and best practices for beekeeping.

Additional resources for pollinator identification and plantings.