In search of the most important species on the planet
By Molly Weeks Crumbley
Can you name a pollinator other than a bee?
I know I had to learn about pollination in school, but it wasn’t something I really thought about growing up. Sure, I’ve admired a blooming flower or a passing butterfly, but I didn’t understand the importance of pollinators until I started teaching my son at home a few years ago. As he and I delved into the natural sciences together, our studies led us to the different life cycles of animals, insects and plants.
We ordered a butterfly greenhouse and a few cups of caterpillars to tend to, and I quickly fell in love with them. The more we learned together, the more I realized how important pollinators were, and not just members of the annual Painted Lady butterfly family. We learned that tons of other creatures were pollinators too.
“Birds, bats, butterflies, moths, flies, beetles, wasps, small mammals, and bees are all pollinators,” the Maryland Park Service explains on its website. “They visit flowers to drink nectar or feed on pollen and carry pollen grains as they move from place to place.”
It may not seem like much, but it turns out we’d be doomed without our flower-crazed creatures.
Pollinators are indeed an integral part of the survival of all species on the planet.
“Pollination is not just a fascinating natural story. It is an essential ecological survival function,” says the United States Forest Service. “Without pollinators, the human race and all of Earth’s terrestrial ecosystems would not survive.”
When insects and animals participate in pollination, they help plants reproduce and grow, which helps create food sources, contributes to oxygen production, purifies water and prevents damaging erosion. . In other words, small creatures have a huge impact.
Two years after falling into a pollination information hole, my family took steps to make our backyard more welcoming to them. In addition to the small vegetable garden we already had, we created a small pollinator garden using native plants. As our coneflowers, goldenrods, milkweeds and black-eyed Susans grew and bloomed, we were shocked at the sheer number of creatures that were attracted.
My son and I started spending mornings in the yard watching the various butterflies, bees, beetles and hummingbirds that came for a drink. So far we have identified over 30 different species in our own backyard and my neighbors are used to seeing me crawling around in the dirt with a camera to take pictures of insects.
Save the bees (and other pollinators)
Unfortunately, I learned that many pollinators are in decline as they lose their habitat to disease, drought, and human development.
Fortunately, places like terrestrial preserves and parks play an important role in protecting and celebrating our pollinators, and here in Maryland, we have plenty of those spaces.
As the Maryland Department of Natural Resources points out, “One of the biggest reasons for pollinator decline is habitat loss. Maryland’s state parks are a great place to learn about pollinators and the important habitats that support them. To that end, the Maryland Park Service is going one step further and celebrating the humble pollinator in its 15e year of the popular Park Quest program. This year’s theme: Parks for Pollinators.
Maryland park managers created Park Quest in 2008 to encourage families to visit their state parks and experience the natural wonders that surround them. While rangers originally led many quests, which required registration, many are now in a self-guided format that gives participants more flexibility when making their quest travel plans.
This year, 19 parks have quests available through October, and there are also monthly bonus quests and park choice quests to choose from. Any team that completes 12 or more quests is eligible for a draw in November.
Here in Chesapeake Country, a handful of state parks participate in Park Quest: Sandy Point in Anne Arundel County, Point Lookout in St. Mary’s County, and Calvert Cliffs in Calvert County.
To find out more, my family and I decided to team up and try Park Quest.
We go in search
My husband, son and I headed to Calvert Cliffs over Father’s Day weekend for our inaugural quest. The Calvert Cliffs activity, nicknamed Pollinator-Palooza, is a self-guided scavenger hunt.
“Your quest is to walk the Red Trail, making careful observations of plants, their pollinators, and their pollination results. Take photos of your observations and upload them to iNaturalist to help you identify them. Good luck and good watching!”
The free plant and animal identification app, iNaturalist, was created by the National Geographic Society and the California Academy of Science. It is readily available on all major smartphones and devices and can help identify and share species information anywhere in the world. My newfound interest in insects and plants has already led me to use iNaturalist on my phone, so preparing for our quest was extremely easy.
Once the three of us had put on hiking boots and sun hats, we were good to go.
Calvert Cliffs is a designated wildlife area spanning 1,079 acres for hiking and nature appreciation. It’s home to several hiking trails, but the red trail deservedly gets most of the glory. One of the most popular trails in the park, it takes hikers 3.6 glorious miles through woods and marshes before ending at a small, windy beach on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay. This is the trail we headed towards, our still energetic 9 year old leaping ahead of us to lead the way.
The weather was unusually cool and windy, which made for extremely pleasant hiking conditions. As we walked towards the beach, we could hear the chirping and croaking of frogs and birds around us, and we encountered several animals, insects and plants to identify in iNaturalist.
Definitely the most beautiful spot on the hike was the expanse of lily pad filled wetlands, a serene marsh that also produced our highest species count.
After uploading our photos to the app at home later, our full list of identifications included white-tailed deer, toothy skinks, pond sliders, painted turtles, American water lilies, whorled coreopsis , lizard-tailed plants and a summer azure butterfly.
Our Pollinator-Palooza quest was extremely simple to complete, but that simplicity encouraged us to get out into the woods and pay more attention to our surroundings as we went.
My family plans to research some of the other nearby quest areas to see how much we can accomplish in the coming months. We still love to hike, but we’re not always good at taking the time to do it. Park Quest might just be the motivation we need to spend time together in nature in a low-key and enjoyable way. If your family or friends want to team up to try it out for yourself, there’s still plenty of time to see what Maryland’s state parks have to offer.
Learn more at: dnr.maryland.gov/parkquest/Pages/Home.aspx.
Maybe we’ll see you there!