Illustration of the University of Michigan Law Quad with a bee in the right corner. The sidewalks are made of honeycomb and honey.
Design by Abby Schreck

Pollinator populations across the country have been experiencing significant losses, threatening biodiversity, agriculture and food chains. The state of Michigan alone has seen a 61% drop in its bee population over the span of 15 years.  A team of masters students at the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability is aiming to raise awareness for pollinator conservation and enhance pollinator habitats on campus.

Thanks in part to the work of the team, dubbed “SEAS Bees,” the University was officially designated a bee-friendly campus in December by Bee Campus USA, an initiative of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation which recognizes colleges and universities practicing sustainable pollinator conservation across the country.

Sheila Schueller, academic program specialist at SEAS and project advisor for the team, told The Michigan Daily pollinators are essential to life on Earth. Humans rely on pollinators for 75% of staple crops and 90% of all flowering plants.

“We definitely depend on pollinators in many ways,” Schueller said. “There are studies that show with pollinator declines, malnutrition can occur because you see changes in diets, especially in developing countries.”

Ecology and Evolutionary Biology postdoctoral fellow Michelle Fearon told The Daily habitat loss and a decline in pollinator populations are directly correlated with climate change.

“Many pollinator species — particularly native bee species — have been declining due to loss of habitat,” Fearon said. “It’s one of the primary concerns along with increasing spread of disease and pesticide use and the interaction of many of these factors. With climate change, we’re seeing changes in the timing of when different species and flower species emerge, so that can also lead to mismatch and this can very rapidly lead to either local extinctions of either the bees or the native plant species.”

As temperatures rise across the world, growing and blooming seasons have shifted by half a day each year, resulting in unpollinated plants and bees without food. Bee colonies have also begun to experience colony collapse disorder — a phenomenon in which bees abandon their hives due to emerging diseases — which has created a spike in disease among the species.

Global warming has also affected the integral processes of other pollinators, altering the migratory patterns of butterflies, body temperatures of hummingbirds and ultrasonic hearing in bats.

Schueller said the diverse array of species that are classified as pollinators play a significant role in maintaining biodiversity in communities across the world.

“They are a really diverse group, and diversity begets diversity and stabilizes a system, so systems are more resilient when they are more diverse,” Schueller said. “We need pollinators because it’s just a massive part of the diversity overall, and that biodiversity is what allows systems to be stable over time. That’s what allows systems to continue to provide all of the aesthetics and beauty and function that we depend on.”

In addition to the important role pollinators play in agriculture, LSA junior Maxwell Klein, president of the U-M Entomology Club, told The Daily pollinators also contribute to the food web which sustains all life in an ecosystem.

“Without insects, there is no connection between those things that take light and produce it into workable energy and the things that we eat,” Klein said. “The secondary or tertiary consumers that essentially exist because of or directly feeding off of insects. They are part of the larger food chain and essentially the second level of the base of the trophic pyramid.”

The SEAS Bees team has worked on a number of pollinator projects, such as developing a habitat-quality assessment tool and installing a new pollinator-friendly garden next to the Museum of Natural History. 

In an email to The Daily, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology professor Elizabeth Tibbetts wrote that she believes both the assessment tool and the new habitat will benefit pollinators on campus.

“Adding pollinator habitat is a great way to support pollinators: one reason for pollinator decline is that we’re replacing meadows with roads and lawns,” Tibbetts wrote. “The habitat quality assessment tool is particularly useful. People often don’t realize that small changes can have huge benefits for pollinators — like mowing less frequently, planting diverse native flowers, or reducing pesticide application.”

Schueller said she hopes the tools being used by the SEAS Bees team will be made available to the public to further educate communities about tangible solutions for pollinator conservation.

“What we’re working towards is that that survey tool becomes available to the public and could be used as a citizen science tool so that it would expand the ability for campus grants to gain information on where the good pollinator habitats are and how we can improve them,” Schueller said. “There’s creativity about creating pollinator habitat — even just installing a little garden with the right requirements can increase pollinator habitat.”

Though the University has received official bee-friendly certification, Schueller said efforts to support pollinator populations should not stop there.

“The certification itself is just a symbol,” Schueller said. “It’s just something we’ve achieved because we did the paperwork to document what we’re doing. What we need now is recognition of what we’re doing already outside of those like certifications.”

Environment and Sustainability graduate student Riley Glancy, who is sustainability chair for SEAS student government, told The Daily she believes the University should prioritize a complete transition to the use of natural pesticides.

“This is an initiative I would really like to see, but I do think that it really comes down to money and convenience,” Glancy said. “It isn’t super hard to switch out the fertilizer you’re using. It’s just if you want to prioritize your budget that way.”

The University reached its 2025 goal to apply 40% fewer chemicals to campus landscapes three years ahead of schedule. Currently, 80% of the fertilizer used on campus is organic.

Klein said the continued use of synthetic herbicides on green spaces across campus — even at lower levels — causes entire colonies of pollinators to die, making it more challenging to foster spaces for native plant species. According to Klein, investing in organically managed plots of land will reduce habitat fragmentation of pollinator populations.

“The University is doing a good job, but we need to be much better,” Klein said. “We need to make the entirety of campus synthetic herbicide-free, or as close to it as we can possibly get. We should be working with the University to essentially make the Diag an organically managed plot of land.”

Schueller also advocated for the presence of more native plant species and gardens around campus.

“It’s also really about a cultural shift in expectations,” Schueller said. “People expect the Diag to look like short green grass with nothing else growing there and that’s what we think of as a beautiful lawn. What we need to do as a campus, to influence society, but also to influence the campus itself, is to shift that cultural expectation to one that understands landscapes to look differently.”

On an institutional level, Schueller said she believes the University can better help support pollinators and students’ initiatives for pollinator conservation by integrating pollinator awareness into course curricula and providing more opportunities for students to see the tangible impacts of their studies. 

“So many courses have an activity where students are designing something to influence public opinion or they’re designing landscapes, so there are lots of opportunities where those can be not just little exercises we do in the classroom, but that we influence the actual campus when we do them,” Schueller said. “There are also initiatives like No Mow May, which is a generally insect-friendly initiative across the country to not mow lawns in May, and it allows (grass) to grow taller and provide more diversity to our campus.”

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