By Vanessa Salvia

The campus of Southern Oregon University in Ashland was the nation’s first certified “Bee Campus,” but it’s definitely not the last. As of now, the initiative by the Xerces Society, an organization dedicated to pollinator protection, has certified 51 Bee Campuses from Alabama to Washington.

Michael Oxendine, SOU’s landscape services supervisor, worked with Portland, Oregon’s Xerces Society to develop the requirements to become a Bee Campus. Ashland was already one of the first ten cities in the country to become a Bee City, so to Oxendine it was a natural jump to get the campus certified as well.

“I called the lady who started the Bee City program and we talked at length about what it would take to get colleges an accreditation of their own,” Oxendine said. “We came up with the requirements and I got them implemented on campus. We got the first college certificate.”

To be a Bee Campus, campuses must agree to do several things, including dedicating funding to protect pollinators and installing educational signage explaining the purpose of the pollinator gardens. SOU came up with a plan to purchase pollinator-friendly plants from nurseries who agreed to not use pesticides known to be harmful to bees. The plants were strategically placed to be appealing visually as well as provide forage for bees in places where there previously was none.

“For example, sports fields made of astroturfs or just large areas of grass create a food desert for a bee,” Oxendine said. “The pollinators need to forage frequently and they can’t fly long distances without food, so we try to break up those food deserts on campus.”

Teaching classes about pollinator ecology is another requirement, and it engages students on the greater environment as well as familiarizes them with the new bee habitats that pop up on Bee Campuses.

The University of Oregon in Eugene, Oregon, recently received the 49th Bee Campus certification.

“Honey bees are fascinating,” said Harper Keeler, director of the UO’s Urban Farm program through the School of Architecture & Environment. About 340 students per year go through Keeler’s Urban Farm class, which includes lessons on pollinators. “We’re impacting a lot of students,” Keeler said.

Keeler said most campuses do a good job of planting for visual appeal, and there’s nothing wrong with having lawns. But if you can provide flowers that appeal to pollinators and promise to not use harmful pesticides, you’re creating a better environment for everyone. “The bee-friendly thing is a reflection of a higher sophistication that’s happening now,” Keeler said. “There’s a greater awareness by colleges to protect their open spaces and do something to help with the shrinking habitat that’s happening for bees now.”

So far, Gonzaga University in Washington State is the first and only Jesuit institution that is a certified Bee Campus. It’s also the first in the state. Chuck Faulkenberry, director of Gonzaga’s Hemmingson Center, said that they started to explore pollinator health about four years ago as they were getting ready to build Hemmingson, which is a large Gold LEED certified student center.

“As Jesuits, we have a strong belief in stewardship of the Earth and our surroundings,” Faulkenberry said. “A strong aspect of that is honey bees and pollinators and the plight of honey bees over the years. Hemmingson has a hydroponic greenhouse and rooftop gardens, so the sustainable pieces that included pollinators seemed like a natural fit.”

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A swarm of bees on UNC Asheville’s campus. (Courtesy of UNC Asheville)

On the roof of Hemmingson, students can dine alongside bee boxes and watch the pollinators at work. The school offers various pollinator-focused activities during Earth Week and also provides opportunities for students to put on bee suits and open hives with the beekeeper. During fall, students help prepare the hives for winter and harvest and bottle honey. “It’s building that awareness and keeping students involved,”  Faulkenberry said. “This has created a lot of good feelings and good will to honey bees and all pollinators.”

Linda Petee, sustainability and risk management coordinator for Delta College in Michigan, said the school’s grounds crew has steadily been increasing wildflower-rich habitat to support pollinators including butterflies and hummingbirds. “In 2016, I attended bee-related sessions at the AASHE [Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education] annual conference,” Petee said. “So much helpful information was offered! It created the inspiration toward applying for certification.”

Delta has a newly formed Pollinator Alliance Team which Petee said is very enthusiastic about increasing pollinator habitats. “In mid-September, we gathered to begin forming a comprehensive Campus Pollinator Habitat Plan,” she said. “Student eco-reps are planning a kick-off awareness event for mid-October and will move toward other outreach for Earth Day. We’ll be featuring sessions for building community bee habitat with a new partnership in a local downtown area and, eventually, at a market near a new city center campus currently under construction.”

The University of North Carolina Asheville became a certified Bee Campus in spring 2016 (it’s also a certified Tree Campus). “A group of stakeholders on campus decided to pursue a Bee Campus certification to formalize a commitment to expanding pollinator health initiatives,” said Jackie Hamstead, UNC Asheville’s campus operations environmental specialist. “It was also an opportunity to recognize the efforts already taking place on campus in terms of landscape management, curriculum and student research. As an education institution, with dedicated faculty, staff, and students, we can be a driving change to ensuring a better future for pollinators. Sustainability is one of our core values at UNC Asheville and honoring that commitment means modeling sustainable campus practices.”

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Studying a hive at UNC Asheville. (Courtesy of UNC Asheville)

While all of these Bee Campuses across the country are certainly good for the bees, the students are benefitting from it too. At UNC Asheville as well as at other Bee Campuses, the campus grounds serve as extensions of the classrooms, and these pollinator habitats provide new learning opportunities that cover several fields of study.

UNC Asheville has several Bee Campus-related opportunities for students, including internships in the Grounds Department, membership in the student Bee Club and courses offered on pollinators, like a Humanities class called Honeybees and Humans. Students can engage in independent research opportunities facilitated by faculty in the Biology and Environmental Studies Departments, or attend tours, workshops or presentations. “Other students benefit more indirectly in the sense that a healthy ecosystem for pollinators is most often healthy for humans,” Hamstead said.

In the past, students might not have paid attention to the monarch butterfly or the honey bee on that flower, but maybe now they will. Oxendine said an increasing number of students are stopping the school’s landscapers as they work to ask them questions.

“If students are learning about environmental practices but aren’t seeing that in their actual environment there’s a missing link,” Oxendine said. “You didn’t used to see students talking to the landscapers as they’re mowing the grass, but they’re doing that now, and I think that engagement between students and staff goes a long way to make the campus feel more like their home environment where they live and learn.”

Oxendine said he has no doubt that students are benefitting from the improved pollinator habitat at SOU. “One of the coolest things is seeing students who have built habitats going back the following year to see if what they created is actually hosting pollinators,” he said. “I feel it engages students and makes the campus landscape more interactive. And it makes them more aware of the flowers they walk past every day.”

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