Program teaches youngsters about the butterflies and the bees

ARLINGTON -- Fisher Elementary School is about to go to the butterflies and bees -- or so the third grade and kindergarten classes hope.

The third grade planted their very own "pollinator garden" on Wednesday, which is designed to stop and reverse the dramatic decline in butterfly and bee populations that has been seen in recent years. Diane Newton, education director at Hildene, the Lincoln Family Home in Manchester, helped teach the students what types of plants were necessary to create a proper habitat for the pollinators.

Hildene began its "Gardens for Monarchs and Bees" program this year, and has visited three schools, Fisher, Manchester Elementary Middle School, and the Dorset School, completely free of charge.

"This is something that we decided was a priority for us at Hildene," said Newton. Hildene will continue to run awareness programs on the plight of pollinators over the summer, but Newton said that most of those would be held at Hildene. "It's been really well received, by both the students and the teachers," she said.

Jessica Kirk, one of two third-grade teachers at the school, said that the students had been learning about plants for about a month. First, she said, they went out into the field and observed pollination at work. They also grew marigolds and bean plants, and kept careful track of how fast the plants were growing in journals. Finally, they dissected flowers and learned to point out all the different parts. "It creates world sense, or knowledge," said Kirk, "and it increases their vocabulary. We're using all the basic skill areas in one unit."

Wednesday's class began inside, as Newton presented a slideshow explaining the decline in both the populations of bees and monarch butterflies across the country, and what the implications were should the trend continue. One slide showed the decline of the monarch population in the last 10 years. In 2003, monarchs took up 27.48 acres of land during their seasonal hibernation, the most common way that scientists measure monarch population. In 2013, they took up just over an acre.

The causes, said Newton, included habitat loss, increased use of herbicides, increased use of pesticides, and diseases and parasites.

These factors can often work in tandem to create devastating effects on the pollinator population. For example, when drinking the nectar of a flower that has been treated with pesticide, said Newton, "the bee is not killed outright, but over time they get weaker and weaker." Newton then brought up the varroa mite, a disease-carrying parasite that attaches itself to bees. "If a pollinator is healthy," she said, "it can co-exist with a number of mites." However, bees weakened by ingesting pesticides cannot survive.

Newton also pointed to large-scale industrial farming, and the heavy herbicide use that goes along with it, for much of the pollinators' habitat loss. "We're growing millions of acres more corn than previously," she said. The creation of huge fields of corn across the American midwest, thus destroying the flowers that pollinators need, has disrupted habitats all throughout the center of their migration patterns.

Newton pointed out that Vermont had not been as bad for pollinators as many other states, due to its relatively low population density and lack of industrialized farming. She encouraged students, when they owned their own land some day, to leave fields of flowers intact rather than mowing them and creating lawns. "Make meadows, not lawns!" she stressed to the students.

"I would like flowers in my garden!" said one of the students.

"So would the pollinators!" responded Newton.

After the presentation, the students went outside to begin planting their own pollinator garden. Newton had brought with her several plants, specifically designed so as to all pollinate at different points over the summer. "We need to make sure," said Newton, "that we have plants that pollinate early-season, mid-season, and late-season. For early-season, she brought catmint and lungwort, for mid-season she brought false indigo, and for late-season she brought the sedum "autumn joy" and raspberry swirl dianthus.

The students dug holes and planted half the plants themselves. The other half would be planted later in the day by the other third grade class. Students also planted milkweed, which is the only plant that monarch butterflies will lay their eggs on. Later in the year, kindergartners will begin to help out in the garden as well. "It's a really great community program," said Kirk, "Hopefully the third graders can act as big buddies for the kindergartners."

Derek Carson can be reached for comment at Follow him on Twitter @DerekCarsonBB


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