Becky Griffin

Becky Griffin, community and school garden coordinator for the UGA Extension Service and creator of the Great Georgia Pollinator Census.

Bugs. They’re part of summer, and sometimes you hate ’em.

And yet there’s a lot to love about some bugs, especially those known as “pollinators.” They’re the ones you see on flowers, the ones responsible for the apples and blueberries and squash

Pollinators are everywhere. You see ’em all the time – bees, butterflies, and more – so it’s easy to assume that there are plenty to go around. 

Lately, however, some have warned of declining populations of these all-important insects. So how are pollinator populations actually doing? 

One of the people interested in answering that question is Becky Griffin, community and school garden coordinator for the UGA Extension Service. Becky is the driving force behind a statewide initiative known as the Great Georgia Pollinator Census, an innovative program designed to promote sustainable pollinator habitat throughout the state while increasing what she calls “entomological literacy” and, simultaneously, capturing a snapshot of how pollinators are doing across the state.

It’s science, sure. It’s also a great excuse to get outdoors later this month and do something totally different while making make a contribution to the greater good.

Becky notes that the Great Georgia Pollinator Census is modeled after Cornell University’s annual (and highly successful) Great Backyard Bird Count. Like the Backyard Bird Count, the Pollinator Census is a citizen scientist-based program where regular folks like you and me can help gather data (count bugs, that is) and thus make a meaningful contribution.

Pollinators, for the purposes of this count, are grouped into eight categories (bumble bees, carpenter bees, small bees, honey bees, wasps, flies, butterflies and other insects). Counting them is remarkably straightforward, and there’s even a video on the project’s website (GGaPC.org) to show you how it’s done.

The magic happens on either Friday, Aug. 23 or Saturday, Aug. 24, when folks across Georgia will literally count pollinators on “pollinator plants” – that is, on a plant with flowers that attract pollinating insects. Just 15 minutes is all that’s required. You can spare a quarter hour, can’t you? Sure you can! Do it for the bugs!

A key, of course, is to locate a suitable pollinator-attracting plant. You may need look no farther than your own backyard. Zinnias, lantana, black-eyed Susans, even milkweed – the list goes on and on. Another approach is to visit one of Georgia’s many botanical gardens. The State Botanical Garden in Athens and the Coastal Botanical Garden in Savannah are good bets; so are many other gardens and a number of state parks. 

If none of those options pans out, how about observing a flowering potted plant on your porch or back deck? That works too, Becky says. The project website includes a list of suitable plants that will be blooming in August, and you may be able to pick one up at your local nursery. Of course, the longer you can have that plant in place before census day, the better your chances of attracting pollinating insects.

Once your plant has been chosen, decide how you’ll observe it. You will need to be close to it, but since the observation period is only 15 minutes, you won’t have to plan for long-term comfort. 

Then, when census day rolls around, get into position and set your timer for 15 minutes. Then let the counting begin. For even more fun, get your kids or grandkids involved in the bug counting too.

How do you figure out what you are seeing? Illustrations on the project website will help you determine what’s what and will, for example, help you distinguish flies from wasps and bees.

But wait a minute. Did I say bees and wasps? Isn’t that risky? 

“As long you’re not grabbing anything,” she says, “those insects are going to stay focused on the flowers. They’re not interested in you at all.”

So (hard though it is for me to say this, since I absolutely am not a fan of things that sting) don’t sweat the wasps and bees. Instead, focus on seeing how many pollinators you can spot on your plant. As you identify each pollinator, tally what you see on the reporting sheet printed from the GGaPC website. That sheet provides blocks where you can record sightings for each of the eight different types of pollinators being counted. 

The final and critically important step is to upload your results on the project website. Reporting your results only takes a few minutes. Once you send your data on its way you’ll be able to bask in the satisfaction of having made a contribution to some potentially very important research.

There. You’ve done some science and gotten to know some pollinators too – and I’ll bet you’ve had some fun while doing your bit for the betterment of those all-important bugs.

For more information on the Great Georgia Pollinator Census, visit GGaPC.org.

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