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Nebraska Nature in Color – Blue Hair and Bumble Bees

Community science specialist Alie Mayes talks about the challenges in sharing her love of nature with her nephew.


The author's nephew, Aiden, swinging a net to catch bumble bees.

Photo by Katie Lamke

By Alie Mayes, Community Science Specialist

As I was scrolling through the photos on my phone the other day, I realized that the majority of my pictures consist of three things: nature, nature for iNaturalist and the people/pets I love. There were a few pictures that made me stop and smile. Last summer, my nephew, Aiden (then 8 years old), came to stay with my partner, Katie, and me. Much to my surprise, instead of showing up with the usual golden blonde hair I was accustomed to, he had a shock of blue hair.

Now, Aiden is a country kid. He plays outside on his parents’ land in Missouri. They raise cows, four-wheel and play in the creek. But my goal as his science- and nature-loving aunt was to inspire him to love nature as I do with curiosity, connection and an observant eye. And some things have stuck, like the bird book and binoculars I gifted him one year, which he carries around in his backpack.

As one does, I built up this week together in my head. In my imagination, this week was going to be a fundamental and direct link to his future love of nature in science. We were going to do many fun things, and he was going to LOVE ALL OF THEM. But real life and what you imagine in your head don’t always line up.

The author’s nephew, Aiden, and partner, Katie. Photo by Alie Mayes.

The No. 1 competition was “the devices,” namely his Kindle and Nintendo Switch. I won’t give you a lengthy spiel about how electronics are bad for kids. I enjoy my Netflix marathons and playing Mario Cart as much as the next person. But when trying to make beautiful memories in nature and all the kid wants to do is play a video game — well, that can be frustrating for the both of you. So, after about a week of struggle, Katie and I brought Aiden to a local prairie to do a Bumble Bee Atlas Survey.

If you don’t know, the Bumble Bee Atlas is a community science project that involves volunteers netting bumble bees and chilling them in order to photograph them before safely releasing them.

I have to admit, we weren’t at the prairie longer than 15 minutes before I was over it. I felt like I had been trying and failing to create some magical connection between my nephew and nature, and well, it just wasn’t happening. Instead, it was, “Are we done yet?” And, “Can I play on my Switch?” He was also frustrated because he couldn’t catch the insects in the net the way he wanted.

So, I left Aiden with my partner. I walked away. I said, “best of luck” and went and checked out a nearby patch of monarda. And what do you think happened next?

You’re right — magic.

The magic of slowing down. Of observing something common in a new way. The magic of succeeding at something new. Because you see, what happened was that Aiden caught his first bumble bee.

A bumble bee caught during a survey. Photo by Alie Mayes.

After that, he was hooked. Net swinging. Trailblazing. Following Katie around the prairie on a mission to find bees. He was focused. He was proud. And he was connecting to nature in a new way.

I can’t say that this experience solidified Aiden’s pathway to a future in conservation science. But what I do know is that Aiden is now aware of bees in a way he wasn’t before. He has a positive connection to them. He gets so excited when he finds one that he requires his mom to text us, just to let us know. I can also say that Katie became his favorite aunt that day over the connection with bumble bees. What could be better? I’m only a little offended to be dethroned as the reigning favorite.

There are more summers ahead and more nature memories to be made. They won’t happen exactly as planned, but I trust that somewhere amongst the chaos, there will be moments of beauty.

This article is part of the Nebraska Nature in Color series. This limited series will run monthly December 2023-June 2024.