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Prairie Pollination: Anatomy of a Virtual Exhibit

This month a project that I have been working on for almost three years (whew!) finally came to fruition: an exhibit on Prairie Pollination for the Virtual Museum of Canada (http://www.prairiepollination.ca). This exhibit is the culmination of ten years of research on the pollinators that visit rare and common plants in Canada’s few remaining prairies. The exhibit features photographs of wild plants and pollinators, as well as some of the beautiful botanical watercolours in our collection made by artist and entomologist Norman Criddle (1875-1933). We even created an app called PlantSpotting that will enable people to photograph and map wildflowers that they themselves observe.

A watercolour of dotted blazingstar by Norman Criddle.

A watercolour of dotted blazingstar by Norman Criddle.

Most people assume that bees and butterflies are the most important pollinators but during my research I found that-surprise, surprise-most flower visits are made by flies! Flower flies, bee flies, soldier flies and parasitic flies are among the most common flower visitors in the prairies. Since the internet has lots of educational material about butterflies (particularly monarchs) and bees (particularly honeybees), I decided to focus one of my student lesson plans on pollinating flies (available at the Virtual Museum of Canada’s Teacher’s Learning Centre http://www.museevirtuel-virtualmuseum.ca/enseignants-teachers/index-eng.jsp). Local artist Janet LaFrance created a great illustration of my favorite bee fly (Anastoechus) for one of the lessons that Educational Consultant, Angela Fey helped me develop.

Worksheet on the parts of a bee fly for the Virtual Museum of Canada's Teachers' Learning Centre.

Worksheet on the parts of a bee fly for the Virtual Museum of Canada’s Teachers’ Learning Centre.

The highlight of the project was travelling to some of the remaining native prairies in Manitoba and Saskatchewan to film short videos with pollination biologists. One of the biggest problems with filming plants on the prairie is the unrelenting wind. Videographer Robert Zirk had to try to film flowers that kept flopping around, and insects that were getting blown off course.  Further, the sound of the wind in the microphones sometimes made it difficult to hear what we were saying.  Hauling equipment around in the brutal 30 degree heat during our trip to Spruce Woods Provincial Park wasn’t all that fun either.

Videographer Robert Zirk, getting up close and personal with a lady... slipper's-orchid.

Videographer Robert Zirk, getting up close and personal with a lady… slipper’s-orchid.

Our worst luck occurred down at the Tall-grass Prairie Preserve where we very nearly missed the blooming of the rare Western Prairie Fringed Orchid. Although we did get some images of it, it was a very dry year and the poor little plants we found were looking a little parched! Fortunately, 2013 was a good year for another rare orchid we filmed a video on: Small White Lady’s-slipper.

The seductive small white lady's-slipper orchid.

The seductive small white lady’s-slipper orchid.

The field work was only a tiny part of the whole project (although the funnest part).  Many hours were spent researching and writing text, photographing and cataloguing specimens and, of course, designing the website. Fortunately I didn’t have to do it all myself (I would have gone crazy) and was able to rely on a team of talented interns (Melissa Pearn and Rebecca Bilsky), staff, consultants and many volunteers.

So if you share my passion for pollination and want to learn more, check out the Museum’s new exhibit.  Funding for Prairie Pollination was generously provided by the Virtual Museum of Canada (VMC), the Heritage Grants Program, Manitoba Culture, Heritage and Tourism Department of the Government of Manitoba and The Manitoba Museum Foundation Inc.

Closed gentian can only be effectively pollinated by big, hairy bees.

Closed gentian can only be effectively pollinated by big, hairy bees.

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Dr. Diana Robson

Curator of Botany

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Dr. Robson obtained a Master’s Degree in Plant Ecology and a Ph.D. in Soil Science at the University of Saskatchewan. She has been working at the Manitoba Museum since 2003, conducting research mainly on rare plant and pollination ecology.