Young Scientists Pursue Pollinators

By Eve Pranis

"When we have visiting students investigate pollinating insects, we set up a series of observations using some study techniques that animal behavior scientists use," says educator Katherine Johnson at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

First, Katherine invites students to conduct a "sweep" in the garden by taking a slow, methodical walk to observe what is happening on flowers. That done, students report on general observations they've made -- that bumblebees are flying and landing on blue flowers, for instance. "We ask them to say only what they observe and not to make assertions -- assertions that bumblebees are pollinating flowers, for instance," says Katherine.

During the next phase, pairs of students pursue a single insect and focus on its behaviors. First, the class generates a list of behaviors they observed during phase one: flying, landing, taking off, picking at the flower, and so on. Next, they create a chart that lists the behaviors down one side and 10-second time intervals along the top.

Partners then observe their selected insect for 2 minutes, recording its behavior at 10-second intervals. "The kids appreciate this short but focused activity and its physical challenge," says Katherine. After all, it can be tough keeping up with a flighty butterfly or ravenous bee. One partner calls out the time intervals and the other partner checks off the appropriate behavior.

Once the investigators have gathered their field data, they review it and then draw some generalizations or conclusions about the pollinator's behavior. "The students stay quite engaged and tend to see things they've never noticed before as they track a single creature," says Katherine. Insect behavior patterns and preferences become more apparent -- that bumblebees only visit flowers of one color (bluish-purple), for instance.

Finally, Katherine explains that the students have used methods for doing scientific investigations, and that they could modify and use these techniques to answer questions such as, "How many flowers does a bee visit in a garden at one time? How many different kinds of flowers does a single bee visit at a time? How much time does a butterfly spend at each flower?"

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