Students Are Growing a Wild NYC to Help Pollinators

14 NYC Eco-Schools Aim to Stop Scary Pollinator Declines

Halloween is a time when many children think about sweet treats like chocolate and candies. Yet, most Americans are unaware of the connection between these chocolates and the vital service that pollinators like bats provide. In fact, pollinators such as bats, birds, bees, and midges in the case of chocolate, are vital for the pollination of nearly 75% of agricultural crops, including vanilla, coffee, nuts, and fruits, as well as 75% of flowering plants.

Sadly, both native and domestic pollinators, like the honeybee, are in decline in the U.S. and abroad, threatening global agricultural markets valued at $577 billion. Culprits include habitat loss and fragmentation, pesticides and industrial farming practices, stress and disease, and extreme weather events and climate change – all of which are impacting bloom times of flowers that pollinators rely on for sustenance.

In June 2014, the White House called upon all public agencies to help with the national decline of pollinating insect species in the U.S., especially bees and butterflies. Then this year, a Pollinator Partnership Action Plan was launched. The National Wildlife Federation has joined forces with federal and state agencies, municipalities, conservation organizations, and gardeners to help our pollinators, and students at Eco-Schools across the country are also leading the way.

Growing a Wild NYC

Some 800 New York City public school students in grades K-12 are helping to restore habitat for beleaguered pollinators in their schools and parks, thanks to generous funding from the Urban Fellows program at National Parks of New York Harbor, part of the National Park Service.

The year-long Growing a Wild NYC program, now in its third year, is a partnership between the National Park Service (NPS)/Gateway National Recreation Area, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF)/NYC Eco-Schools, the NYC Department of Education, the Greenbelt Native Plant Center, the Battery, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Groundwork Hudson Valley, and the Metropolitan Monarch Alliance.

Photo from NWF
Photo from NWF

Through a series of six steps, Growing a Wild NYC educates students about the important role of pollinators and the causes of their decline while teaching them valuable STEM and citizen science skills. The program also connects underserved school children, many of whom have had little or no contact with nature and wildlife before, to the outdoors, where they can have direct contact with plants and wildlife, and interact with NPS park rangers in uniform.

Students Make a Difference for Pollinators

Since 2014, some 1,200 students from 14 registered Eco-Schools in Brooklyn and Queens have taken field trips to the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, part of NPS’s Gateway National Recreation Area, and collected native seeds of high nectar plants there. They have germinated those seeds and grown seedlings in their classrooms throughout the winter and spring.

They brought the seedlings back to the Refuge in late spring, with additional plugs from the Greenbelt Native Plant Center (a local nursery and key program partner). Then, after the ground was cleared of weeds and invasives, the students planted over two thousand plants at the Refuge in a once barren patch of land.

Refuge before and after the plantings. Photos from NPS (left) and NWF (right)
Refuge before (May 2015) and after the plantings (May 2016). Photos from NPS (left) and NWF (right)

Because we know that different pollinators feed on different plants, over a dozen native species were planted including: common milkweed, swamp milkweed, butterfly milkweed, Joe Pye weed, New England aster, white heath aster, evening primrose, seaside goldenrod, Canada goldenrod, white goldenrod, beach plum, round-headed bush clover, blue vervain, and hyssop leaved thoroughwort. Today, a robust and biodiverse pollinator garden blooms from spring into late fall, ensuring that nectar and pollen are available throughout the year at the Refuge.

Teachers, students and program staff have witnessed increased pollinator activity in the garden, such as native green sweat bees, several varieties of bumblebees and butterflies, and numerous sightings of beloved monarch butterflies.

Bee on aster. Photo from NWF
Bee on aster. Photo from NWF

Expanding Planting Areas in NYC

Floyd Bennett Field. Photo from NPS
Floyd Bennett Field. Photo from NPS

This year, the Growing a Wild NYC planting areas are expanding significantly. Several five meter by five meter plots in a large meadow at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, part of Gateway, have been weeded, mowed, and prepared for planting by NPS staff and Groundwork Hudson Valley’s teen youth force. A majority of participating Eco-Schools (all students in grades 3-12) will plant there this year.

“Our goal at Gateway National Recreation Area, as part of the Growing a Wild NYC program, is for students to help us restore native pollinator habitat while also increasing the biodiversity of the park,” says NPS Ranger Michael Tolan. “We will use the scientific method, and our understanding of the natural world to make sure we maximize the impact of our efforts. I like to call this “helping nature help itself,” and we can do this by choosing the right combination of native plants that will do best in our wild areas,” he says.

Groundwork Hudson Valley, a new partner, will also be creating New York pollinator gardens at Hartley Park in Mount Vernon, in Gateway, and at another site, to be determined.

Schools are also beginning to cultivate partnerships with local parks. For instance, PS 686 in Brooklyn has partnered with Seth Low Park, a City Park across the street from the school and plans to create a demonstration pollinator garden there in partnership with city park staff.

In 2016-17, the borough of Manhattan joined the Wild program, through the addition of four 4th grade classes in a pilot school. PS 276, a NYC Eco-School, is adjacent to The Battery, a 25-acre public park at the Southern tip of Manhattan dedicated to sustainable garden design using native plants that support wildlife. The Battery is another new partner this year, and will provide planting areas for PS 276’s 4th graders. The Park’s Education Department, led by Josie Connell, is providing educational staff and resources to assist with field trips there.

Photo from NWF
Photo from NWF

Creating Pollinator Corridors

In addition to planting in their local parks, each of the 14 participating Growing a Wild NYC schools will use NWF Eco-Schools’ Schoolyard Habitats and Biodiversity program Pathways to audit their school grounds and create action plans to increase pollinator habitat in their school gardens. The Metropolitan Monarch Alliance (MMA), a new program partner, has already provided milkweed plugs for teachers who wish to begin planting their school gardens in the fall. MMA staff will offer workshops to Growing a Wild NYC teachers and NWF Habitat Stewards – community volunteers who are recruited from the schools and local community and trained to assist teachers and students with horticulture activities throughout the year.

Because the 14 Wild schools are located within a 25 mile radius of one another across three boroughs of New York City, and many of them are in neighborhoods that are close to parks or community gardens, this Eco-Schools cohort is playing an important role in helping pollinators.


Research is showing that cities can play an important role in pollinator conservation through the existence of interconnected webs of high-nectar flower plantings in parks, community gardens, home gardens, school gardens, and green roofs. These green spaces create habitat corridors for local and migrating wildlife, that help them find vital food, shelter, water, and places to raise young.

Pollinator in Battery Park. Photo by Teri Brennan
Pollinator in Battery Park. Photo by Teri Brennan

UK researcher Katherine Baldock says that “Creating corridors of favourable habitat will enable movement and dispersal of pollinators both within urban landscapes and between urban and adjacent rural habitats, thus increasing habitat connectivity and helping to maintain healthy pollinator populations at regional and national levels.”

In June 2017 and in subsequent years, Growing a Wild NYC partners will engage students in BioBlitzes, to count live pollinators in their schools and parks. The hope is to see greater numbers of pollinators throughout the City and ensure that future Halloweens will include both bats and chocolate.

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