Encouraging the exploration of nature in school gardens and urban settings.

Eating Machines

As we walk through our gardens we often discover plants that have been destroyed by some bug or pest. It is interesting when we change our perspective. A chewed leaf can be turned into a clue about a beautiful visitor to our garden. In small urban places we still have many beautiful visitors. I took this picture of  decimated milkweed that grows in a very unique place in our garden. This unique space is a tented garden at Theodore Judah Elementary that we fondly call the flower jungle or the butterfly pavilion. These sticks may look bare and ugly, but they are a sign that some of our favorite creatures have been eating their fill.

In the special pavilion we raise Monarchs each year. It is an amazing experience for students to observe  the entire life cycle. We start with live butterflies and then allow them to lay eggs on the milkweed. You may not know that many butterfly species select only one plant to host their eggs. This plant is called the host plant for this species. It is our urban spaces that have destroyed much of the needed habitat for Monarchs. Milkweed can grow anywhere that is left to reseed. It is a weed, but it is also beautiful, both when it is flowering and when it is producing seed. To attract a particular butterfly, you must have this host plant. These Monarch caterpillars treat the milkweed like you or I might treat a large ice cream sundae. In fact I have read that a caterpillar will eat 2,700 times its original weight.


The reason I love to see these well eaten plants is that it means these plump caterpillars will be full enough to form their chrysalis. If you have never seen one, it is a beautiful green jewel. It truly is mind boggling. The chrysalis has this fabulous gold stitching on it. I don’t understand how? Finding chrysalises is a tremendous adventure. They are well camouflaged. A scavenger hunt for chrysalis can keep children engaged for a long time. Actually, it can keep adults engaged too. This last week we had a large number of butterflies emerge in our pavilion, busting out of now translucent chrysalis. By late in the day we 12 new Monarchs fluttering around our garden. We were lucky enough to have a parent filming and he caught a butterfly emerging. The following link will allow you to see this (and to hear the kids in the background). We don’t always have a place of natural peace for these creatures, but they are well admired and cared for of course. This is the link to view the video http://youtu.be/NAYYxRho9a4.

I have so much to share about our butterflies this fall but I think I will stop here and encourage you to take a last look before fall moves in to winter. You may have those last hearty creepy crawlers in your yard. Your kids would be happy to find them. I will give you a strong hint, if you have cabbage, broccoli or cauliflower and the sun is out, you have cabbage white butterflies. All those leaves that have been eaten through……… will you tent one and observe it? Or….. will you smash that green caterpillar and save the broccoli. It is a debate, I know. I just want to encourage all those desiring to teach our kids to reconnect with the natural urban world, there are two sides to everything. One bare broccoli plant might lead to some rich learning.

If you want to hear some great stories about our butterfly releases see the next blog, until then go caterpillar hunting.

The Flowers and the Bees

Yesterday I took 2 students into our school garden. We have an arrangement with a local business to provide them with fresh flowers each week. The students are thrilled to have the opportunity to make the flower arrangement, but I had no idea the value those few minutes could have in providing learning. The first few minutes of our conversation was focused around bees. One of the students expressed a fear of bees, very common to many children. I assured her that we would be careful, but my next question was, “what would happen if we didn’t have bees?” Many children know that bees are pollinators, but they have no idea what pollination does for a plant. When I told both the girls they would not have any fruits or vegetables without pollination they looked at me stunned. Of course flowers are the first step to fruits and vegetables. As we skipped into the first garden to pick some sunflowers, we found many had small native bees on them (only now do I know they are native and I will get to that) and the girls started observing, without fear. We looked at the pollen the bee was carrying on it’s back legs. We also discussed how this bee carries this pollen to multiple plants. This student suddenly lost her interest in cutting flowers and wanted to check each plant for bees, the fear was gone. After a hand full of sunflowers were harvested we moved to our native plant garden. Here we discovered a Humminging bird. Hummingbirds are one of my favorite animals. They are amazing to watch. I had never thought that flower picking would lead to a conversation about Humminbirds. Native plants are a favorite delicacy for Hummingbirds. The long bell shaped flowers of “hummingbird sage” are perfectly designed for the beak of a Hummingbird. It is like an inside out straw for them. Not only do they love the nectar of these flowers, but they perform the task of pollinators as well.  So then the girls moved into searching for bell and tubular flowers that the Hummingbirds would like. Our flower arrangement was quickly become a “feast for the pollinators”. Finally, we moved into our last garden. On the walk to the last space one of the girls said, “I love nature!” and the second girl, ” I never realized we had so many gardens”. It was a beautiful illustration of nature being discovered within the vast expanse of asphalt on our campus. The best was still yet to come. When we arrived at what we call the Cafeteria garden to gather the last of our flower bouquet, we discovered a very large spider. One of the girls turned to me and said, with great enthusiasm, “What can you tell me about spiders?” It just made me smile. In a few moments of flower picking these girls had acquired a little less fear (of bees), a bit of observation, appreciation and peaked curiosity. Who knew flower picking could be so valuable. What activity can you do with children today that might peak their interest and cause them to hone their observation skills?

My curiosity was peaked just last weekend as I observed the native bees. I hadn’t learned much about native bees. I know that most of us think about the bee hive, the honey or the swarm. I hadn’t learned much about solitary bees. As I started to investigate I found that the native bee is playing quite a role in the urban areas of California. There is a well known entomologist from U.C Berkeley named Gordon Frankie that is starting a movement to consider the importance of our native bees. A quote from Orion Magazine’s article called The Headbonkers Ball ( http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/2869/) states the following, “Frankie is concerned less with the bees’ agronomic utility than with buttressing their foothold in California’s cities and with reconnecting the state’s human urban dwellers with the native bees that have persisted, largely unnoticed, in their midst. He is laboring to convince gardeners to see their yards as something more than a bunch of flowers and to repurpose their gardens as food sources for the animals that carry out the ecologically vital process of pollination in the city. That effort feels something like the campaign to create World War II victory gardens—but this time in the service of conserving biodiversity.”

I find it interesting that the effort has turned urban even in the midst of such a diverse agricultural landscape. The bees I have learned are many in species. In fact in California alone there are approximately 1000 bee species and only 26 are bumblebees. The remaining species are natives and are considered solitary bees. They build their nest in the ground, in tubes, or other small protective ares. They work quickly and efficiently, often traveling short distances to collect pollen. In other words, if you have native bees they are more likely to be faithful to your flowers and if left alone may reproduce and increase the pollination of your garden. The amazing thing about these native bees is that many are adapted to a particular flower or species. They also use various methods to collect pollen. They are very specialized little creatures.

I took a walk through my own yard just this afternoon to see what I could find. Her are a few pictures I took. I realized in only a few moments that the difference in these little bees I have seen every day are quite obvious. It’s amazing I never noticed. How crazy.

All these bees were found within 10 minutes and within 4 feet of one another.

I also realized that my summer garden could have benefited from some variety of flowers through out. I needed to attract more of these dedicated workers. I guess if I had planned ahead I could have been collecting flowers for an arrangement in my house and observing the bees at the same time, probably feeling satisfied by their accomplishments. In closing I would say these urban spaces have had a victory today.  What is your urban space teaching you today?


This site speaks about The Entomologist from UC Berkeley, great article


“Preying” Mantis

We are all able to find or remember a time that we have discovered a well camouflaged Praying Mantis. They are amazing animals to watch. They seem to have a super natural intelligence by the way they move their large head and look with their angular eyes. They have such quick front legs that can reach out an snatch something in an instant. I wonder if we should rename them to “Preying” Manits? I realize they look as though they are praying, but interestingly enough is the fact that they are always preying on other insects. Their legs and jaws act as amazing tools for catching their prey.

You may have wondered why some are have such a large body and some of long narrow bodies? Well, the large body provides space for the female to carry the egg sac. In fact you may notice that a female Praying Mantis has a body that is the same shape as the Praying Mantis Egg sacs that you may find under branches, on fences or in insect rich locations. These eggs sacks may release from 100-200 babies. They will all come out at one time. If you happen to try hatching an eggs sac in a classroom you may have tiny little Mantis’s before you realize what has happened. ( i just found my picture with a mantis that had just laid an egg)

What draws me to this discussion? This weekend during a tour in our school garden we found a Praying Mantis eating a bee. It was amazing to watch. My first thought was, “how can a Mantis eat a bee without being stung?” He was chewing the “fuzz” and all. Someone in our group was very experienced with insects and commented that it was a native bee. As we observed the Mantis we further discussed the areas of the garden in which we observed native bees and honey bees. I had never made this observation and had very little knowledge of the difference. So, as always, here begins my exploration. In my next few posts I plan to discover the difference and start an exploration on native bees versus honey bees.

For now, I will continue down the Mantis discovery. I have included a photo of the Mantis, well camouflaged, eating his bee. How do you think he avoided being stung? Did you know that when he finished he cleaned his hands and front legs well and then “reset” his position to catch his next snack? Insects are really interesting.

In light of the fact that we are on a mission to rediscover nature in urban places, this is a great exercise for students on a school campus or children in a back yard. Go on a “Mantis Hunt”. Can you find any egg sacks? Do they look like they are still holding babies or have they hatched? Can you recognize a male Mantis from the female? Did you find any babies? Are you brave enough to hold the Mantis? Im not! I love many insects but the fast skidder of the Mantis and his sharp jaws are a bit much for me. I prefer to observe from a few inches away.

I often ask students/children the question, ” what is a predator”. It is great to hear all their thoughts. The younger the are, the tougher this term may be to define. At the 1st or 2nd grade level they may think that predators are only lions and tiger and bears, OH Boy! So if the Mantis is a predator, who is his prey? Can you discover other prey? Of course he must also be the prey of some other animal, who is that? It is amazing, that armed with a magnifying glass and some patience, children can learn about one very interesting insect and begin the discovery of the food web. Nature is an amazing teacher.

Our next adventure will delve into the native bees. I think it will be an exciting discovery. How can we help their plight. What do you know about them?



Seeds of a new season

Slowing down to observe nature is an amazing tool for learning and appreciation. Most of the knowledge I have acquired over the past few years has been by observing something new and then doing research to learn about it. I find that slowing kids down and teaching them to observe is a key skill in our world of fast paced technology and entertainment. One amazing process to observe is the plant cycle. In our fear of “ugly” plants and dead flowers, we have removed an important part of the life cycle of a plant. Our children, and maybe some adults assume that seeds only come from the package at the store. In our small little urban yard, I have tried to relax and allow the plants to do their job. Even this morning I am watching the birds happily eat the sunflower seeds from the drying plants. Look closely in this picture and you will discover at least 5 birds happily eating away.



Last year I took students at our school on a seed exploration. We collected seeds from native plants and grasses and replanted them. It is an amazing discovery to find this small, beautiful, unique packages (not man made) that carry seeds. There are so many shapes and sizes that kids find it to be thrilling. We enjoy flowers, to look at, to smell, to place in our homes, but we forget their purpose. Flowers and fruit are seed carriers. Even as they dry and become a bit unsightly, they have a job to accomplish. If you wait long enough, you may discover a different kind of beauty. Just yesterday I noticed the dried Peony that I had not cut away had developed large seed pods that have split open. They have a beautiful pattern and color.

Seeds are an indicator of a new season. Take this opportunity to go on a seed hunt as a family. In the process you will probably discover many other things as well. My son learned to collect seeds last year and now he is an avid collector. He bags all of his seeds and labels them for planting. It only takes a moment to train the eye and then you will be hooked. I hope you take the time to discover something beautiful today.