Perusing Pollination Partners

Have your students spend at least a couple of sessions a week observing flowers and their visitors in the school garden, wildflower meadow, or other context where flowers bloom. You might leave it open-ended and have them write down observations and questions they have or focus the observations with guiding questions. For instance, What types of insects or other animals are visiting which flowers? Are some flowers visited more often or only by certain creatures? Is there more activity at certain times of day? What kinds of paths do the insects take as they move among flowers? Which types hover and which perch? How do the flowers they visit seem designed to support these habits? Students' observations should lead to fertile questions, some of which they can answer through systematic observations and some through further research.

It can be challenging to help students grasp the concept that every aspect of flowers is vital to their mission: to spread pollen and produce seeds. As they observe and set up investigations, consider infusing the following types of questions, when appropriate. What flower characteristics do you think would be attractive to a pollinator with a short tongue? with no sense of smell? In a given flower, where are male parts in relation to female parts? What might be the advantages of these arrangements? Why might some stigmas be sticky? What do you observe happening to flowers over time (e.g., petals wither, scent disappears)? How might this help the plant (doesn't have to expend energy to attract pollinators once eggs are fertilized)? What might these changes signal to pollinators?

In the classroom, learners can explore blooms up close, draw what they see, identify similarities and differences, and then choose a few to dissect. What flower characteristics do they notice that they think might appeal to certain pollinators? What predictions can they make, based on flower characteristics, about the characteristics of the pollinators of each plant? Again, they can test their questions and hypotheses by gathering evidence through systematic observation.

Who Made My Meal?

To help students begin to grasp the importance of pollinators to our very sustenance, invite them as a class or in small groups to imagine, create, or locate recipes for a delicious, well-balanced meal. Younger students might cut out pictures of different foods, classify them into different categories (for instance, according to the USDA food pyramid or fresh vs. prepared foods), and then paste them onto a paper plate. However you organize the meal creation, have students list each ingredient and then write about or present and discuss where they think it comes from. Ask, For which foods do you think we should thank pollinators? Have students explain their responses. They can later use resource materials to check the accuracy of their responses.

Let students know, if they don't discover it through their own research, that some plants in which we eat parts other than fruit or seeds, such as celery and onions, also rely on pollinators. Ask, What surprised your about your discoveries? How might your meal options change if there were no pollinators? They might want to create a display depicting what a particular meal might look like with and without the benefit of pollinators. Take pizza, for instance. Tomatoes, onions, and peppers are all dependent on pollinators. When you factor in the pollinated crops (such as soybeans) eaten by the animals that provide cheese and meat for toppings, you're left with a rather tasteless meal!

A few plants that you will discover rely on polliantors include: apple, banana, beans, cabbage, chili pepper, citrus fruits, cocoa, coffee, peach, pea, pepper, plum, potato, pumpkin, sesame, soybean, strawberry, sugarcane, tea, and tomato.

Petal Attraction

Once students have had a chance to observe pollinators in action in their garden or another outdoor learning context, and begun to notice patterns in flower characteristics (e.g., patterns and colors), push their thinking about these adaptations further. For instance, display magazine advertisements with popular slogans and/or engaging photos. Ask students to work in pairs to discuss these types of questions: At what type of audience/person do you think each advertisement is aimed? What does the advertiser do to grab the reader's attention and interest (e.g., claims to make them happier, or uses provocative images). Together, discuss students' ideas and ask, What do you think this discussion has to do with our study of flowers? What do you think our flowers and these advertisers have in common? Students may have made the connection that flowers are unsurpassed advertisers that lure pollinators who inadvertently transfer pollen from one flower to another (via specific colors, shapes, mechanisms, aromas, and more). What types of "advertising" have students observed?

You could follow up by asking students to work in small groups to "invent" models of fictitious flowers using drawing paper and supplies and classroom and natural materials (e.g., tissue paper, sticks, pipe cleaners, molding clay). Each group's model should 1) consist of unique, labeled petals, pollen, pistils, and stamens, 2) be a minimum of 8 to 12 inches in diameter, and 3) function as specified in an assignment you specify. For instance, Invent a flower that . . .

  • might entice an unsuspecting human to pollinate it
  • could easily be pollinated by the wind
  • will make a pollinator think it's approaching a fellow insect
  • would force bees to follow a particular route in and out, touching the anthers and stigma on its way
  • would attract a pollinator with a long beak
  • has an anther that can easily be "tripped" and sprung by an insect, releasing pollen.

As an extra challenge, students can create models of invented pollinators adapted to their unique flowers. Have groups decide how to present their inventions to the class. They might choose a spokesperson or make a creative group presentation. Encourage the class to guess the purpose of the different structures on each invented flower.

Biodiversity Detectives

Consider having groups of students systematically gather and record data on the abundance and types of pollinators, other animals, and plants they find in several different types of outdoor contexts: a managed environment such as a lawn, a wildflower meadow, school garden, and/or woodland, for instance. Assign each group to choose a one-meter-square area to observe (or a size appropriate to your time frame, goals, and students' abilities). Next, they'll record the numbers of different organisms they find and figure out the relative abundance of each group (for instance, flowers, grasses, bees, butterflies, toads). As they compare data, ask them to look for patterns and make generalizations. Which types of environments supports the greatest diversity of organisms? Of pollinators? You may want to share that the biodiversity (different types of living things in an ecosystem) is considered a good indicator of the health and stability of an ecosystem. Pollinators thrive when their habitat needs are met, which include sunlight, open spaces, and different types of flowering plants. (Although students may find lots of species in a woodland area, it will not likely offer the sunlight required by many flowering plants and, thus, pollinators.)

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