Why I started observing pollinators

and how I learned to appreciate all the other “creepy crawlies” that dominate the world around us.

I was raised as a bird watcher. From a young age, I was counting visitors at the bird feeders, reading bird guides, and taking binoculars on family trips. As a birder, it’s safe to say that I was ignorant of nearly everything around me. I kept lists of bird species and the occasional mammal, but I knew almost nothing about the trees they were perching on and the insects they were eating. I dabbled in bird photography in high school, but I was never good.

Bufflehead ducks are one of my favorite birds

I wish I could say my focus shifted because of a grand realization that insect populations are collapsing (read about The collapse of insects (reuters.com)) or noble goal to “save the bees” (learn more at Bring Back the Pollinators | Xerces Society). I wish I had a fun story to tell about the moment something clicked and I realized the vast biodiversity I had ignored for 25 years. I wish … you get the idea. Instead, I stumbled into this. I bought a house with an empty yard buried in gravel. I began buying whatever plants looked good at the nursery. I killed many things that had no business in a dry, sunny New Mexico garden with a lazy groundskeeper (me). If not for meeting Laurel Ladwig, director of the Albuquerque Backyard Refuge Program, and COVID shutdowns, I may have remained ignorant for the rest of my life.

Native plasterer bee (genus Colletes) licking minerals and sweat from my finger while hiking

Laurel Ladwig was the inspiration and COVID provided the opportunity. What do I mean? Back in 2021, I was recruited by Laurel to participate in the City Nature Challenge (2023 edition starts April 28). This was my introduction to iNaturalist and I noticed many plants and insects in my neighborhood for the first time. She also encouraged me to get The Bees In Your Backyard book, which opened my eyes to the diversity of native bees. Arizona and New Mexico each have other 1,000 known species!

Native green mason bee (Osmia, subgenus Melanosmia) visiting beardtongue flower (Penstemon bicolor) in author’s garden

COVID shutdowns provided the opportunity to work from home and spend more time in my garden. I started to pay attention to non-bird activity. I dusted off my Nikon D100 from high school and screwed on a 50mm macro lens. I took many mediocre pictures, but I was hooked. I had no idea so many critters were living in my garden. Seeing a new species and taking a clear, well composed photograph continues to provide rushes of excitement nearly two years later.

Big-eyed bugs (genus Geocoris) are one of the many invertebrates I never noticed before using a macro lens. These predators are beneficial insects in our gardens.

Elliott’s top reasons for observing and photographing invertebrates:

1) Striving for high quality photos that show all features necessary for identification

2) Documenting garden visitors as a tool to encourage other people to transform their yards into wildlife habitat

3) Distribution of many invertebrate species is poorly understood, so every sighting has the potential to be a new county or state record

4) Contributing photos and occurrence records to iNaturalist.org and bugguide.net

5) Sharing photos of unique animals on this blog, social media platforms, and in pollinator presentations

6) Hands-on learning, such as watching how bees collect pollen and build nests

7) It’s enjoyable!

Hoverflies, like this Eupeodes volucris, are beautiful pollinators and beneficial insects (sometimes called “aphid eaters”)