By Hannah Smith
The Gaffield Children’s Garden is a wonderful place that provides a variety of hands-on environmental education experiences for children. One of the goals of the garden is to spark an interest in nature with kids and inspire them to beceome the future stewards of our planet.
A recent project in the garden was the transformation of the former butterfly garden into a pollinator garden, with a focus on native pollinators such as mason bees. Mason bees will also benefit the Grower’s Garden section of the Gaffield as they are great pollinators of food crops.

The habitats that the Wolverine Pathways
 students built for the Gaffield.
The tunnels are different heights
and sizes to allow multiple sizes
of bees to make their homes there.
For nature-based learning, mason bees provide the perfect starting point: they are solitary, non-stinging, non-swarming, and they prefer to seek out and live in habitats built and provided by humans. Their houses are small and easy to build, low maintenance, and easy to get up close to and watch since the bees are so friendly.
We decided that having mason bee habitats in the children’s garden would be beneficial both for the plants and for the educational opportunity that these bees offer. Since the houses are easy to build and a great learning tool, we thought of ways that visitors could incorporate them into their own lives outside of the children’s garden. I designed two activities. The first was with the Wolverine Pathways Scholars who visited Matthaei in July. For the Scholars’ visit we built mason bee habitats to install in the Gaffield. The other activity was created for Things with Wings, our annual family festival that celebrates winged creatures. For Things with Wings kids built their own houses to put in their gardens at home. (Two reason why, if you saw me any time in July, I probably had a bucket of bamboo in hand!)
To build the houses, we cut bamboo into 4- to 8-inch pieces (special thank you to everyone who helped me cut and hollow out bamboo pieces) and tied groups of them together with wire and twine. These bamboo tunnels are where the mason bees lay their eggs. As the bees go about setting up their households, you can watch them collect nectar, leaves, mud, and other materials from the garden and fill their individual tunnels with them. Many of the interns attended the field trip in July at Michigan State University, where one of the gardens housed a “Wild Bee Hotel” built by MSU hort staff.
I noticed as I worked with younger kids in Things with Wings, and then older students in Wolverine Pathways, that many understand what happens in plants during the pollination process. They also were aware that pollinators are good things, but at the same time weren’t so keen on the idea of having tons of bees flying around. Both the younger and older kids were interested to learn that these bees are very friendly, and after discussing the real importance of pollination the students seemed to be more enthusiastic about pollinators as a whole—and that having pollinators around doesn’t necessarily mean getting stung.

Helping kids build their houses
at Things With Wings.
As we assemnbled theme we
focused on explaining how
the habitats work and why
they are important.
The mason bee houses will be installed in the Gaffield around April 2017 when the bees’ working season begins and visitors will be able to watch this amazing process take place. Our hope is that the presence of the bee houses in the children’s garden will offer something new that kids may not have learned or experienced before, spark some interest or excitement about it, and inspire them to be stewards of native pollinators in their own lives. My hope is that providing an activity at Things with Wings, where kids built bee houses to install in their own gardens, will allow them to watch the process in their own backyards and get interested and inspired.

A mason bee pokes its head out of the end of its home.

The “Wild Bee Hotel” in action at
Michigan State Botanic Gardens.
They shared with us that they have
over thirty species that visit their
hotel in a day – I’d love to see
something to this extent in our
garden eventually!

Incorporating mason bee houses into your garden is an easy way to watch and learn about pollination. Providing habitats for our native bees makes it easier for them to do their jobs, and it helps the plants immensely. And it’s a bonus that the mason bees and their miniature houses also make a cute beautiful and visually striking addition to any garden!
Hannah Smith, from Northville, Michigan, is entering her senior year majoring in Program in the Environment and minoring in sustainability with a specialization in environmental policy. Hannah is working as an intern in the Gaffield Children’s Garden.
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