Green Initiative - Pollinators Project
Editor's note: The following article is a compilation of reports from the 2009 San Francisco Theological Seminary environmental ethics class taught by Dr. Carol S. Robb. Contributors include Robb, Alana Aldag, Karen Hastings-Flegel, Sung Eun Kwak, Susan Manuso, Nicholas Mastin, Meighan Pritchard and Jeeeun Yun

Tucked into a pocket of the hillside that mounts the castles in San Anselmo, a community garden is a fertile environ for knowledge. Developed by the students of a San Francisco Theological Seminary environmental ethics class long ago, this garden provides a learning lab about how to nurture the web of life.

One thread of the web of life that is torn is the pollinator population. Diseases, parasites and pesticides, invasive plant species, and the loss of food and nesting places are factors inflicting harm on bees and other pollinators in the Bay Area. When the pollinators are weakened, fruit trees bear few fruits, berries are small, and vine crops like melons and squash bear small fruits that do not properly mature.

Many grasses and trees rely on wind to move pollen, which is the oldest method of pollination. But a more efficient means involves luring animal partners to inadvertently make the transfer of pollen as they search for food. Over 1,000 vertebrates including birds, mammals and reptiles help in pollination; and more than 100,000 invertebrate species including bees and wasps, some nectar feeding bats, hummingbirds, beetles, ants, butterflies, flies and moths also serve as pollinators. As student Sung Eun Kwak comments, "pollinators don't know or care that the plant benefits. They pollinate to get nectar and/or pollen from flowers to meet their energy requirements and to produce and feed offspring.[1] In the economy of nature, the pollinators provide an important service."

They also provide an important service to the human economy. In the United States, the annual benefit of managed honey bees to consumers is estimated at $14.6 billion.[2] Fruits and seeds from insect-pollinated plants account for more than 30 percent of the foods and beverages consumed in the United States.[3]

The 2009 SFTS environmental ethics class decided to address the loss of pollinators using the Seminary's community garden. In mid-April members of the class attended the annual Native California Plant Sale at the Tilden Regional Park Botanic Garden in Berkeley. Sung Eun was shocked when they arrived at the Plant Sale to see the throng waiting for the opening. She wondered why so many people were interested in native plants and not planting something edible or stunning to look at. She got her answer while doing the group project with Dr. Carol Robb, professor of Christian social ethics. "A focus on native plants represents the difference between a human-centered and eco-centered orientation. It required me to make a 'paradigm shift' from what is important to humans to what is significant to nature. Planting native plants means we are considering our earth and treating insects as our neighbors."

The students researched in advance which native plants attract pollinators, and then chose 14 pollinator-friendly perennials for the garden. Jee Eun Yun appreciated learning that "native plants have evolved closely with native insects and are well-suited to meet their needs. In fact, some pollinator species are entirely dependent on the availability of certain native plants."

Pollinators certainly have their own flower preferences. Jee Eun found bees are attracted by yellow, blue and purple flowers. But they can't see red. Butterflies prefer red, orange, yellow, pink and blue flowers. They need to land before feeding, so they like flat-topped clusters (e.g., zinnia, calendula, butterfly weed, yarrow, and daisy) in a sunny location.

Of the students who came to this project with no significant prior experience gardening, the new learnings included how to make compost, how to use compost in planting, the difference between cold compost (which we have) and hot compost, why not to put weeds in the compost bin, that a perennial is a plant that grows in successive years, that planting flowers can help vegetable gardens, and that one can sense oneself to be a part of nature while weeding and planting in the freshly turned soil. Nicholas Mastin confessed that with this class he planted flowering plants for the first time (Ribes sanguineum and Ceanothus). He was a quick study, however, digging the holes, mixing in compost, placing the plants in and back-filling with more soil and compost, and then creating a trench around each that could help retain water.

Of the students who did have significant prior gardening experience, the community-building aspect of this project was a surprise. Susan Manuso reflected on a particular afternoon when she learned the wonderful connection that people make when they dig in the dirt and garden side by side. "I worked alongside my colleague who had just experienced a death in her family and tried to be extra careful that we would save the roots of a sweet pea because I sensed she was feeling vulnerable that day. Would I have taken such care on another day? Perhaps, because of the sense of the inherent value of the plant. But on that day there was a palpable feeling of our working together for the life of this particular plant that had an added dimension."

A repeating ethical issue requiring our attention was how to relate to the "pests." Meighan Pritchard, appreciating the deer on the other side of the garden fence, wondered about the slugs and snails inside the fence. "Do I crush them? Throw them over the fence? Put out dishes of beer so at least they die drunk and happy? Or let them chew up everything they please? I find myself more apt to take a photo of an insect than to shoo it away, to examine the beauty of the snail shell instead of stepping on it. And yet, chewed up plants are sad to see." Alana Aldag concluded, "For myself, I look to do minimum harm to all parties involved—myself, the plants I am nurturing and the unwanted critters. During my time in the garden, my personal choice was to walk a snail across the road."

This planting project is one way of rendering to the bees restitutive justice. The human population is colonizing ever more habitat from wild kind, and polluting what we have not already developed. We owe restitution to wild nature for the damage we have perhaps unwittingly visited upon them. This earth does not belong to human kind; we are borrowing it from future animals, plants, and children. We two-leggeds have a long way to go to teach ourselves the habits of restraint, temperance and attentiveness to the necessary conditions for the pollinators to flourish.

"As a citizen of Planet Earth, which has sustained me every moment of my life, it is significant to me to be giving something back," said Karen Hastings-Flegel. "As a potential pastor, it is important to be gaining this experience in caring for creation. I believe that God cares deeply about what happens to the earth and its species, and that pastors have a responsibility to lead their congregations in good stewardship of the earth." Aldag, reflecting on the contribution of Sallie McFague, whose work she read in her theology class as well as in the ethics class, has concluded, "Gardening is a form of communion with God's creation. The understanding of the earth as the body of God should be introduced to every student while in seminary."

Susan Manuso added, "Taking the course fostered an attitude of respect for nature that we brought to our work in the community garden. Seeing ourselves as part of creation engendered a feeling of responsibility and a sense of worth of each element. We worked together as caretakers, not dominators. When the command to love our neighbors as ourselves begins to include plants, animals and all of creation, the plight of any part of it, like the pollinators, becomes our plight and we felt the necessity of doing something."

Mastin, reflecting on the significance of the class project for him, said, "As a seminary student it is important that I learn, not just about that which God has made, but also how to care for and live with God's creation in a way that both reflects God's love for creation and expresses God's heart for all of creation. After all, there is no doubt that 'it is good.'"


[2] North American Pollinator Protection Campaign Curriculum,, "Nature's partners: Pollinators, Plants, and You" accessed May 5, 2009.

[3] Jane Kay, "Count keeps volunteers busy as bees," San Francisco Chronicle, Friday, April 24, 2009, p. A1, A11.


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