John Benning (City Backyard Science)


This week’s featured scientist is John Benning! John finished his PhD with Dave Moeller at the University of Minnesota last year and is one of the original Market Science board members. Currently, he’s a postdoc at the University of Wyoming. He mainly studies the ecology and evolution of species’ distributions, but this week he’ll be talking about a project he and Amanda Gorton (UMN Grand Challenges post-doc) started called City Backyard Science.

 City Backyard Science is all about increasing habitat for native insects in cities and helping folks learn about all the cool biology going on right in their backyards. John will talk about how we can help conserve biodiversity without leaving the city and lead you in some activities exploring the ecology of your backyard. 

Fun Facts:

Did you know that Minnesota is home to over 300 different native bee species? And that you can help provide food and habitat for these lovely little insects just by replacing a portion of your lawn?

As opposed to larger animals, bees require relatively little area for nesting and foraging, which means that even your tiny yard can become a bee habitat haven! By planting a selection of native plants that bloom from spring through autumn, you’ll invite a whole new host of backyard visitors. Not only is that good for bee conservation, but it provides endless opportunities for you and your family to learn more about insect ecology and botany. Check out the Resources page of for examples of some fun activities.

You can learn so much about plants and animals right in your backyard. In this video, John leads us through a brief botany lesson using flowers you can find just outside your door. He made this video for families participating in the City Backyard Science program, but you can easily follow along, too! All you need to do is find a plant in the Asteraceae family, like Black-eyed Susan, sunflower, coneflower, daisy, or even a dandelion.

Our native pollinators love many of the native Asteraceae plants we have in MN, and they’re so easy to grow! Look around your neighborhood to see if you can find any Smooth Blue Aster, a fall-blooming native with flowers that look kind of like purple daisies. The bees rely on late-blooming plants like these to provide nectar and pollen as the summer ends.


John’s personal website

City Backyard Science

To help out our native bees even more, you can make a “bee hotel” (final image), which is essentially a collection of 5-7 inch deep holes in blocks of wood. The cavity nesting solitary bees (females only) that use these holes start at the very back, laying a single egg with a pollen ball for nourishment, sealing off that chamber, laying the next egg and pollen ball, sealing off that chamber, and so forth.

The UMN Bee Squad has a great handout detailing how to make your own bee hotel:

You don’t have to go to a state park, zoo, or wilderness area to see nature in action — there’s so much incredible biology going on right outside your door! And one of the coolest things you can watch out for are *species interactions* — that’s what we call it when two different species are interacting, or affecting each other, in some way. Some examples are bees visiting flowers), caterpillars eating leaves, birds eating insects, ants drinking plant nectar, flies carrying off fungal spores, beetles visiting flowers, or even mosquitoes biting you!

John has a mission for you: over the next few days, see if you can observe four different types of species interactions around your neighborhood. Try to watch them as closely as you can and then draw them! Can you identify the two interacting species? (It’s ok if you don’t know the exact species; “bee” and “plant” is fine!) What do you think each species is “getting” out of this interaction? (E.g., the caterpillar is getting food and the plant is getting its leaves damaged.)

Bumble bee scavenger hunt:

Q&A video: