By Tom Sherman
Long before she designed a license plate commemorating native pollinators, Alexandria resident Sam Gallagher always liked bees. Even in grade school, when her primordial instincts should have been acutely aware of their evolutionary danger.
While children on the playground were scared of bees, Gallagher said she “always knew they were harmless” and wanted to help the persecuted insects. She embraced bees as her own. Gallagher decorated her binders with their images, collected anything bee-related, and talked incessantly about the insects. As the year wore on, classmates realized that bees were both friendly and harmless, and soon joined her crusade.
“By the end of the year, my whole class was obsessed with bees,” says Gallagher. “I’m sure my teacher just thought ‘oh God, what are all these kids doing?’” Apparently, they were trying to save the world a few decades too early: In recent years the pollinator population has been in dire straits – Virginia only has 35% of the bee population compared to the 1970’s, according to Virginia Department of Agriculture statistics. Meanwhile, agriculture is a $52 billion business in the state, and pollinators play a crucial role helping crops mature and flower.
Gallagher continued her life as a staunch advocate for bees and pollinators, but decided to make the plate after a frustrating trip to the DMV. When she and her husband moved to Alexandria from out of state they were astounded by the array of customized license plates available (current total is over 200 different plates). The pair scoured them all to find one designated for pollinators.
“There were so many plates for specific conservation groups and causes we figured there had to be one for pollinators. There was even a Parrot Head plate for fans of Jimmy Buffett,” she said with a laugh. “Jimmy Buffett, in a way, inspired the license plate.”
Gallagher is a graphic designer by trade, but her day job “isn’t so much art, I do 3D graphics, but just buildings.” However, “since insects and art are what I truly enjoy,” Gallagher decided to blend passion with profession and found her new purpose. She had to come to the aid of her fellow bees again, and put the petal to the metal (technically flowers and pollinators on the aluminum).
So she designed her own custom license plate, a colorful array of bees, flowers, butterflies and a hummingbird in the foreground, amid a backdrop of the rolling green mountains of the Shenandoah. The plate features only native Virginia pollinators: seven species of bees, an eastern tiger swallowtail (the state butterfly), a monarch butterfly, and a ruby-throated hummingbird.
To get a new plate minted, the approximate “best case scenario” timeline is nine months, according to a DMV memo on special interest group license plate development. So Gallagher set about on her new mission to get “Protect Pollinators” plates on the road in no time. That was in 2010.
However, before any punchlines about DMV taking a long time, Gallagher said there was only one person at the DMV to go through, who is “the nicest lady in the whole world.” Rather the “most painful” aspect of her endeavor was getting the required 450 people to sign up for the license plates ahead of time – more specifically, convincing them that she would not abscond with their $20 application fee.
“I thought we would get a social media campaign and go viral with nature types and conservationists,” Gallagher said. However, she soon learned the fickle nature of relying on the internet to generate a buzz: “I think I got 30 applications in the first year.”
So she got a business license and bank account to give the cause an air of legitimacy (“although I just as easily could have taken the money then, too, I suppose”) and decided to put the ‘active’ in activist.
For four years she was as busy as bee, attending Earth Day events, nature festivals, and conservation days – anything tangentially connected with pollinators. While a tiresome exercise, it was an effective way to expose people to the plight of the bumblebee, as well as connect with other like- minded pollinator protectors.
After finally acquiring the required signatures, Gallagher’s last hurdle was to find a state legislator to sponsor a bill that would commission her new plate. Both of her local legislators, Senator Dick Saslaw and Delegate Charniele Herring, refused to submit a bill on her behalf.
Fortunately, Gallagher knew of a high-profile fellow pollinator enthusiast in Virginia politics: former gubernatorial candidate Senator Creigh Deeds. Deeds already introduced pro-pollinator legislation in 2012, and Gallagher figured he would be a like-minded ally to help bring her cause to fruition.
“The problem is we’re losing pollinators’ population dramatically – whole colonies of bees at a time,” Sen. Creigh Deeds said in a telephone interview. “Not just our agricultural economy, but our whole economy is based on pollinators.” According to the Virginia Department of Agriculture, bee colonies in the Commonwealth sustain a 30 percent loss every winter, much higher than the national average.
“Sam is a leader statewide raising awareness of the plight of pollinators,” Deeds said. “She did a great job with the design, and when people see the tag they will wonder about it, ask questions, learn what they can do help pollinators.”
While various charities have helped champion the “Protect Pollinators” plate over the past five years, Gallagher felt there was no incentive to make her plate affiliated with any single one. Regular custom plates cost $10 for a DMV processing fee, whereas non-profit plates (like the Parrot Head one) add a $15 donation to the organization atop the fee. “The DMV is going to get their money either way,” she said.
Besides, Gallagher cares more about the cause than collecting money from people. “Hopefully, the lower price will get a higher volume of drivers to purchase the plate, and then they can still donate $15 to a charity that benefits pollinators if they want,” she said.
When asked if she had advice for people who want to help pollinators thrive (besides getting the license plate), Gallagher said that it is crucial to “refrain from using any pesticides” in the home or garden, and beyond that “plant flowering native plants that bloom throughout various seasons.” She recommends milkweed, an important food source for the monarch butterfly, and mountain mint, which “attracts a wide variety of all kinds of pollinators”