College campuses take a lot of effort to keep beautiful and welcoming to humans. A group of St. Thomas community members have been working on opening the campus to more guests – many of the insect variety – by creating the Pollinator Path.
The Pollinator Path sprawls across the St. Paul campus and is made up of around a dozen sites with plants to attract pollinators like bees or butterflies.
At the heart of the network that helped build the path are greenhouse manager Catherine Grant and Doreen Schroeder, senior laboratory coordinator and adjunct Biology Department faculty member within the College of Arts and Sciences. While the primary goal of the path is to provide a food source for pollinators, Grant and Schroeder also want it to be an educational opportunity for people to learn more about plants and pollinators, and how they support one another.
“On the most simple level, we’ve asked people to notice the presence or absence of pollinators,” Grant said. “Then people can go home and take that to their own gardens.”
Starting out on the path
When was the last time you encountered a bee – or multiple bees? For some that answer may be easier to recall than others, but the fact remains that many of the flowers planted in gardens aren’t attractive to pollinators.
“The general public is used to not seeing bees around,” Schroeder said. “They think that’s the norm, when in fact it shouldn’t be.”
While neither Grant nor Schroeder proclaim to be bee experts, they dove into this project with support from the St. Thomas grounds crew. St. Thomas neighbors also donated about 100 native plants to establish a pollinator garden, which is now the highlight of the Pollinator Path. Since then, Grant and Schroeder have paid attention to what plants work well and planned out new sites accordingly.
“[Bees] have never been a focal point for me until the last three or four years,” Grant said. “Once you pay attention, I feel like there’s no going back. Then you look at a plant and go, ‘Sure, it’s pretty or has beautiful leaves, but will it bring the bees?’”
Even in its early stages, the Pollinator Path has provided opportunities for student work and research. One of Schroeder’s recent Conservation Biology classes spent time counting the number of pollinators they came across on campus south of Summit Avenue. They compared their data to other classes’, reaching back five years, and saw a threefold increase in bumblebees and a six-fold increase in honeybees in the area. (While Schroeder is quick to point out that most of the numbers probably have increased because the surrounding St. Paul community has more managed hives, the Pollinator Path is providing those bees with a food source.)
Schroeder plans to regularly collect scientific data over the next year for a better understanding of what pollinators enjoy what plants to better inform what to plant in the future.
A new habitat
Unsurprisingly, Schroeder and Grant, as well as their students, have learned a lot about bees through this project. Much of their efforts have centered around native bees, whose hardships are less frequently discussed than those of honeybees’.
“Here we’re providing them food, but if we don’t account for habitat, then we’re not doing everything we can,” Grant said.
Native bees are also often less social than honeybees and their nests are different from the stereotypical hive we think of. The hives made for them, instead, usually are reeds bundled together or blocks of wood with holes drilled in them, where the solitary bees then lay their eggs. Enter two students who work for Grant in the greenhouse, Jacob Grow ’18 and Matthew Cox ’18: Grow and Cox designed and created four native-friendly hives, which will soon be put on campus. (Note that solitary bees are unlikely to sting.)
Grow and Cox said they have enjoyed hands-on work where they can directly make a positive difference.
“It’s really nice to see the fruits of my labor,” Grow said, laughing at his pun. “Any time you’re having a wide variety of insects like that, you’re going to have a wider variety of healthy plants, and having more diversity in an ecosystem makes for a healthier ecosystem.”
Both take what they learn in their jobs home with them: Grow said he feels comfortable planting at his own home now and has a better understanding of when and what to buy when it comes to produce; Cox said he takes the sustainability tips that come from the greenhouse and applies them in his life.
Cox, who is an environmental science and philosophy major, intends to work in conservation science after graduation, and said the practical education he gains from the greenhouse is invaluable.
“Every day, I get the advantage of learning a new plant, a new skill, a new sustainable practice of taking care of plants in the greenhouse,” he said. “I’m exposed to other people who are in that kind of field, who maybe are starting a new urban farm.”
They added that tending to the gardens can be hard work – but there’s an obvious satisfaction that comes from it.
“I handpicked [Japanese] beetles off of plants and dropped them in soapy water for a week-and-a-half last summer,” Cox said. “You don’t put that kind of work and dedication into every project.”
“I’ve spent just five hours weeding,” added Grow, who is a business law major. “And that’s not very fun, but it needs to be done or else it will hurt the plants. Doing that and being able to see why I do things, even if it’s not enjoyable, I think I’ll be able to take that into everything else that I do.”
The Pollinator Path will greatly extend its reach next year because it will be a partner for the Sustainable Communities Partnership. SCP works with entities, often cities or governments, to integrate partner-identified sustainability projects into St. Thomas courses. In the upcoming year, SCP, led by Maria Dahmus, will collaborate with Grant and Schroeder to help develop the Pollinator Path as a platform of discovery and learning for both St. Thomas students and the broader community.
While Dahmus, Grant and Schroeder still are brainstorming all the course connections, Spanish and theology paired courses are already on board. Through the theology lens, the students will read Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’ and identify quotes that explain why the Pollinator Path is important.
“The community can then understand [the path] from a Catholic social teaching perspective, which I think is important coming from a Catholic university,” Dahmus said.
Through the Spanish lens, students will do some translation work, opening the path up to an even broader community.
Dahmus, Grant and Schroeder also hope to partner with a teacher education course to develop K-12 curriculum for the Pollinator Path, particularly for younger children, so the path becomes an easily accessible asset. To that end, they already have partnered with geography students who created an online Story Map for the path that will be available soon. The Story Map helps visitors navigate the path and has information about what might be observed along the way. The physical signs on the path also will be expanded.
Dahmus said she is particularly excited about working with the Pollinator Path because it is an on-campus project that students can easily get involved with and see the results of their actions. One of the goals from SCP’s view is to integrate projects into classes from many different disciplines, to show how every discipline has something unique and important to contribute to sustainability.
“Often when you think of what you can do for sustainability, it’s that you need to stop doing certain things, right?” Dahmus said. “But that’s not really what it’s about. What it’s really about, for us, is how we can create better systems through innovation and creativity and collaboration to promote and restore human and environmental well-being. … Students get to see the results and be innovators.”
For Cox, that certainly has rung true.
“People really influence what you do and make a positive change,” Cox said. “When [neighbors] donated the plants for the pollinator garden, those plants are still growing, making a positive difference. That’s something really valuable. … Anyone on campus can come up with an idea and make a difference.”