Promoting pollinator awareness in Pittsburgh

Pollinators are so important for the health of plants and people alike: it’s estimated that as much as 88%1 of the world’s flowering plants depend on animal pollinators, including about one-third of the world’s agricultural crops that we use as food2. This month, I participated in two awesome outreach events to promote pollinator awareness in Pittsburgh.

 June 5th – Bioblitz, Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens

For those who have never been, Phipps is magical. Not only do they have an amazing diversity of plants on display, but the conservatory does an excellent job of making you feel like you’re passing through different worlds as you move from one exhibit to another –one minute you’re in a tropical rainforest in Hawaii, the next you’re in a beautiful, temperate Japanese courtyard.

On this occasion, however, I was not at Phipps as a lucky visitor, but as a scientist at work. Members of my lab and I were leading an exhibit for their annual BioBlitz and Family Fun Festival to talk to the public about plant-pollinator interactions. For the event, I took some sturdy pieces of cardboard (that otherwise would have been thrown away) and used them to create plant and pollinator-themed boards with holes cut out so people could stick their faces through and take photos. It was a big hit with kids, of course, but adults also had fun seeing their children look adorable as little bees and flowers!

After getting a ‘pollinator selfie’, many visitors also played our plant-pollinator matching game, where they tried to match different plant species with their co-evolved pollinator partner. We gave tips along the way by describing different known ‘pollinator syndromes’ or sets of traits that plants typically have to attract a certain type of pollinator or, for pollinators, to better collect floral rewards (pollen and/or nectar) from a certain type of plant. While people found it relatively easy to match plants with bee or butterfly pollinators, the act of trying to match plants with lesser-known pollinators seemed to pose more of a challenge. For instance, people were often stuck on what pollinates the plant that makes the world’s largest flower (Rafflesia arnoldii), but many were able to get it right once they learned that the flowers have a terrible, rotting smell, which helps attract its fly pollinators.

Overall, we had a blast interacting with the visitors at BioBlitz and sharing our knowledge and research about pollination. Especially now that it’s summertime, it’s common to see all kinds of pollinators hard at work collecting pollen and nectar. We hope that our discussions were able to help the community appreciate these little critters a little more for the key service they provide us and the planet.

June 24th – Everything but the B’S with the University of Pittsburgh Office of Sustainability

Did you know that each year there is a national pollinator week to celebrate and raise awareness about pollinators? For this year’s Pollinator Week, I partnered with the University of Pittsburgh’s Office of Sustainability to put on a virtual lunch and learn called ‘Everything but the B’S, where we took the spotlight away from the types of pollinators that people generally know best (bees, butterflies and birds) and shined it on the unsung heroes of the pollinator world: flies, moths, wasps, Chiroptera (bats), ants, and beetles.

As people were obviously joining us during their lunch hour, we focused on pollinating interactions between plants and non-b pollinators that contribute significantly to the making of foods that many people enjoy on a daily basis, such as: pollination of cacao trees by small midges that ultimately gives us chocolate, or that of the Musa plant and bats which leads to wild bananas, or interactions between hoverflies and strawberry plants which new research3 has shown can produce high numbers of commercial-ready fruits. But we also discussed how non-b pollinators are important for supporting the conservation of diverse wildflowers around the world, such as plants that require night-time pollination by moths and bats, the several hundred orchid species that specialize on wasp pollination, and the beautiful magnolia trees that have been pollinated by beetles for millions of years. If you’d like to see the event for yourself, or learn more about sustainability in general, you can check out the Office of Sustainability’s YouTube channel.

How will you celebrate pollinators this year?


1 Ollerton, J., Winfree, R. and Tarrant, S. (2011), How many flowering plants are pollinated by animals? Oikos, 120: 321-326.

2 Klein, A. M., Vaissière, B. E., Cane, J. H., Steffan-Dewenter, I., Cunningham, S. A., Kremen, C., & Tscharntke, T. (2006). Importance of pollinators in changing landscapes for world crops. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 274(1608), 303–313.

3Hodgkiss, D., Brown, M. J. F., & Fountain, M. T. (2018). Syrphine hoverflies are effective pollinators of commercial strawberry. Journal of Pollination Ecology, 22(6), 55–66.

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