If you pour it, they will come.
“It” is beer, and “they” are the millennials and Gen Xers being beckoned to Stillwater on Sunday for a “party with a purpose.”
Along with local brew, food and live music, organizers hope attendees will soak up the message: that pollinators are in peril and regular folks can help, by planting habitat and saying no to harmful pesticides.
“You can’t get a beer without seeing a hummingbird or bumblebee,” said Laurie Schneider, co-president of the Pollinator Friendly Alliance (pollinatorfriendly.org), thanks to all the pollinator-themed art and a 3-D photo stage. “We wanted to get the message to the audience that has the biggest impact — people age 25 to 45 … raising families and making lifestyle decisions. To attract that audience, we needed to put on an awesome party … with an educational component wrapped in art and games.”
Bees have been a hot topic in recent years, so there’s no shortage of information on how to help them — from seminars to garden club presentations to information booths at plant sales. But those outreach methods are often preaching to the choir. With Sunday’s Polli-Nation event, organizers are sweetening their pitch in hopes of reaching far beyond the core group of concerned gardeners and bee advocates.
In Minnesota, that core group is large and active — a network of passionate grass-roots activists, representing several dozen micro initiatives and thousands of volunteers. Some have expertise in horticulture or beekeeping, but many are just regular folks with so much passion for pollinators that they’re devoting evenings and weekends and their own money to give talks, plant pollinator-friendly plants and produce websites and hand out materials.
“There’s a ton of education going on out there — NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] are a big part of that,” said bee expert Vera Krischik, associate professor at the University of Minnesota. “There are a lot of little not-for-profit organizations. It’s wonderful that people want to do something.”
Bee awareness has “just exploded,” said Heather Holm, a Minnetonka horticulturist and author of “Pollinators of Native Plants” (pollinatorsnativeplants.com).
“Five years ago, nobody was paying attention,” she said. “Now when I speak, people tell me how many bees they’ve seen and how great it is. It’s fantastic.”
Bee-friendly gardening is a trend with surprising staying power, fueled by growing interest in healthy food, the White House pollinator garden and the modern farmer as “rock star,” said Katie Dubow of Garden Media Group. And while some observers may vent on social media that all this “save the bees” stuff is giving them bee fatigue, local activists say they remain committed for the long haul.
“This is my passion. I have to say ‘no’ to a lot of other causes to make time for this one,” said Julia Vanatta, co-founder of Pollinator Revival (pollinatorrevival.org).
Schneider said, “This is a grass-roots movement — a tight network of people. It’s not going away.”
Bee advocacy began with concern about honeybee die-off and the potential effects on the food supply, Holm said. “It started with an economic cry for help. That was the turning point.”
Now advocacy is expanding to other types of pollinators. “There are 425 species of wild bees that don’t get attention,” she said. “They’re in even more trouble.”
Many of the bee-friendly plant lists being circulated are “completely confusing,” she said, because they’re designed for honeybees. “We need to find balance with what people plant, so some bees don’t get left out of the picture.”
On the whole, the bee education provided by passionate laypeople is accurate, Krischik said. “People can get so emotional they don’t know what they’re talking about. But the ones I deal with are all very educated. They send me things to read. I am very impressed with the people volunteering their time.”
Local advocates have staked out various pieces of the big pollinator picture. Before dreaming up Polli-Nation, the Pollinator Friendly Alliance successfully lobbied several cities to adopt practices such as stopping the use of neonicotinoids (systemic insecticides) on city land and planting pollinator-friendly plants. Proceeds from Polli-Nation will help establish a “corridor” of pollinator-friendly plants to replace expanses of turf grass, Schneider said.
Vanatta and Marilyn Jones, her Pollinator Revival co-founder, first joined forces to get “neonics” out of local hardware stores. “It’s an uphill battle,” Vanatta said. So she and Jones have turned their focus to promoting integrated-pest management.
They’re developing a laminated cheat sheet listing the least toxic treatment for a host of pests, and hope to get it into hardware stores, so that clerks have a hands-on tool when consumers ask about pest control.
“People are working their little niches,” Vanatta said. “Our niche is this little educational aspect.”
Maybe you’ve noticed a “Bee Safe Yard” sign in your neighborhood. The signs are produced by Humming for Bees (hummingforbees.org), a small group founded by spouses Patricia Hauser and Jeff Dinsmore, a beekeeper, to encourage conversation about pollinators. To get the $10 sign, a homeowner must pledge not to use neonicotinoids and to plant “clean” plants that have not been treated with the chemicals. So far, they’ve sold more than 800 signs, mostly in the western suburbs. Humming for Bees also worked with the city of Shorewood to become Minnesota’s first “Bee Safe City.”
Erin Rupp, founder of Pollinate Minnesota (pollinatemn.org), focuses on “informal science education” and advocacy. She’s been fascinated with bees since she first started beekeeping in 2007. “They just hook you,” she said.
She first worked with Beez Kneez, which provides beekeeper support services, then decided to form her own organization to spread bee appreciation — giving talks, then inviting her listeners to don bee-safe suits and “hang out” with the bees.
“They’re so wonderful and fascinating,” she said.
Bee education is a family affair for Jim Nelson. With his wife, Nenita; daughter, Kristin, and a handful of friends, he formed the Bumble Bee Conservancy, “a learning circle” that produces and distributes free materials on nurturing native bees — “not just to make your yard pretty, but to give them a place to live,” he said. “This is my contribution, my family’s gift to whoever is listening. We’re trying to get out basic information, with the hope gardeners will take note, ask for native plants, and if they see bees come out of a hole, not run to the hardware store to get something to kill them.”
With so many small initiatives underway, bee activists risk duplication of effort. That’s one reason a group of them came together last summer. “We had a summit in St. Cloud, to talk about how we work within our individual groups toward a common goal,” Vanatta said.
Can individuals and small groups really have an impact? Yes, advocates insist. Because so much agricultural land consists of vast fields of corn and soybeans, which don’t support pollinators, it’s up to individuals to provide habitat in their own yards and public spaces.
“Urban and suburban landscapes are going to be the answer in supporting common species,” Holm said.
Grass-roots bee activists are rebels with an important cause, in Krischik’s view.
“Eleanor Roosevelt said, ‘It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness,’” she said. “These people are lighting candles. They are the foot soldiers. When I talk to groups, I tell them, ‘You are the Boston Tea Party — a modern example of people trying to protect their interests and start a revolution.’ ”