Bayer’s “Feed a Bee” funds Illinois college prairie

By Julia John

Students dig up plugs donated from a neighboring backyard to be planted in North Central College’s new prairie. ©Gregory Ruthig

For over two years, a small liberal arts college in the suburbs of Chicago has been converting its campus to native prairie to nourish ecologically vital pollinators threatened by habitat loss and other issues. Now, with a grant from the Bayer Bee Care Program, Naperville’s North Central College will be able to cover more ground more rapidly to plant prairie species, boost pollinator populations and support the local ecosystem.

“We’re worried about honey bees and native bees, but this will be an island of flowers in a sea of suburbia, so we’re hoping it’s helpful,” said associate biology professor Gregory Ruthig. “This grant gave us the opportunity to afford to have it all professionally installed and maintained.”

In the spring of 2016, North Central biology students began planting donated and purchased native plugs and seeds on the campus periphery near downtown, along small 10- to-20-meter-deep sections between the DuPage River and its boardwalk. Currently around 120 meters long, the ribbon of prairie stretches farther than the college football field.

Adjacent to the stream, the undergraduates continue to remove invasive bushes like buckthorn to make room for dozens of tall native prairie grasses that attract pollinators. They include big bluestems (Andropogon gerardii), milkweeds (Asclepias spp.), golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea), goldenrods (Solidago), New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta), coneflowers (Echinacea spp.) and even ramps (Allium tricoccum) — Chicago’s Native American namesake.

“When we got the grant, it was great to be able to show off what we had started because within a year, that filled in nicely,” Ruthig said.

In 2017, the campus received $5,000 from the Bayer Bee Care Program’s Feed a Bee initiative, which aims to augment wildflower forage for pollinators in all 50 states by the end of this year. The funds will expedite the prairie restoration by enabling the college to hire professionals to plant native species throughout hundreds more square meters of land by the water and clear weeds so the seeds sowed last November thrive.

“The first couple years when the prairie goes in, controlling weeds and invasives is a challenge — more than just the students and I could handle,” he said, “so having money to help pay for that is going to be huge.”

Ruthig’s team, which has been documenting pollinators in the area since before the project, has already observed some new visitors — honey bees (Apis spp.) and various kinds of native bees, butterflies and beetles hovering over the young prairie plants.

“It’s a super exciting time,” he said. “Now this thing’s going to be a lot bigger.”

Ruthig envisions the prairie serving as “a nice stomping ground” for bees.

“Most bee species have an amazing ability to find nectar sources, so every time you add a little, it’s an advantage,” he said, whether it’s a few backyard flowers or several hectares of native grasses on this length of prairie.

“In Chicago, we’re not in a place with big mountains or oceans, so students sometimes miss the ecosystem right in front of them,” Ruthig said. “We’re going to use this for teaching a lot of natural history about the area, and we’re hoping this is used by people in the community, too.”

Bayer Bee Care is a Leading Sponsor of TWS.

Julia John is a science writer at The Wildlife Society. Contact her at jjohn@wildlife.org with any questions or comments about her article.

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