Students turn barren spots on campus into buzzing homes for pollinators
It doesn't take much for Elise Gornish to help a neglected patch of barren soil spring into a miniature ecosystem bursting with life.
Since she joined the university four years ago, Gornish – a Cooperative Extension specialist in ecological restoration in the School of Natural Resources and the Environment – has served as the faculty mentor of the Ecological Restoration Club, which she founded in response to interest expressed by students.The club is a student chapter of the Society for Ecological Restoration of the Southwest, for which Gornish serves as president.
Comprising about 75 undergraduate and graduate student members, the club's purpose is to connect students with professionals in the restoration field and provide them with opportunities in ecological restoration – turning degraded areas with little ecological value into habitat where plants and animals can thrive to mutual benefit, while also providing outdoor spaces for humans to observe and enjoy as well.
Armed with shovels, rakes and bags of seeds purchased with a donation of just $200, the club recently got to work on a raised plant bed along the southern edge of the Biological Sciences West building. Under Gornish's guidance, the students planted pollinator friendly plants known to attract bees as well as other flower-visiting animals. The once-barren area where irrigation pipes watered nothing but barren soil is now a habitat teeming with life. Milkweed plants attract monarchs, a critically endangered butterfly species known for its epic migrations between the U.S. and central Mexico. Other flowers draw hummingbirds while a bee house provides nesting spaces for wild bees.
Lo Que Pasa spoke with Gornish about what it takes to install a pollinator garden, and how these efforts pay off, both for the people who build them and for the creatures that use them.
Can you tell us how the idea for the club came about?
The club is very student-driven, and the students really came up with this idea. We were talking about restoration of pollinator habitat, and we had a few guests to our meetings who talked about how critical it is to have pollinator habitat, which are essentially islands of flowering plants, in urban environments. And we knew we wanted to work super local, so working on campus just made sense.
Why should people care about pollinators?
Pollinators are critical for the maintenance of native plant systems and for food we eat. Pollinators are also important wildlife. People should care about pollinators because without them, native plant systems as we know them wouldn't exist, and we wouldn't be able to eat some of our favorite foods like grapes, eggplant, strawberries and beans, all of which require pollinators. Pollinators are facing threats from climate change and land use – they are very quickly losing habitats. The populations of some pollinators, like monarch butterflies, have actually declined almost 95% due to loss of habitat and critical plant species they depend on, such as milkweeds. Hummingbirds are important pollinators. too. and they have been having a really tough time with the drought as their flower resources have significantly declined.
How have your students responded to these initiatives?
The students love getting their hands dirty and making the campus just a little more amenable for pollinators. It makes them feel good and accomplished when they walk by the gardens and see animals enjoying the flowers. The students are also learning a lot about pollinator habitat. Stakeholders have been amazing. We have received grants from the Society of Ecological Restoration, private monetary donations and donations of plants from the Gila Watershed Partnership for our work. Folks on campus love the gardens, and researchers who work with pollinators are really impressed with them as well. During the pandemic, we have been facing restrictions, obviously, so one of the projects I had the students do is take home a small cactus plant for them to take care of. This provided an opportunity to engage in restoration work remotely, by taking care of that plant before bringing it back to campus and planting it. The students love their adopted plants, gave them names and babied them over the course of the semester.
Can you tell us a little bit about the transformation you have observed in the first pollinator garden?
Before we installed our first garden, it just a bare area with no signs of insect use at all. After garden installation, not only did we see a huge increase in pollinator use – bees, butterflies, beetles, ants and hummingbirds – but we also saw changes in the entire food web. We have seen a return of aphids and praying mantises, and even small mammal use. In this little place, we were able to kick-start a healthy functioning ecosystem.
What are your plans for the future?
We hope to turn this into a recurring activity for the students, so they get to do one of these pollinator gardens each semester in public spaces around town. On campus, our goal is to install on campus every year. We want to create spaces where students can walk past and say, "Hey, look, I was part of that."
You are planning to create a sanctuary for native desert tortoises. What will that look like?
Right before COVID restrictions set in, we had plans to help the Cooper Center for Environmental Learning install a native garden in an area set aside as habitat for desert tortoises. It was obviously put on hold, but the club is still chatting with the Cooper Center and we will likely install a garden there at some point in the near future. A desert tortoise-friendly garden would include lots of plants that the tortoises like to eat as well as some larger woody plants to provide shade.
Where do you see opportunities for future projects on campus property?
All we need is a bare area connected to irrigation, some plants and elbow grease to create small oases with pollinator habitat all across campus. In addition to planting native pollinator plants in bare areas around campus, we also hope to address some of the nonnative plants on campus. For example, on the southwestern side of Life Sciences South, there is a bunch of vinca, an invasive plant, that we would like to eventually remove and replace with native plants. The University also has a bunch of buildings scattered around town that are surrounded by lawns. We would love to replace those with more native habitats like rocks and cacti and succulents. I do want to clarify that the University grounds folks do an amazing job and there are already a ton of beautiful native plants that are really well cared for on campus.
What can people do individually to help restore pollinator habitat?
Restoration can be easy, inexpensive and done in a small space or it can be complex, expensive and done across thousands of acres. In town, folks can just plant native plants in their own gardens and learn about some of our common nonnatives and remove those from their landscapes. Habitats can always be improved for local wildlife. For example, folks can make bee and bat houses, they can provide water sources for animals and birds, and they can plant flowering plants that provide nectar resources to a whole suite of animals. Most native nurseries can tell you the best plants for your location and budget. There are many online tutorials out there on how to build a bee house or a butterfly house. They can also check out the new Cooperative Extension restoration website for tons of tips and tools on local restoration. For the future, we plan outreach activities such as public talks, highlight a plant of the month, install signs with more information, or offer courses, for example on how to build a bee house.
Follow the Ecological Restoration Club on Instagram: uofa_restore.