Pollinating Ideas

A new bee and pollinator center opens in September at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.
A rendering of the Bee and Pollinator Center at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.

Talk with Marla Spivak and you’ll soon understand that small things can make a big impact. “It is estimated that one in three bites of food we eat is made possible by the pollination services bees provide,” she says.

The honey bee may be small, but it has an important job: pollinating fruit, vegetable and seed crops, thereby increasing yields, improving the taste of our produce, and contributing to the beauty in our landscape, she explains.

As a distinguished entomologist and professor at the University of Minnesota, Spivak knows a lot about keeping bees healthy. And right now, bees are in trouble. Due to weakening immune systems, poor nutrition and a lack of nesting sites, there is a decline in honey bee colonies in Minnesota.

Luckily, there are many ways for people to help support the honey bee and other pollinators, and that journey can begin right at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chanhassen. This fall, a new Bee and Pollinator Discovery Center will open at the arboretum with the mission to raise awareness about the plight of bees and other pollinators.

Fifteen years ago, Spivak began planning a new research lab on the University of Minnesota St. Paul campus; several years later, she decided she wanted another site for outreach. The arboretum was a natural fit because it has an established educational community and grounds that can support bees and pollinators, thanks to diverse typography and an abundance of gardens and plants.

But a new center meant major funding and grants. That’s when Joe Tashjian, who serves on the board of trustees, and his mother, Alice, stepped in with generous gifts that enabled the project to get started. Now, five years later, the Discovery Center is preparing for its grand opening, scheduled for September 18.

Although the doors won’t open for another couple of months, visitors are welcome to explore the grounds this summer, including the pollinator garden, planted directly in front of the center. The garden will serve as an example to visitors of what can be planted at home, but will also provide the perfect habitat for bees and pollinators on site.

Spivak explains that good bee health starts with good nutrition, which in turn starts with the garden. “When bees have good nutrition—that is, a multitude of flowers that bloom over the entire growing season—the protein and lipids from pollen and the carbohydrates from nectar bolster their immune system, helping them fight off pathogens and detoxify pesticides,” she says. The pollinator garden will have a variety of plants to ensure something is always in bloom from spring to fall, and pollinators will always have access to essential nutrients.

When the Discovery Center opens this fall, there will be two large wings, one housing a learning lab with room for up to 72 students, and the other containing an interactive exhibit. The exhibit will provide visitors with research information collected from Spivak’s lab, as well as from scientists around the country.

Hands-on displays will teach kids and adults alike about the significance of monarch butterflies and the importance of milkweed, the social hierarchy of bees, and much more. Attached to the west wing will be the honey house, which will show visitors what is involved in the honey-making process. “We want to show people the process of how you get from the bee hive to the honey bear,” says interim director Peter Moe.

Now that the Discovery Center is nearing completion, focus can shift to other projects in the vicinity. Namely, restoring the 100-year-old iconic red barn that is near the new center. Other plans for the eastern campus include integrating a farm garden, a demonstration garden and a horticultural research site. A new one-mile, two-way, blacktop road is already in place, taking visitors through the eastern part of campus—which has been inaccessible to the public until now—and delivering them to the Bee and Pollinator Discovery Center.

Bee and Pollinator Discovery Center
Grand opening September 18 at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.