Belle Isle Nature Zoo: Premier Pollinators in Action

The Belle Isle Nature Zoo is a facility operated by the Detroit Zoological Society that sits on a 5-acre site on Belle Isle surrounded by undisturbed forested wetlands. It provides year-round educational, recreational and environmental conservation opportunities for the community. The facility is free to the public, open daily in the summer, and there are a lot of wonderful opportunities to explore nature and wildlife at the Detroit Zoological Society’s campus on Belle Isle.

One of these fascinating features is the observation beehive, which provides a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the busy daily life of honeybees. Sealed tightly within a double-sided glass case, and with a tunnel providing the bees year-round access to the great outdoors, our hive invites guests to watch the bees do what they do best: work!

The work that the bees do is often more valuable than we realize. Bees are the most prolific pollinators in the natural world, due in part to their fuzzy bodies and faithfulness in buzzing to and from the same species of plant for an extended period. Pollination is the transfer of pollen from the male part of a plant or flower to the female part, which results in reproduction. In plants, one of the ways of producing offspring is by making seeds or fruit, and that surely benefits the rest of us! It has been stated that we can thank the bees for one out of every three bites of food we eat – and a lot of the good stuff, too, like fruits, vegetables, and even almonds. The pollination of bees also improves the production of the cotton plant, so not only do bees feed us, they clothe us, too!

We recently celebrated National Pollinator Week with our volunteer beekeeper, Steve Burt. He has been taking care of bees since 1974 and brings his passion for pollinators to Belle Isle. Steve maintains the health and wellness of our indoor observation beehive as well as our two outdoor beehives. With a little help from our productive honeybees, Steve bottled more than 40 pounds of delicious Belle Isle Nature Zoo honey last year!

The celebration of National Pollinator Week isn’t only for our gratitude for the fruits (and vegetables!) of the honeybees’ labor. It also helps us raise awareness to the some of the very serious challenges that honeybees are facing these days. Mites, viruses, diseases and especially certain pesticides are all contributing stressors to severe colony decline and death, often referred to as colony collapse disorder. A recent survey by the U.S. Department of Agriculture determined that beekeepers across the country lost more than 40 percent of their honeybee colonies between April 2014 and April 2015.

What can we do to help? We can plant nectar and pollen-bearing plants such as milkweed, goldenrod and aster, herbs including mint, chives, and oregano or fruits and vegetables like strawberries, cucumbers, broccoli and squash. We can encourage local governments and other volunteer groups to plant more pollinator-friendly plants in local spaces such as the areas along roadsides or within public parks. And if you have a bee problem, instead of bringing out a can of bug spray, call a beekeeper organization for species identification and useful advice.

And while you’re here at the Belle Isle Nature Zoo, you can watch our premier pollinators in action. Look for the worker bees dancing to communicate to the other bees where to find a new source of food outside. See if you can find the queen bee (identified by her larger size and a small white dot) laying eggs and being well-taken care of by her colony. You might even find some of the brood, also known as the egg, larva and pupa, or spot some stored honey in our beeswax honeycombs – a great sign that our helpful honeybees will be here for time to come!

There’s a lot of buzz about the upcoming Bee Fest event on National Honeybee Day at the Belle Isle Nature Zoo. This free event will feature demonstrations on how to build and maintain a bee-friendly garden, beekeeper talks, art, music, crafts and a bee costume parade! Buzz on over to Bee Fest on Saturday, August 20 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

– Amy Greene is a curator of education for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Belle Isle Nature Zoo. For more information about this facility, visit www.belleislenaturezoo.org.

Education: Protect the Pollinators

Claire Lannoye-Hall is a Curator of Education for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Summer vacation is upon us and we can’t wait for you to visit the Detroit Zoo. There are so many new things happening here – the wolves are exploring their new habitat and the dinosaurs are beckoning from the trail.

While the summer offers many great Butterfly - Roy Lewisopportunities to visit the Zoo, it also brings out bees, butterflies and other pollinators, which are very important to the environment. They help flowers bloom and fruits and vegetables grow. Without them, there wouldn’t be food for us or for the animals to eat. Fortunately, we can help them in a few simple ways.

Start by avoiding the use of pesticides and herbicides. While they may keep the weeds away and your grass a little bit greener, they are devastating to pollinator populations. Consider pulling weeds by hand or using an organic alternative such as mulch or hot water to eliminate weeds.

Honey BeeYou can also plant a pollinator garden. Native plants are easy to find, easy to take care of and are great for pollinators. For southeast Michigan, try lupine, bee balm, coneflower or cardinal flower. Bees and butterflies will likely find your garden first, but if you’re lucky, hummingbirds may stop by, too! For more suggestions on what to plant, visit: http://pollinator.org/guides.htm.

Monarch butterflies are of special concern due to habitat loss. Here at the Zoo, we have special gardens called “Monarch Waystations” that are certified by Monarch Watch, a nonprofit organization. The plants in these gardens provide food and shelter for monarchs throughout metamorphosis and as they travel to and from their overwintering grounds in Mexico. Next time you’re at the Zoo, look for one of these gardens and see if there are any Monarch butterflies visiting. You can find out more about creating your own certified waystation by visiting: http://www.monarchwatch.org/waystations.

Finally, you can help scientists by making observations and collecting data. Scientists need to know how many and what kinds of pollinators are in your backyard. Becoming a citizen scientist is easier than you might think. Visit some of the sites here for more information: http://pollinatorlive.pwnet.org/teacher/citizen.php.

We look forward to seeing you at the Zoo this summer!

– Claire Lannoye-Hall