Bee the Change: A Journey Full of Buzz

By: Elizabeth Straszynski, MSc, BEd, Teacher & Environmental Science Coach at University of Toronto Schools

How a school started building pollinator pathways across the GTA. This article is an abridged conversation between Jessica Yu, S5 (YUJE) & Ms. Straszynski, Staff Supervisor (STRE), first published in University of Toronto Schools’ student newspaper, “Cuspidor.”

YUJE: Unbee-lievable! It was a simple question – “can we build a pollinator garden?” – that grew to Bee the Change, which will continue to grow.

The Problem: Pollinator Decline

YUJE: Pollinator populations are declining globally, undermining ecosystems that provide food, clean air, protection from soil erosion, and other critical ecosystem services. In urban areas – where habitat is increasingly destroyed and fragmented – pollinator pathways are an important means of restoration.

Our Response

STRE: In October, 2021, Jessica asked that pollinator garden question. As a Biology teacher and Envirothon coach, it meant samples for labs, mini-field trips, and research opportunities for our students. Beyond science, it meant inspiration for the Arts, Language, Math (finding algorithms in nature), or simply a place for a breath of fresh air. Here’s the reality: we were ‘between schools,’ and my own home was unavailable as a garden site. Not to mention, the pandemic. Between virtual school or in-person, we never knew where we might be.

YUJE:  Then, an outstanding idea popped into our heads: take-away DIY garden kits? Ms. Straszynski claimed this was either “very genius” or “crazy.”

STRE: Why genius? We could leverage the school’s broad catchment to benefit pollinators. Imagine a monarch migrating back from Mexico, having a rest on the U.S. side of Lake Ontario, then flying without rest across the lake, arriving to face acres of concrete with nectar sources few and far between; the GTA is butterfly food desert.

We knew that we were in a pandemic with everyone bored at home, looking for a project and longing to connect – so let’s facilitate a bit of pollinator habitat at all those homes! At the best of times, it’s difficult for every family to come to school events. Bringing everyone downtown to enjoy a school-based garden is equally inconvenient, but anyone can step out into their balcony or yard to enjoy their garden. With social media, webinars, and our planned website, we could create community across the entire GTA.

YUJE: Our pollinator garden starter kits contain 4-6 potted plants and 3-4 packets of seeds, all native perennials that provide habitat, food, and nesting for pollinators. We have options for different growing conditions (sun vs. shade, dry vs. wet). We knew these gardens could be stepping stones across the GTA for migrating butterflies, native bees, and hummingbirds.

The How

  1. ‘Seed’ Money

YUJE: We needed more opinions. This is where Ms. Chien, our second staff supervisor, and other students came in. During G Meets, we fleshed out a plan and applied for a grant from UTSPA (University of Toronto Schools Parents’ Association). We received the full request of $2550, making our project possible.

STRE: We did not actually use it all; as we made contacts, we found ways to barter or get donations, which saved a lot. We have yet to pay for one pot.

UTSPA loved our project: creating a community with an authentic project and a positive environmental impact. Maybe they also liked the fact that it gives families a fun project to do together? That it’s educational, a way to keep in touch with other families and alumni, and a way to welcome new families? We were so grateful for their help; we were not eligible for a Pollinate TO grant because we don’t own the land the school is on: it technically belongs to the University of Toronto.

YUJE: To continue to 2022, our Nature Canada fundraiser provided $1000 for seeds and soil, leaving us with a lot of stock for 2023.

  1. Getting ‘Lift-Off’

YUJE: We had our official debut during our first Pop-up Party, on February 5th, 2021. Due to the pandemic, this was a virtual extracurricular event.

STRE: We found our perfect logo by hosting a contest. Congratulations, Maddie Standen! Our 100% organic cotton kit carry-bags are adorned with Maddie’s art.

YUJE: Some Grade 11 students, Luckya Xiao, Risha Reddy, and Sharn Singh, hosted work bees, where students came together over tasks like gathering plant data, creating website content, and door prizes.

We have held two speakers’ seminar series: one with the Ontario Nature Youth Council about youth environmental leadership, and a second with Bee City Canada on the importance of pollinators.

STRE: We applied for Bee School status, recognizing schools that support bees and bee habitat. We were also part of the University of Guelph’s Bees at Schools program. The bee nest box we put up for them collected data about species’ distributions.

YUJE: Four of the Bee the Change executives and Ms. Straszynski spoke at a Simcoe County District School Board wellness-themed conference. One of the most important – yet unexpected – impacts this project had on us: benefits to our mental health! Check us here.

  1. Kit Preparation

YUJE: Special thanks to Ms. Straszynski for tirelessly potting/propagating the seedlings! That’s some hard-core gardening.

STRE: You’re welcome! This was NOT the original plan. Originally, students would have gained volunteer hours while growing knowledge and skills: sterilizing soil, stratifying, germinating, pricking out, potting up, hardening off, and monitoring the plants’ growth. Due to COVID, this was another missed opportunity. We’re already doing better this year: collecting seed, potting up this year’s seedlings to grow larger for distribution next year.

As soon as we realized we needed plants in October, I started propagating: many species produce ‘babies’ at the base of their stems or on runners. We found seed and seedling sources. Most planting started in late March or early April: with cold moist treatment, plants will ‘know’ it’s spring.

Some germination attempts were spectacularly successful. Scores of Wild Bergamot (below)! Hundreds of Purple Coneflower! Some, not so much… curse those darn tiny-seeded asters and goldenrods!

  1. Distribution

YUJE: Just as we were ready to distribute kits in May, we were faced with another lockdown.

STRE: We had curbside pickup at the school, but remember that large catchment? Ouch! Good to have a hybrid car; there was a lot of driving to deliver kits from Mississauga to Whitby.

YUJE: Unfortunately, we did not get the hoped-for uptake… we were ready for 200 kits in the first year, but we got just over 50 requests in 2021, and just under 50 in 2022.

STRE: On the bright side, we could spare plants for special projects. More plants to naturalize your lawn or add biodiversity to an old field? Sure!

I also have high hopes for the publicity that the Clean 50 recognition will generate. A free flowerbed full of perennial native plants, anyone?

The Future

STRE: We have to consider fundraising for 2023 and beyond. Thinking big here, we’ll try for a PromoScience grant from NSERC in Fall 2023 to expand our outreach efforts to schools and develop curriculum to go with the garden.

YUJE: Other upcoming events include:

  • An in-person and/or virtual conference (likely April 2023, stay tuned) to inspire students to enter environmental post-secondary programs and careers.
  • Post-pandemic in-person events
  • Continuing our speaker series
  • Outreach to other schools and organizations to provide mentorship and materials for their own gardens

Bee the Change may take turns in ways we can’t yet imagine! This journey has brought so much happiness and meaningfulness to this year for me, and hopefully others as well. And it’s not over.