Pollinator Spaces: Promoting Pollinator Conservation and Sustainability

Becky GriffinBecky Griffin’s i-Three Issue Corps project is dedicated to creating gardens that support pollinator habitats and provide hands-on pollinator education throughout Georgia. The impact she is seeking is to increase pollinator awareness in her state by facilitating the development of school and community gardens and supporting the effort with high-quality, engaging communications. At the NeXC2016 Conference, she gleaned advice from key informants that she applied to achieve an award-winning gardening blog and to integrate management of her social media to facilitate message delivery across platforms. Finally, she applied what she learned about story mapping to create a map showing the many locations and photos of the completed pollinator spaces–a visible, measurable evaluation of her project’s progress and results. Becky is a community and school garden coordinator with the University of Georgia Extension.

When Becky Griffin first learned of eXtension’s i-Three Issue Corps initiative in fall 2015, she immediately recognized an opportunity to expand the impact of her gardening program for 2016.

“Being part of the Issue Corps is one of the best things I’ve done in my professional life,” Becky says.

Becky, who is University of Georgia Extension’s community and school garden coordinator, worked in the past primarily with food gardeners. However, for 2016 she envisioned introducing education on pollinators and their habitat needs into her work.  Increasingly in past years, her community gardeners, both rural and urban, were experiencing a decline in typically abundant crops, such as cucumbers and squash, that require pollinators.

Addressing the Needs of Pollinators

The decline of pollinators—not just domestic honey bees (which most people think of as the pollinators), but wild native bees, wasps, butterflies and even birds and bats—has been so alarming in Georgia that the state has developed a statewide plan to promote public awareness and proactive stewardship of its pollinator workforce.

Through her Issue Corps Pollinator Spaces Project, Becky set out to create experiential learning opportunities for students and community members about the needs of pollinators by adding pollinator habitats into their gardens statewide. Her project required exceptional energy and project management skills, covering communities and presentations throughout the state. It also required strong communication outreach.

Becky looked to her Issue Corps experience to provide her with professional development in using the right mix of social media effectively. She needed to support her volunteer gardeners with educational resources, to record and share photos of the new gardens and to inform the public about these special gardens and their purpose: to address the urgent issue of declining pollinator populations.

Agility in the Face of Change

Green Meadows Community Garden Pollinator Plants
Green Meadows Community Garden Pollinator Space

Georgia had an early planting season in 2016, making it easier for Becky to travel the state giving presentations to schools and community gardening groups, gaining their commitment and capturing information for tracking their progress. This was the first step in her goal of creating behavior change—getting them to deliberately include pollinator spaces in their gardens.  As an inducement, she distributed seeds for Sulphur Cosmos, a pollinator-favorite flower.

Early in the growing season, however, concern about the mosquito-borne zika virus gripped the state, prompting gardeners and public members to begin heavy spraying of pesticides.

“It was what I call a light-bulb moment—a teaching moment,” says Becky. “Most people, including many of my project gardeners, didn’t understand that mosquito-targeting pesticides can kill all sorts of insects. I found myself unexpectedly having to focus on pesticide education: ‘Don’t ever spray on the blooms. Don’t spray during the pollinator’s working hours between early morning and sundown.’”

“Pesticide management is critical,” Becky adds. “Georgia is still not seeing the butterflies we were hoping for. Education about the habits and homes of native bees is essential—they can be mistaken for pests and attacked with pesticides.  I’ve also created classes on protecting honeybees,” says Becky who is a certified beekeeper.

Then, unexpectedly Georgia experienced record heat and went into a drought. Mosquitos all but disappeared. Becky’s education focus had to shift to emphasize planting heat and drought-tolerant varieties (Sulphur Cosmos luckily are), recognizing symptoms of heat stress in a garden and responding with proper irrigation practices.

Communication Strategies That Delivered

Becky credits her i-Three Issue Corps experience and eXtension’s March NeXC2016 Conference, particularly the day spent with key-informant experts, for her agility in adapting her messaging while maintaining the momentum of her social media outreach to her many followers. At this writing, she has more than 80 gardens and hundreds of volunteers in her project.

“Being part of the Issue Corps is one of the best things I’ve done in my professional life,” Becky says. “There are so many things I can point to that helped me. A key-informant reviewed my blog website and urged me to ‘use more voice’ to make the content more friendly, personal, sharing my failures as well as successes with my own garden.” This advice alone led to a big increase in hits, and Becky’s gardening blog website was selected in July as Number 20 among the top 100 gardening blog sites.

Other benefits she cites are the Impact Statement Reporting Course on eXtension.org, “where I learned how to measure impact and behavior change.” She also praises the social media expert group at NeXC2016 who taught her “how to be smarter with social media, how to report more judiciously on Facebook, and how to run it all from my website.”

Perhaps the showcase of her expanded communication skill is her just-completed story map, developed with coaching from eXtension Innovation Project Awardee Shane Bradt of the University of New Hampshire. Becky met Shane, leader of eXtension’s Geospatial Technology community, at NeXC2016.  She was referred to him after asking if anyone knew a strategy for using photos, like those of the pollinator spaces she was collecting, for evaluating a project.

Becky’s story map communicates the spirit and achievement of her Pollinator Spaces Project far better than any article, such as this, can. Clearly, Becky’s project and innovative approach to sharing it throughout Georgia suggest a model that other Extension professionals might adopt for increasing pollinator awareness and protection in their states.