Farm Bureau, Lincoln Park Zoo partner on pollinators

By Jeff Brown Illinois Farm Bureau

Cook County Ag in the Classroom Coordinator Diane Merrion (center) talks to students on a field trip at the Lincoln Park Zoo during a recent ag literacy day. Merrion, who retires in July, will be replaced in that role by Katrina Milton (right). (Photo by Jeff Brown of Illinois Farm Bureau)

Call it the honeybee version of a Yelp review: Pollinators have developed a system of alerting others when they find an especially good place to eat.

They dance.

But besides the noticeable show for alerting other bees, the dance serves another purpose at Lincoln Park Zoo, where educators use it to ease nervousness among visitors about why there are so many bees buzzing around.

“We often have field trip groups that are understandably a little afraid of bees,” said Emma Martell, the downtown Chicago zoo’s manager of learning exploration. “One really cool thing about bees is they’ll do a waggle dance to communicate. They actually use this method to tell the other bees where the best flowers and nectar and pollen are to be found.

“So, once we share a little bit about that, we invite kids to do the waggle dance themselves, everyone’s a little more comfortable with bees.”

Cook County Farm Bureau (CCFB) agrees with the need to make everyone more comfortable with bees and other pollinators.

In June, the Farm Bureau partnered with Martell and Lincoln Park Zoo to set up an ag literacy table in a main thoroughfare at the zoo. CCFB staff spoke with hundreds of visitors, most of them elementary school students taking field trips in the final days of the semester.

“Everybody should care. Pollinators impact every single one of us,” said Bona Heinsohn, CCFB director of governmental affairs and public relations. “Farmers, consumers, individuals, all families are connected to pollinators. We need to care. We need to be aware. We need to do our own little bit.”

To nurture pollinators in downtown Chicago, Lincoln Park Zoo renovated a man-made pond to become Nature Boardwalk, a recycled boardwalk path surrounded by wildflowers, native plants and other pollinator attractants. The area is located near its Farm-in-the-Zoo exhibit, designed to help an urban audience learn where how farmers produce food and care for animals. The farm features several farm animals and two edible gardens.

The zoo also encourages visitors to plant native species at home, whether they live in a downtown Chicago apartment or own a suburban home with a yard.

CCFB’s table featured games, crafts and giveaways, including sending home seed in hopes it might find its way into a backyard garden or just a pot that gets placed on a porch.

“People in the city always say, ‘What can I do? I have a condo. I have a porch.’ There are opportunities for every single person to help pollinators by planting a garden or planting a container garden,” Heinsohn said. “There are materials in our activity bags that we’re sending home with families where it shows them the resources to plant and provides seeds. And the seeds are provided through a grant from Illinois Farm Bureau.”

Armed with information and inspiration, Martell said schoolchildren can influence their parents’ landscaping decisions.

“We try to reach the kids first and then reach the families through them. We hope it’ll trickle back to the parents,” Martell said.

IFB provides grant funding to 13 county Farm Bureaus, including CCFB, to help implement pollinator projects. The projects range from installing and maintaining pollinator habitat to education and outreach.

“We all contribute, and can all make a difference for pollinators,” said IFB Environmental Program Manager Raelynn Parmely. “It’s just about providing the right resources for everyone and having the conversation about how we’re all able to do this together.”

This story was distributed through a cooperative project between Illinois Farm Bureau and the Illinois Press Association. For more food and farming news, visit