Southwestern Becomes the 87th Bee Campus USA

Guest Blog by Meilee D. Bridges, PhD, Southwestern University

Southwestern University has become the 87th educational institution in the nation to be certified as an affiliate of the Bee Campus USA program. Southwestern joins more than 150 other cities and campuses across the country united in improving their landscapes for pollinators.

The Bee Campus USA program is an initiative of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, a nonprofit organization based in Portland, Oregon, with offices across the country. Bee City USA’s mission is to galvanize communities and campuses to sustain pollinators by providing them with healthy habitat, rich in a variety of native plants and free of pesticides. Pollinators such as bumble bees, sweat bees, mason bees, honey bees, butterflies, moths, beetles, flies, hummingbirds, and many others are responsible for the reproduction of almost 90% percent of the world’s flowering plant species and one in every three bites of food we consume.

“The program aspires to make people more PC—pollinator conscious, that is,” says Scott Hoffman Black, Xerces’ executive director. “If lots of individuals and communities begin planting native, pesticide-free flowering trees, shrubs, and perennials, it will help to sustain many, many species of pollinators.” 

Like so many of the University’s sustainability projects, the intention to apply for Bee Campus USA affiliation was initiated by undergraduates. In summer 2019, Josh Long, SU associate professor of environmental studies, approached Veronica Johnson, Southwestern’s sustainability coordinator, about research projects his capstone students might pursue, and Johnson suggested that they investigate ways to make the Southwestern campus more sustainable, such as greywater irrigation, integrated pest management, on-campus composting, green roofs, or Bee Campus USA certification. Sam Buehler ’20, Karonech Chreng ’20, Katey Ewton ’20, Spencer Kleypas ’20, and Abbey Lloyd ’20 were inspired by the last recommendation in particular because, as Buehler recounts, “it seemed like a fun project that would have immediate effects, whereas other topics would not necessarily come to fruition for a few years.”

The group put together a detailed proposal, which they titled “#BeeSouthwestern: Bee Campus USA and Pollinator Protection at Southwestern University” and presented to the campus community. “The students not only guided the University through the necessary steps to achieve Bee Campus USA certification; they also did a great deal of research on campus biodiversity and the promotion of pollinator habitat on college campuses at large. Their final thesis was over 60 pages!” says Long.

“It was amazing to be a part of this project,” Buehler reflects. “Most capstones tend to be research intensive, but this had a very clear and tangible goal with clear steps and was very communication and collaboration focused. We worked a lot with Facilities and Marketing, as well as the Sustainability Committee, and I am incredibly thankful for their help and support in this project, as well as for Veronica Johnson and, of course, our advisor, Dr. Long.”

Most capstones tend to be research intensive, but this had a very clear and tangible goal with clear steps and was very communication and collaboration focused.

Thanks to the group’s efforts, pollinator-conservation events and plans are already in motion. In October, the Southwestern Garden Club hosted a workday in the campus community garden, planting pollinator-friendly, drought-resistant plants in one of the main beds. That same month, during Sustainability Week, the students participated in Sustainability Fun on the Mall, raising awareness by handing out pollinator plant seeds and informational handouts to SU community members. And during the fall semester, the undergraduates collaborated with Facilities Management to have an area east of the athletic fields and bordering the walking trail officially designated as a protected native habitat.

The students also created a webpage to disseminate information to the campus and external communities; the site includes an updated list of native plants incorporated into the campus landscape, including their bloom time and habitat needs, and features Southwestern’s Integrated Pest Management Plan, which describes how Facilities Management already takes steps to minimize hazards to pollinators by using nearly no neonicotinoid pesticides, glyphosate herbicide, or other potentially dangerous pesticides. Over the next year, the website will grow to highlight links to student and faculty research into pollinator issues and information about future related events. For example, the students in the fall 2019 first-year seminar From Farm to Table is in part dedicated to the importance of pollinators in worldwide food production; the course included community-engaged learning projects, with two groups weeding and removing invasive plants from the community garden so that natural pollinator species could move in. As for future Bee Campus USA–affiliated events, SU community members can look forward to the Bat House Reveal Ceremony in spring 2020, which Johnson says will include an educational lunchtime talk about the winged mammals by local experts from Bat Conservation International and Austin Bat Refuge as well as a celebration of the University’s recently purchased bat houses.

Johnson appreciates that the students made the Bee Campus USA application their priority. “One of my core job responsibilities is to embed sustainability throughout Southwestern’s facilities services,” she comments. “Since starting in February, I have focused on our recycling and zero-waste efforts and developing a campus furniture standard. Since those have been my primary focus, I haven’t had the bandwidth to dive into the grounds side of things as much as I would like. Luckily, the environmental studies capstone group was able to take on the Bee Campus certification and make it happen.”

Although the #BeeSouthwestern group will be graduating in May, the University’s Sustainability Committee has assumed oversight of SU’s Bee Campus USA affiliation, which will assure that the campus continues to meet the program requirements and applies for renewal each year. “The Sustainability Committee expressed their appreciation for the thoughtful proposal by the students and appreciates their role in looking toward Southwestern’s future in building a reputation as the greenest college campus in Texas,” says Professor of Biology Romi Burks, who chairs the committee. So Buehler, Chreng, Ewton, Kleypas, and Lloyd can rest assured that their commitment to pollinator conservation specifically and sustainability more broadly will live on at Southwestern for years to come.

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