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: Spring has Sprung!

Phenology is the study of seasonal changes, especially in relation to plant and animal life. Plants and animals depend on these predictable changes to know when to migrate, nest, bloom, leaf out and so much more. People celebrate phenology-related events, such as cherry blossom festivals and monarch butterfly migrations. Before weather predictions were delivered to our email inbox or through an app on our phone, people used to watch for signs in nature to know just the right time to plant their crops or harvest their fields.

Phenology is an essential part of life on earth. As our global climate changes, some cyclical changes are becoming out of sync. Pollinators such as bees and butterflies may respond to earlier-than-usual warm temperatures and find the flower blooms they rely on for nourishment may not be blooming. If birds follow warmer temperatures and return to a nesting area before the bugs emerge, they could go hungry.

Scientists are studying these changes and collecting as much data as they can from all over the world. They are counting on citizens like you and me to help. The USA National Phenology Network is a great resource to learn about phenology and how you can report observations that will help scientists track long-term seasonal changes. Project Budburst is another great resource. This online repository is limited to plants, but it has a wide selection of plant species that you can observe, record data on, and report your findings about to help scientists. Chances are you can find a plant or tree in your yard or neighborhood that Project Budburst would like information on. At the Detroit Zoo, we’re observing and reporting on the flowering crabapple trees that line the walkways by Rackham Fountain.

Each year since 2013, the Detroit Zoological Society has participated in the Journey North Tulip Test Garden project. We plant red emperor tulip bulbs in the fall and mark the area. As spring nears, we watch for the tips of the tulip plants to emerge and then we report our observations to the Journey North Tulip Test Garden database. Animated maps on the Journey North website compile data from observers all over North America to show us when spring is on the way.

The best part of participating in any of these projects is that you’ll find yourself noticing more about the world around you. Even very young children can participate with the help of an adult, creating a new generation of people relying on signs in nature, not just the daily weather report.

– Claire Lannoye Hall is a curator of education for the Detroit Zoological Society.

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