Affiliate Spotlight: The University of Illinois at Chicago

Guest blog by Anh Le, Bee Campus USA – The University of Illinois at Chicago, Student Communication Aide at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Office of Planning, Sustainability, and Project Management

The University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) was initially designated as an affiliate of Bee Campus USA in 2017, becoming the first certified campus in Illinois. Since then, UIC has established annual activities to engage its community in enhancing pollinator habitats on campus. 

The university has committed to become a biodiverse campus through the UIC Climate Commitments and is taking steps to protect and support the natural resources and ecosystem services on campus. To fulfill this goal, the university has published the Climate Action Implementation Plan (CAIP) for cost-effective solutions to achieve these goals. One of the CAIP solutions to help achieve a biodiverse campus is through the Campus Pollinator Habitat Plan which outlines a set of planting and maintenance practices that create an ideal environment for pollinators to thrive at the UIC campus and in surrounding areas.

The Office of Planning, Sustainability, and Project Management (PSPM) founded UIC’s Bee Campus USA Committee, which is comprised of faculty, staff, and students who represent administrative and academic departments and are committed to fulfilling and upholding the Bee Campus USA commitments. More than that, PSPM and the UIC Bee Campus USA Committee engage the UIC community in hands-on activities by offering volunteer opportunities and internships. The committee also promotes awareness of the importance of pollinator conservation within the UIC community by incorporating lectures and visits to campus gardens into accredited courses.

“UIC is passionate about educating faculty, staff, student, and campus visitors about pollinator conservation,” said Carly Provost-Rizor, Superintendent of Grounds and member of the UIC Bee Campus USA Committee. “Our pollinator-friendly landscapes are not only aesthetically pleasing, but many are easy to replicate in an urban setting.”

In the past, the committee had worked on multiple protects to preserve and create pollinator habitats, including the Little Prairie on the Campus, the Heritage Garden, and the James Woodworth Prairie Preserve. Recently, the university has finished the Arthington Mall renovation project that includes the installation of native plant rain gardens. 

The Little Prairie on the Campus project was made possible by an award from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF). The aim of the project was to increase biodiversity and attract pollinators by planting native plants and creating high-quality habitat in an urban setting. A total of 2,000 square feet were planted with 20 different species of native plants. Signage was installed to accompany the native plants. 

In 2020, UIC held a weeding and a planting event at the Little Prairie on the Campus. This both engaged volunteers in hands-on prairie maintenance and enhancement, and educated them on the importance of the plants to pollinators. The events also helped students reconnect with nature and socialize with one another outside of class, which was especially valuable given that students were in lock-down and adapting to the new normal of remote learning.  

“Having the in-person maintenance events for the Little Prairie on the Campus gave students a chance to connect with the open spaces that UIC offers during a time where it was near impossible for some,” says Ciara Scott, the 2020  Sustainability Internship Program (SIP) intern for the garden. “The two events that I held were during the Summer and Fall, which was a great time for the events as many students were excited to have a reason to be outside.” 

“The circumstances made it a unique opportunity to teach about pollinators in a distanced setting even when there were some challenges,” Scott added. “During a time where the world was focused mostly on the pandemic, I was lucky to have been able to spread awareness about the importance of caring for our pollinators and their habitat virtually and in-person.”

The university established the Heritage Garden internship program in 2013 that is funded by the UIC Sustainability Fee. This program provides students with practical projects related to environmental sustainability, horticulture, cultural diversity, and social justice. In the program, students have a chance to collaborate with UIC faculty, staff, and outside communities on these projects.

With the help from the seven Centers for Cultural Understanding and Social Change (CCUSC) and the Latino Cultural Center, installation of native flower gardens in the quad area of the east side of the UIC campus was a success. The aim of the project is to promote and create a pollinator-friendly habitat, while educating the UIC community on the importance of these habitats for pollinators. 

A Monarch Butterfly on a milkweed flower.

Currently, there are eight satellite gardens on the east side of UIC’s campus. One of the gardens, the Monarch Butterfly Habitat, houses more than 14 different native and pollinator-friendly plants, including variants of milkweed and biannual, biennial, and perennial nectar plants. These plants are located in an area with more than six hours of sun a day. The milkweed plants serve as shelter and a food source for monarch larvae until they hatch into butterflies, while nectar plants serve as a food source for pollinators, including butterflies and bees. These gardens not only bring the UIC campus to life every spring, but they also give the UIC community the opportunity to appreciate nature and art.

Recently, UIC was awarded funding by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District and NFWF for the renovation of Arthington Mall Plaza. This plaza, which is approximately 37,000 square feet, serves as an open common area for students, faculty, staff, and visitors on the west side of campus. Users of the plaza enjoy the space for leisure and also access the plaza to travel through campus and to surrounding facilities. 

The project involved installing a total of 21,253 square feet of native plant rain gardens with 45 different plant variants and 6,724 total native plants. The gardens include pollinator-friendly plants, such as black-eyed susans, prairie dock, milkweed, wild hyacinth, and eastern redbud. These native plants create habitat for pollinators and help reduce water use since the amount of rainfall is sufficient for their growth. Pollinators attracted to the garden include eastern bumble bees, green sweat bees, and calligrapher flies. The garden is also frequently visited by monarch butterflies.

“Coping with flooding and standing water used to be an endless battle in this area,” noted Carly Provost-Rizor. “We received over 20 feet of snow in the month of February alone, and the efficacy of the stormwater management system, rain gardens, and permeable pavers resulted in zero flooding or standing water. We are just as optimistic for the spring and to see the new landscape thrive.”

Arthington Mall rain garden.

The gardens are checked every other week for proper water retention. In the winter, the rain garden will be monitored for stagnant water. Seasonal maintenance, including weed removal, woody growth, and trash, guarantees that the rain garden continues functioning effectively. In the future, UIC aims to complete the installation of permanent signage for the Arthington Mall rain gardens. 

“By having signs posted, educating people about their surroundings, we hope some of the knowledge gained is able to be utilized in landscapes outside of campus,” Provost-Rizor added.

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