Counting Pollinators for a Cause

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North Carolinians can play an important role in protecting their food supply by participating in the first statewide pollinator count August 18 and 19.

“You find a plant, you watch it for 15 minutes, and you count every time an insect lands on it,” said Amanda Wilkins, NC State Extension horticulture agent in Lee County. “You just count the different types of insects, and then at the end you go to a website and you put in your counts. It’s very simple.”

The count is part of the Great Southeast Pollinator Census, a multistate effort to encourage residents to help protect the region’s vital pollinator population. It was created by University of Georgia Extension specialist Becky Griffin in 2019. South Carolina joined in 2022, and North Carolina this year.

“Scientists need help understanding what types of insects are where,” Wilkins said. “As much as entomologists would love to be in everybody’s backyard looking at everybody’s plants all the time, they can’t. If everyone from trained scientists to regular citizens can take a moment out of their day to count the different types of insects in their own backyards, we can get a better understanding of what pollinator populations are out there.”

Great Southeast Pollinator Census North Carolina count pollinators

North Carolinians can help protect their food supply by counting pollinators August 18 and 19.

This is important because of the function pollinators play in food production.

“Many of our fruits and vegetables have to be pollinated by insects,” said Charlotte Glen, the NC State Extension Master GardenerSM program manager. “To reproduce, they need an insect pollinator to help them out. But many of our pollinator populations are declining. A lot of it is because of foraging and nesting habitat loss. Areas that used to have a lot of natural flowering plants that provide nectar resources aren’t there as much.”

Many people are familiar with a worrying decline in pollinators, particularly bees. The census provides a way to do something about it.

“It can get very overwhelming for people to know what they can do,” Wilkins said. “And one of the things that they can do is help us count how many insects are out there.”

Related: Growing a Pollinator Garden

Wilkins was part of a team from NC State and N.C. A&T State University that was instrumental in bringing the count to North Carolina. She learned of the Great Southeast Pollinator Census while attending an urban pollinator conservation conference at the University of Georgia last October.

“I went to that conference, bright eyed and bushy tailed, just sponging up all of the information about what was going on with pollinators,” she said. “It was about the state of the research, where we are scientifically with our understanding of pollinator interactions and populations, and what kind of programs people were doing. It was great to heard about the census program during the presentations. It is specifically designed for people who don’t know insects. It really is very easy for people to participate in.”

While it is designed to make it easy to participate, the count serves a serious purpose. 

“The three goals of the census are to encourage people to consider insects and pollinator conservation as part of their gardening goals, to raise insect literacy among people, and to generate useful data for scientists,” Wilkins said. 

Related: The Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox helps gardeners find the best plants to attract pollinators

A webinar held in June introduced the topic and explained how to participate. A second webinar on Aug. 10, featuring NC State experts Matt Bertone, Danesha Seth-Carley and Hannah Levenson, will further educate participants on pollinator-friendly plants, current pollinator research projects, and insect identification.

“Those webinars are resources for folks to help them better understand the purpose of the census, but you can do the count even if you haven’t attended one,” Wilkins said.

Extension Master Gardener volunteers in several North Carolina counties are planning pollinator count and education events at public gardens.

“Master Gardener volunteers are already very involved in a lot of projects in different counties to support pollinators, so this is a natural fit,” Glen said. “This gives us a wonderful opportunity in consumer horticulture education to promote flowering plants for people to add to their landscapes that can help support these pollinator populations.”

In the spirit of friendly competition, Wilkins hopes North Carolina’s first-year participation tops that of Georgia.

“About 4,000 people participated in the first official Georgia pollinator census so it would be really cool if 4,000 North Carolinians also participated,” she said.

But mostly, she envisions the census as a means not just to create data points for scientists but to educate people about pollinators and to encourage them to make a difference.

“A lot of people are grossed out when you point out there are insects crawling around outside their door all the time,” Wilkins said. “This is a great way to destigmatize insects and to associate them with something positive, like a beautiful plant. One of the goals is to inspire more folks to start pollinator-friendly gardens. We hope to see many positive effects from increasing knowledge and awareness through the census.”
How to Get Involved