Wednesday, April 22, 2015
The Tickle Bees of Sabin Elementary School
What better way to celebrate insects on Earth Day than with a tale of the simple joy brought to people by bees? The following essay was written by Mace Vaughan, who co-directs the Xerces Society's Pollinator Conservation Program.
In the summer of 2009, my family and I moved into a house across from the Sabin Elementary School in northeast Portland, Oregon. Our daughter started kindergarten at the school that fall. Sporadically, as other school parents learned of my work in pollinator conservation, they would ask me if I’d ever seen the “tickle bees.” I would respond with a polite “no,” unsure what they meant. Still, as the question continued to come up through the December holidays and into the late, wet winter, my curiosity grew. Everyone seemed to know about the tickle bees.
I waited until the kids had cleared out of the field, closed my computer, and walked across the street. And there, to my amazement, were the tickle bees of Sabin Elementary. Not tens, not hundreds, but thousands of gentle, ground-nesting bees were emerging all across the two-acre field. I was standing in a giant aggregation of mining bees, which turned out to be at least two species of the genus Andrena—christened the “tickle bees” by the students of Sabin.
As someone who has worked hard to convince people worldwide that insects are not a bunch of biting, stinging, crop-killing animals, but rather the drivers of healthy ecosystems, I was touched by the reception these bees received. For the two months the bees were active, parents and students regularly approached me with questions. I helped dozens of people discover what, for them, was a whole new world of ephemeral bees, with their golden stores of food and developing brood buried below soccer and kickball games.
Tickle bees are not unusual or uncommon. Every spring we receive calls at the office starting in early March from people wondering about the bees that are showing up in their lawns, whether they are safe, or just wanting to know what they are. Across the rest of the country, as spring comes on after this harsh winter, look for holes in the ground and bees flying. If you want to find your own tickle bees, go out on a warm spring day and watch sunny, south-facing slopes around your neighborhood. You might find your own aggregation of mining bees.
As for Sabin, five years later the tickle bees are going strong. As kids get older, they may lose interest. But each spring, a new group of kindergartners gets to meet the tickle bees and share something unique that their older classmates have cherished for years.
Watch a video from KATU-TV of Mace talking about the tickle bees at Sabin School.