NEW RICHMOND — Residents at St. Croix County Health & Rehab Center might have thought a farmers market had moved into their parking lot overnight Wednesday, Oct. 30, when they awoke to cries of, “I’m a pepper, I’m a cranberry, I’m an apple.”
Upon opening their blinds, they were greeted by a horde of fourth-graders, many wearing blaze orange T-shirts featuring a pheasant, running all over an open plot of land wedged between the Health & Rehab Center and a nearby cornfield.
Caitlin Nagorka, private lands biologist with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s St. Croix Wetland Management District, explained that Youth Pollinator Day is a coordinated effort between several conservation organizations and the Somerset School District.
“Youth Day is being hosted by Pheasants Forever in partnership with Somerset Elementary School, St. Croix County, St. Croix Valley Beekeepers Association and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This Youth Day event is "step 1" in a relatively large prairie reconstruction project (~12 acres) on the St. Croix County Health & Rehab Center facility grounds that will take place over the next year. This is a great project that highlights how the community is leveraging partnerships and resources for the benefit of local wildlife and also engaging the next generation of conservationists,” Nagorka said.
Everyone got the memo, so there were plenty of winter coats and stocking caps in evidence to keep the morning chill at bay.
Following a group photo, more than 100 students paired up to participate in the first exercise of the morning, broadcast seeding. Each pair shared a bucket filled with a mix of native prairie seed and, walking shoulder to shoulder, seeded the width of the field.
Next, students regrouped into their homeroom classes and began rotating through four learning stations.
Beekeeper Jerome Rodewald, owner of Rodewald Honey and member of the St. Croix Beekeepers Association, captured students’ attention with a demonstration beehive.
“I can take a hive of bees out to field and in that hive of bees could be up to 50,000 bees. The queen bee lays all the eggs and she keeps the hive going. Then there’s the worker bees. These are all girls and they’re about 95 out of every 100 bees,” explained Rodewald.
By the way students were craning their necks to hear Mr. Rodewald explain the importance of bees to the food chain, you could almost hear the bees buzzing in the cardboard hive.
Possibly the most fun station of the morning was the seed ball preparation run by Nagorka. Students rolled up their sleeves, or not, dipped their hands into a tub of water first, followed by a tub of dirt and then a tub of seeds. When everything came together, students ended up with a muddy ball of seeds which they then lined up, winded up and threw out into the field.
Next up was plant identification run by Pheasants Forever volunteer Jason Weinzierl. Students again paired up and, armed with a list of several dozen prairie plants, took turns visiting an equal number of posters filled with clues to describe a particular plant.
At the Predator and Prey/Habitat game, Pheasants Forever volunteer Tyler Krisik and Farm Bill Biologist for Northwest Wisconsin Pheasants Forever Cody Tromberg divided students into predators and prey. Students who were prey had to run across the open field to buckets filled with corn, grab a handful and run back to the safety of the cornfield. Students who were predators tried to tag prey as they ran back and forth eventually figuring out that a good place to wait for prey was around the buckets of corn. Hula Hoops acted as safe habitat areas for prey along their perilous journey.
The final station explained how the process of pollination worked. St. Croix County Resource Management Division Environmental Educator Aleisha Miller walked students through the mechanics of pollination. She then armed some students with a folder bearing a photo of a flower on the outside and a paper cup filled with different colored paper strips. A smaller group of students received a plastic bag only filled with different colored paper strips. Kids with folders were plants and kids with plastic bags were pollinators. Pollinators had to locate flowers with matching colored paper strips which, after they exchanged, the flowers opened their folders to reveal the fruit or vegetable they had become.
That also explained all of the screaming vegetables and fruits much to the relief of health center residents.
The volunteer instructors kept students on their toes all morning having fun while learning what habitat consists of and why it is so important to pollinators and wildlife.
A number of the next gen conservationists were already excited to see what the mornings labor would yield on the prairie next spring.
Nagorka cautioned that reconstructing a prairie is more challenging than it looks. A good rule of thumb to apply when restoring a prairie: year one it sleeps, year two it creeps, year three it leaps.
All the more reason to keep an eye on the prairie reconstruction project surrounding the St. Croix County Health & Rehab Center over the next couple years.
For more information about programs like this one and other volunteer opportunities visit the websites for each of the organizations at: sccwi.gov.Environmental-Education, stcroixbeekeepers.com, pheasantsforever.org, and fws.gov/refuge/st_croix_wmd.