The Importance of Pollinators

Pollinating insects are a crucial part of the health and well-being of our planet. They enable plants to set seed and reproduce,

Pollinators - source USDA Forest Service
Pollinators – source USDA Forest Service

driving the Earth’s terrestrial ecosystems and providing us with fresh fruits, vegetables, greens, spices, coffee and fiber for clothing (to name a few items we can’t live without).   But did you know that pollinator insect populations are steadily declining year after year due to habitat loss, crop monoculture and pesticide use? Even if you are a hardcore carnivore, the animals you eat depend on a variety of insect pollinated plants for food, so their plight affects you, too. In short, if insect populations suffer, the human population will quickly follow suit. The relationships between organisms on our planet is beautifully complex. To illustrate how intertwined these relationships can be, I’d like to tell you the story of a sweet smelling orchid, a love-struck metallic green bee and the Brazil nut tree.

As most people are aware, the deforestation of our planet is rampant, especially in tropical areas. In the Amazon rainforest, areas are sometimes selectively logged and the understory plants are bulldozed or burned, leaving only certain trees standing that might continue to provide income. Since Brazilian nuts are of economical importance, Brazil nut trees are often left alone. Unfortunately, the trees stop producing nuts after the surrounding forest is cleared… but why?

To solve the mystery, we must turn to a very cool group of insects – the orchid bees. Orchid bees (also known as Euglossine

Orchid Bee  - source
Orchid Bee – source

bees) are the main pollinators of orchids that are familiar to orchid enthusiasts: Gongora, Stanhopea, and their relatives. The orchids in this group have perfumed flowers that smell strongly of vanilla, clove, wintergreen and even root beer! The flowers offer no nectar, so female bees collecting food for their young have no interest in them. It turns out that these flowers are pollinated only by male bees, and each species of bee prefers a single species of orchid. So what are the male bees getting out of this? In order to attract a female bee, the male has to smell nice… so he collects perfumed wax from his preferred orchid flower and transfers it to specialized “pockets” on his hind legs. He then flies to a spot attractive to females (such as a big Brazil nut tree with lots of nectar-bearing flowers) and performs a scented mating display with his orchid perfume. This sparks the female bee’s interest and mating occurs, ensuring future generations of orchid bees. And while they’re around, the female bees pollinate the Brazil nut tree so that it may produce seeds (this is the part we eat).

So why doesn’t pollination occur when we leave a Brazil nut tree standing in an otherwise cleared forest? The orchid perfume that the male orchid bees need to successfully mate is nowhere to be found – the orchid plants only live in the shaded understory. No orchid, no bees, no pollination, no Brazilian nuts. This is but one example of countless stories in nature; most of

Brazil Nut Tree - source
Brazil nut tree – source

these intricate relationships are not fully understood and many more have not even been documented.

The same types of relationships occur here in the U.S., and the less plant variety we have, the more our beneficial insect numbers decline. This affects the entire ecosystem (think of how many other animals depend on insects for food; not to mention the plants they pollinate). But never fear – you can do your part to help save this fascinating group of animals! Plant a pollinator friendly garden at home, at school, at the office… no plot of land is too small and every little bit helps. If we spread the word, we can create diverse urban and suburban habitats for all kinds of wildlife. We can reverse the damage we have done and bring the pollinators back! Learn more at:

Pollinators and The Naturally Wild Swap Shop

Pollinators – what are they and why are they important?

A pollinator is an animal that helps a flowering plant complete its life-cycle by picking up pollen from one flower and moving

A gecko about to pollinate a tropical flower
A gecko about to pollinate a tropical flower

it to another of the same type.  This fertilizes the plant, allowing it to form seeds for the next generation.

Why does that matter to us?

Without plants being pollinated, we would loose at least 30% of ALL the food we eat.  Items such as fruit, veggies, nuts, spices, coffee, tequila and chocolate.  Beef and dairy products would be affected too because bees pollinate the alfalfa the cattle eat.  Even our clothes would suffer – cotton plants rely on pollinators too!

Mexican Long-tongued bat pollinating an agave blossom
Mexican Long-tongued bat pollinating an agave blossom

Pollinators include bees, bats, birds, small mammals, lizards and even a lemur.

Now, the question is: How can you help our pollinators and how does the Swap Shop tie in?

First….You can plant a pollinator garden of your own!  It can be anything from potted plants on a patio or balcony to a full size flower bed.

Next….Bring pictures, drawings, or reports about your pollinator garden to the Swap Shop for points!  Eligible traders will get points for both items showing the initial garden set up, as well as on going reports on wildlife seen in the garden.  And the trader will be recorded in the Swap Shop as a Pollinator Pal.

Some of the host plants that do well in our area include Milkweed, Bee Balm, Dutchman’s Pipe Vine, Mexican Bauhinia and Porter Weed.

The Red-bellied lemur pollinates the flowers of the traveler's palm
The Red-bellied lemur pollinates the flowers of the traveler’s palm

Need information about how to build a pollinator garden?  Many sites on line have great information.  Those include, but are not limited to, US Forest Service, US Fish & Wildlife, Texas Parks and Wildlife, Native Plant Society of Houston or The Xerces Society.

Join us at the Houston Zoo on June 20-21 as we celebrate Pollinator Day and learn more.

Don’t know about the Naturally Wild Swap Shop?  Click here for more information.

Science Made Simple: Pollinators

My name is Ryan and I love science. Join me as I try to make tough science…not so tough.

Follow along as I research the issues, untangle the mess, and figure out what you really need to know to help animals and the environment.

Today’s Topic: Pollinators

Confusing Science:
In the United States, the economic monetary value of services provided by pollinating insects is estimated at 24 billion dollars.

What It Really Means:
Bees and other insects pollinate so many plants, that adding up the value of all of the food like fruits, vegetables, and nuts growing because of pollinators equals about $24,000,000,000. Keep in mind, that number is just for the United States!


Confusing Science: 
Public access and support of insecticide applications has resulted in a significant negative relationship to the sustainability of bee colonies. Research is ongoing to determine definitive correlations between non-lethal concentrations of insecticides and lasting colony disorders in bee species; and interesting preliminary studies have been completed which quantify the residual presence of notable chemicals throughout hives.

What It Really Means:
Most home-improvement stores have many different chemicals that are made to kill ants, termites, beetles, wasps, etc. Unfortunately, those chemicals have been wiping out bees all over the world. Because bees land on all sorts of different plants, there’s a good chance at least one has been sprayed with an insecticide. Sometimes the chemicals don’t kill the bee, but cause very serious health problems that may affect its behavior and even how the bee flies. Because bees live in hives, the rest of the hive can be in danger if even one bee returns covered in toxic chemicals. Scientists are working hard to figure out how deadly this can be.

Simple Science Takeaway: Using less insecticides can help bees in a major way.

That’s all for now. Stay tuned for more as I try to make science easier to understand. Never stop learning,


 Have a topic you’d like me to explore? Post it in the comments!

We Can Save Elephants in Africa With Beehives? It's the Bees' Knees!

If I were to tell you that we use an Anatolian Shepherd (that is a really big dog, really big!) in front of our Cheetah exhibit to tell the story of how livestock owners in Africa use dogs to protect livestock and chase away cheetahs you would think, ok – that makes some sense. Chasing away cheetahs means villagers and ranchers do not need to kill cheetahs to protect their livelihoods, something which happened much too often in the past.

I would then go on to say that people use dogs to chase away elephants and that would be ridiculous. We need something meaner, more aggressive, like – an African bee! And that would also make no sense. Who has pet bees?

It is much too long to explain here but researchers in Kenya working with Save the Elephants noticed one day that when elephants were around trees with large hives of bees, they would quickly move away. And after years of testing, it turns out that even the recorded sound of an angry buzzing hive will make elephants go far out of their way to stay out of the bee’s way.

So let me put this into perspective. I am pulling weeds in my yard (Brazoria County, not Africa) and I hit a yellow jacket nest get stung twice and run for my life. If I am an elephant and an angry swarm of African bees is heading my way, I too would make a quick exit.

Back to my story. Researchers then took it a step further. How do you keep an elephant from walking into your field, eating most of your crops, destroying the rest as they wander through the field and putting you and your community on the verge of having nothing to eat? You put up a rope fence, sting some wooden beehives across them and keep out the elephants. Even better, you can collect the honey for both food and extra income. A win-win for the people, the elephants.

How can you help protect elephants and support local communities in Africa? Funny you should ask. We have an option on our new online auction event where you can donate funds to purchase new beehives and support local community projects for as little as $15. Go to our Future for Wild Elephants Online Auction—- and help us protect elephants, and support local people in Africa.

Well done Mbumba and the Mbamba village beehive fence team. At least 3 of the 12 initial hives have already been colonized by bees, and possibly more soon. The community reports that 10 elephants ran away from the fence last week!
Well done Mbumba and the Mbamba village beehive fence team. At least 3 of the 12 initial hives have already been colonized by bees, and possibly more soon. The community reports that 10 elephants ran away from the fence last week!
The first elephant- beehive fence in Niassa!
The first elephant- beehive fence in Niassa!
First 7.5 litres of honey harvested from the first elephant beehive fences.
First 7.5 litres of honey harvested from the first elephant beehive fences.

Danger from above! By Peter Riger, Houston Zoo's, Vice-President of Conservation reporting from Borneo

Vice President of Conservation, Peter Riger is visiting Borneo to find out how the Houston Zoo can be of further assistance in the race to save Asian wildlife.

I woke up this morning to what sounded like a helicopter outside my screen window but it was only the largest bee I had ever seen and he was not happy that it was 5:30am and I was still asleep. When he finally went away I could hear a pair of gibbons calling from across the river. Although difficult to see, they can be heard for miles, usually in the very early morning, and it would have been a great sound to wake up to, if not for the bee.

Everything seems to fly here; Proboscis Monkeys and Red leaf Monkey fly overhead as they jump from tree to tree, there are flying snakes, flying frogs, flying giant squirrels and the  little seen colugo which is also called the flying lemur.

So when walking here, your eyes have to be on the trail as well as in the trees as witnessed this morning by two research students walking to the station when an orangutan mother and baby decided to drop things from above we will not talk about here and just miss them by a few feet. By the time I arrived on the trail a minute later, dung beetles were already busy at work “cleaning up”. How did they know so quickly? They must have a poo alert early warning system.  The forest is alive in Borneo, as are the skies.

There is a fairly straightforward routine here for everyone except the nocturnal prosimians researcher who spends her time looking for slow loris and tarsier from midnight to 6am. Whether you are a crocodile researcher or checking cameras  for bears, you get up early and either hit the trail or grab a boat and head out to your site, some of which overlap. Hopefully you return by lunch and then repeat or work on projects at the centre before dinner, then try and get a working Internet signal to catch up with the outside world and the lights out when generator goes off at 11pm. Some of these projects go on for years and everyone genuinely enjoys being here despite what would seem like difficult conditions at times.

Outside of the projects, there is another initiative here managed by local staff called River Keepers who patrol the Kinabatangan to make sure there are no illegal activities in the reserve here ( hunting, logging, etc.). They are as much part of the team and live here at the centre along with all the visiting students and guests. I mentioned the other day there were 6 countries represented here thus year (so far) which include Canada Malaysia, France, US, Spain, UK, Belgium and Mexico – okay, that’s 8 countries.

These, along with wildlife health units, are part of a larger network to look at how to protect this region on a landscape level. That is, not simply focus on one species at a time but understand how all these species interact within their habitat and what is needed to support everything together.

Stay tuned for more from Peter in Borneo.

The Year in Blogs

I do not even know where to start to make sense of some of our blog posts in 2012, all written to try and bring your attention to both the successes and issues facing our environment. I really have no idea what may or may not have caught your attention. No matter how often our IT and web team send me graphs and charts showing reader algorithms, viral feeds (unrelated to a blog on emerging infectious diseases), hits and views – it is beyond my grasp of the new world we live in. Remember, I have a smart phone and do recall saying it was making us all a little dumber, me especially.

So a quick look back at MacGyver, Cheddar Bacon and Peppermint Shakes, Chicken Pants and the fact that  Groundhogs are not the Nostradamus of the rodent world as they can barely remember which drawer they left their pants in, let alone predict the changing of the seasons.

These were all very important topics, near and dear to my heart from pollinators to climate change and even Chicken Pants which I have no idea what I was thinking of at the time that spurred that thought process. But the point is simply this – the world is a messy place, our role in the zoo is to focus on wildlife and so most of what you see and read here is about the environment and the people who work tirelessly to protect wildlife and their habitats around the clock.

We can do more to help our partners and the environment and it is so simple it hurts my head to think about it.

Have 30 seconds to spare? Try this: Recycle a cell phone – protect wildlife in Africa. Lets make this a friendly disease called the Responsible Consumer Syndrome. You can catch this syndrome by also understanding where the Palm Oil in your products originates – and protect Orangutans in Southeast Asia

The great plastic debate? Not really a debate – we are addicted to plastic shopping bags and water bottles. Do you think Krogers, Randalls, HEB and others realizes how much money they could save by not providing its customers millions of plastic bags every year which in turn would protect the environment and wildlife? Probably equal to the economy of a small country. Interesting someone thought enough of the water bottle issue to ban them from Grand Canyon National Park – I guess they think it is prettier than the other parks since it is the only one that bans plastic water bottles.

Who would have thought the National Park System would be following the lead of these countries  (mild disclaimer – these countries have banned plastic bags but they still drink water): Papua New Guinea, Germany, Kenya, South Korea, Belgium, Sweden, Bhutan, Botswana and a handful of others. You may recall I ranted about this on my  bestselling blog Doggie Doo’s and Doggie Dont’s (another disclaimer, my blogs are not for sale but I found a quarter after posting that one).

So for 2013 – we can do better. Smartphones and Smart tablets can inform us but cannot lead us to action – that is a human trait that we need to figure out how to enhance if we are going to continue to protect the worlds wildlife in the face of growing human populations and habitat loss. We have to care more to do more.

One thing I really do not care to learn more about is Poutine which my Canadian colleague tried to poison me with this year. I like my french fries with ketchup thank you, not brown gravy and curd cheese. But what we want you to learn more about are all are wonderful partners which can be found on our website or at a few of the links below:

Niassa Lion Project Mozambique, Cheetah Conservation Botswana, Hutan-Kinabatangan Orangutan Conservation, Danau Girang Elephant Conservation, Painted Dog Conservation Zimbabwe, Gorilla Doctors, Education for Nature VietnamFaleme Chimpanzee Conservation Senegal, Coastal Prairie Partnership, Lowland Tapir Project Brazil, El Valle Amphibian Conservation Panama, Jane Goodall Institute, International Rhino Foundation, Art of Conservation Rwanda, NOAA’s Sea Turtle Program, USFWS, Texas Parks and Wildlife, Texas State University, National Marine Fisheries Service, Human Wildlife Conflict Collaboration, Terra Incognita EcotoursWildlife Conservation Network, Galapagos Tortoise Program, Natural Habitat Adventures, and a Thank You to all of our zoo staff, zoo members and supporters including Land Rover UAE, Anadarko, Chevron, numerous private foundations, individuals and followers.

The Bee's Knees

One of the most important aspects of the Houston Zoo is the commitment its employees have to conserving wildlife and connecting people to these efforts. This passion for wildlife extends far beyond the impressive Zoo exhibits and day-to-day programming our guests typically see. The Zoo has found a creative way to foster our employees’ passion for the Zoo’s mission: the Houston Zoo Staff Conservation Fund (SCF).

The SCF offers unique opportunities for staff to participate in a variety of conservation efforts. The Fund builds exclusively upon donations from Houston Zoo staff, and these funds contribute directly to the projects that staff members propose and execute. By providing employees with an excellent opportunity to build capacity for conservation, the Houston Zoo accomplishes an integral part of its core mission.

One of the recent recipients of a staff funded grant is Karen Sprague, a Senior Keeper in the Zoo’s Herpetology Department. Karen had the following to say about her successful SCF pollinator project:

One of the new bee houses on grounds!

“My project started mainly because I have a fascination with native bees… while looking for bee ID resources for the Houston area, I was surprised to learn that not much bee diversity research had been done in southeast Texas, and that nobody really knows what species are present here.  Most of the funding for bee research is funneled into European honeybees since we rely on them heavily to pollinate the majority of our crops (excluding wind-pollinated crops of course).  In talking to friends and family, I realized that most people are familiar with the honeybee and MAYBE the bumblebee and are completely unaware that native bees even exist.

A new pollinator sign at the Zoo!

There are about 4,500 species of bee in North America alone (including around 50 species of bumblebee, not just one). Not only do native bees pollinate many of our crops (tomatoes, blueberry and alfalfa for dairy cattle… to name a few) but have evolved with and are responsible for the pollination of the vast majority of our native flowering plants, shrubs and trees.  Even though all these interactions may go unnoticed by us humans, the plant-pollinator relationship makes the world go round… if either were to disappear, our ecosystems would come crashing down and we would all perish in short order.

Can you find this sign and bee house the next time you visit the Zoo?

I started this project not only because I wanted to photo-document the bees of the Houston area, but because the distressing fact is that people don’t know how important our native bees (and all other pollinators) are.  We developed 4 graphic panels (coupled with wooden bee nest boxes) on Zoo grounds to teach people how to help pollinators through gardening, providing nesting areas, supporting organic farms and by simply not using pesticides.  You can start a native bee conservation project in your own back yard – they rarely interact with humans (meaning its near impossible to get them to sting) and it is incredibly entertaining to watch them work.  You get an extra-bountiful garden out of the deal, and you’re helping some very important species, many of which are in serious decline due to extensive habitat loss and rampant pesticide use.  Bees give us so much: 30% of the food we eat every day, spices, coffee, vanilla, cotton for clothing, the list goes on and on… It’s time we give something back.”

Look at that clever hiding spot for our pollinator friends!

You can visit our pollinator webpage created by Karen and our web team to learn more about these fascinating animals.

Another wonderful spot for pollinators at the Zoo.

Pollinators get you Points!

This weekend, Saturday June 23 and Sunday June 24, the Houston Zoo will be celebrating Pollinators Day.  There will be booths, keeper chats and activities for the kids.

The Naturally Wild Swap Shop will join in the fun.  Any nature journal on pollinators or pollination will get double points!  Topics can include (but are not limited to) bats , bees, butterflies, or the plants that they pollinate.  Journals might also cover the many  products collected or manufactured thanks to the hard work of these and other pollinators.  Don’t know about the Naturally Wild Swap Shop?  Click here for more information.

Pollinators help us with many products from honey to tequila.  They provide something for everyone.  Some Pollinators are at risk and their numbers are dwindling.

Come join us for Pollinators Weekend and learn more about these amazing animals.



Wildlife Heroes is an awesome book, and we have the author coming to the Zoo!

Join us on May 19th and 20th for Wildlife Heroes weekend at the Houston Zoo.  On May 20th we welcome Jeff Flocken, co-author of Wildlife Heroes: 40 Leading Conservationists and the Animals they are Committed to Saving for a book-signing and presentations by zoo staff on the focus species of the book. Wildlife Heroes will be available for sale at the zoo on May 20th, quantities are limited!  Books are also available for  pre-order on the Houston Zoo website at: a dicounted price until May 17th.

My first heroes were animal people.  When I went to zoos my heroes were the zoo keepers and when I watched animal documentaries the researchers were my heroes.  We all need amazing people to inspire us and that is why the new book Wildlife Heroes is so wonderful. 

The book includes 40 people overcoming impossible odds to save endangered species all over the world.  If you are looking for real heroes for your children to look up to look now further! 

The unique stories in this book of local communities becoming involved in anti-poaching, education and research efforts for wildlife in their own back yard are immeasurably inspiring!  In one story a young boy, Thia grew up in Northern Vietnam watching his village hunt the very species he fights to save today.  His passion to help a unique species called the pangolin will warm your heart!
I have had the honor of meeting many of the heroes in this book (including the authors) over the years and they inspire me to move forward in my own wildlife conservation work.  These are real people making a real difference! 

This book introduces readers to pollinator and amphibian decline and other environment issues that continue to threaten our world.  But it also offers great messages of hope.  In the last chapter Jack Hannah suggests ways the reader can help, and the good news is that by purchasing the Wildlife Heroes book you are already helping- 100 % of the proceeds go to the projects featured in the book.  A win for everyone!

Hope to see you at the Houston Zoo for our Wildlife Heroes weekend May 19th and 20th!

Six Bat Species all in one day!

How can you see six different species of bats all in one day?  Bat Fest Houston at the Houston Zoo and the Waugh Bridge!  The United Nations has declared 2012 The Year of The Bat – come see  the celebration we have in store!

Straw Colored Fruit Bats

 Saturday, April 14 and Sunday, April 15 are the dates for Bat Fest Houston.   On both days there will be children’s activities, keeper chats and bat related information booths at the zoo from 10:00am – 3:00 pm.   If you come on Saturday you will also have the opportunity to attend a bat seminar in the zoo’s Brown Education Center  from 10:00-12:15 that will include some great speakers.  The talks will include information  about bats from around the world and the bats in our own back yard as well as a new threat to bats, White Nose Syndrome.   You will also be able to visit the zoo’s bat exhibits where you can see Jamaican Fruit Bats, Seba’s Short-tailed Fruit Bats, Pallas Long-tongued Nectar Bats, Straw Colored Fruit Bats and an Indian Flying Fox Bat! 

If visitors 18 and under bring a nature journal or report to the Naturally Wild Swap Shop on the topic of bats they will receive DOUBLE points on these two days!  Don’t know about the Swap Shop?  Click here to learn more.

The best part – all of this is included in your regular zoo admission. 

Bat emergence at Waugh Ave. Bridge

And the fun doesn’t stop there!  From 6:00pm to 9:00pm join us at the Waugh Avenue Bridge (Waugh Avenue at Allen Parkway) for more children’s activities, bat chats and an amazing emergence of 250,000 Mexican Free-tailed Bats from under the bridge.  The Waugh Bridge activities are completely free.  Click here for information on parking at the bridge.


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At 8:00 p.m., KPRC2 / Click2Houston will air a one-hour special about saving elephants, orangutans, crocodiles and more in Borneo. Tune in or set your DVR, you don't want to miss this! Read about the special and why it is so important here: ... See MoreSee Less


At 8:00 p.m., KPRC2 / Click2Houston will air a one-hour special about saving elephants, orangutans, crocodiles and more in Borneo. Tune in or set your DVR, you dont want to miss this! Read about the special and why it is so important here:


Comment on Facebook

Very good special! We will be visiting the Zoo Saturday!

Sabrina Polk

Houston Zoo shared KPRC2 / Click2Houston's photo.
Houston Zoo

Tonight is the night! Don't miss this incredible one-hour special. Set those DVRs for 8:00 p.m.! ... See MoreSee Less


Tonight is the night! Dont miss this incredible one-hour special. Set those DVRs for 8:00 p.m.!


Comment on Facebook

I can't wait to finish my degree and be a part of something like this someday! Hopefully with this wonderful facility!! 😍

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