So last year, she decided to do something about it.

Rustad, 18, who graduated this month from Stillwater Area High School, started a Girl Scout project to create and promote habitat for monarch butterflies and other pollinators. Since starting the work, she has helped plant about a dozen pesticide-free gardens in Washington County and created educational curriculum for local schools so that “kids will learn about the roles of monarchs,” she said.

Rustad’s project, titled “Feed and Flutter: Promoting Monarch Habitats,” was considered so outstanding that she recently won the Girl Scouts’ Gold Award, a top honor bestowed on only 5.4 percent of eligible girls in scouting.

Rustad is one of several Washington County students involved in combating the decline of pollinator populations threatened by habitat loss and the use of pesticides, specifically neonicotinoids — a type of insecticide linked to the demise of bees and monarch butterflies.

“I know this is kind of cliché, but as young people we are in charge of the future, and monarchs and other pollinators play a huge role in our daily lives,” she said. “Some people don’t realize how important they are.”

Laurie Schneider, co-president of the Pollinator Friendly Alliance, a group of local beekeepers and concerned citizens, does.

Schneider said she recruited Rustad last fall to join the alliance, which introduced a resolution before the Stillwater City Council in September — Rustad wore sparkly butterfly wings at the meeting — calling for the city to stop using harmful pesticides and begin planting pollinator-friendly gardens in some of its parks.

City officials passed the measure in April, and Stillwater joined several other metro cities — including Shorewood, St. Louis Park, Lake Elmo and Andover — that have pledged to become pollinator-friendly.

Schneider said the alliance won a $5,000 grant earlier this spring that has allowed it to begin planting gardens to attract bees and butterflies. The organization has already planted gardens in Northland, Ramsey Grove and Triangle parks in Stillwater, and plans to plant other pollinator forage areas in and around the city.

Rustad was at Ramsey Grove last weekend, hours before her high school graduation, planting milkweed and native plants. She said she plans to continue planting the gardens with other members of the alliance until she leaves home in the fall to attend Boston University, where she will study French and chemistry.

Solving a ‘local issue’

Rustad isn’t the only student determined to reduce the death toll of pollinators.

Over the past year, four Washington County high school students have studied how bees survive the state’s frigid winter weather.

The students, in grades 8-11, are participating in an educational program, called the 4-H Science of Agriculture Challenge, sponsored by the University of Minnesota.

The program challenges the teens to identify an agricultural issue in Minnesota and find a science-based solution to that problem, said Kristin Weeldreyer, who oversees their work. The four teens decided to study the decline of bees, she said, and contacted local beekeepers to find out what issues bees face, aside from the dramatic decline in their populations.

“There are a lot of different things that contribute to the decline of bees,” said Weeldreyer’s son, Justin, 16, one of the four students participating in the 4-H challenge. Among them: the use of harmful pesticides and other chemicals.

“When they wanted us to identify an agricultural issue, we wanted something that could make a difference — that we could actually help people out by researching,” Justin Weeldreyer said. “It’s data that beekeepers can actually benefit from.”

The students began researching factors that contribute to successful “overwinterization” of bees in Minnesota. With the help of Dustin Vanasse, a professional beekeeper, the group began collecting data.

Vanasse, who owns a Maplewood-based company that produces honey, is the team’s mentor. He said many large beekeepers move their bees out of Minnesota during the winter months to protect them from the cold. But for smaller beekeepers, sustaining their colonies when the temperatures drop can be a real problem.

Inadequate heat, a lack of food, mildew and the spread of diseases all threaten bee colonies, Justin Weeldreyer said.

The project goal is to collect data on beekeeping practices, organize and analyze it, and make it available for the public, he said. The teens will present their findings at the university on June 18 and 19.

But their interest in the subject won’t stop there. Justin Weeldreyer said one of his teammates now has his own beehive, and a queen bee he dubbed “Victoria.”

“This is a really huge issue, and we’re starting to understand more and more about what is affecting high collapses and different pollinator populations,” Kristin Weeldreyer said. “It’s really important to get [youth] thinking about it now, because that’s really going to affect the behaviors they have in the future.”


Blair Emerson is a Twin Cities freelance writer.