© 2024 WEMU
Serving Ypsilanti, Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County, MI
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Issues of the Environment: University of Michigan achieves "bee-friendly" status as safe haven for pollinators

Dr. Sheila Schueller
University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability
Dr. Sheila Schueller


  • Pollinator populations across the country have been experiencingsignificant losses, threatening biodiversity, agriculture and food chains. The state of Michigan alone has seen a61% 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 abee-friendly campus in December byBee Campus USA, an initiative of theXerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, which recognizes colleges and universities practicing sustainable pollinator conservation across the country.
  • The SEAS Bees team has worked on a number of pollinator projects, such as developing ahabitat-quality assessment tool and installing a newpollinator-friendly garden next to the Museum of Natural History. The University reached also reached  its2025 goal to apply 40% fewer chemicals to campus landscapes three years ahead of schedule. Currently,80% of the fertilizer used on campus is organic.
  • Maxwell Klein, president of theUM Entomology Club, 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.

About Dr. Sheila Schueller

Dr. Sheila Schueller teaches as a Lecturer in Ecosystem Science and Management courses, including the core field-based ecology course for incoming master’s students (EAS 509) and the Master’s Project 3-term Theme Course: Conservation and Restoration (EAS 701.376). She completed her M.S. and Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Michigan and previously served as Assistant Director of the Ecosystem Management Initiative in SEAS and as an instructional consultant for the UM Center for Research on Learning and Teaching. She has been teaching ecology and field biology courses since 2002, both at U of M and at Eastern Michigan University, and also worked for several years as an adaptive management consultant, developing practical guides and facilitating workshops on evaluation and monitoring for conservation organizations across the country. Her research background is in plant-animal interactions, especially the pollination and seed dispersal of invasive plants, and she advises student research on how managed and built environments (from farms to native landscaping to suburban forests) support biodiversity and ecosystem function and services. In teaching she seeks to integrate student research and field work with the real-world data needs of natural resource planners and managers.


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and I'd like to welcome you to another edition of Issues of the Environment. With spring underway and the full bloom season approaching, it's a time in which we can be grateful for rejuvenation and beauty. I'm David Fair, and, as you know, it's about much more than just beauty, though there is planting and harvesting, and an entire agricultural industry begins to hit its full stride. It brings us our food and sustenance, and proliferation and preservation of our natural resources is vital as we continue to work against the climate crisis. Bees are among our greatest pollinators, and populations have been devastated across the country. There are a variety of ways in which that issue is being addressed, and one of them is centered at the University of Michigan. U of M has been officially designated a "bee-friendly" campus. Now, how did that come about, and what impact can that make? We're going to find out together from our guest. Dr. Sheila Schueller is a lecturer at the U of M School for Environment and Sustainability and served as project advisor for the SEAS Bees team. It helped earn that designation. And thank you so much for the time today, Dr. Schueller.

Dr. Sheila Schueller: Thank you for having me.

David Fair: Where does a bee-friendly campus designation come from?

Dr. Sheila Schueller: Well, the Xerces Society is an insect conservation organization that's nationwide that came up with this idea of let's certify places, either campuses or they actually have a "bee city" certification as well, as a way of acknowledging work that's being done, but also raising awareness about what still needs to be done for pollinator conservation.

David Fair: Well, certainly, the decline of the populations has been on the radar at the School for Environmental and Sustainability for quite a while now. How significant has the decline been in Michigan?

Dr. Sheila Schueller: Oh, for sure. It's worldwide, and it's sometimes hard to follow right? So, there's been some incredible studies that have looked like insect biomass decline in different areas of the world. I'm thinking of a particular study in Europe where they really showed a decline in biomass over the last 20 years. In terms of in Michigan, I don't know directly of agricultural that's been impacted. But there are definitely studies that also show, for example, the apple industry or the cherry industry will be very impacted by a loss of production when pollinators are low. And honeybee declines has been part of that. And that's sort of the more known pollinator decline for a lot of people because of colony collapse disorder.

David Fair: Sure.

Dr. Sheila Schueller: And the diseases that affect honeybees. But, when we say pollinators, I think the awareness of pollinator decline comes if we understand that we're talking about hundreds of species of not just bees, but also butterflies, beetles. And in Michigan alone, we have over 400 species of bees. So, that's what's declining. That's what we start to see--you know, fewer and fewer of particular species.

David Fair: So, how much of this is human encroachment on habitat, and how much is from the chemicals and the herbicides and pesticides that we put out into the environment?

Dr. Sheila Schueller: Yeah, it's definitely both. And people have tried to tease that apart and add to that--climate change and extreme weather events that also affect pollinators. And I think you can pretty directly know that pesticides have a major impact on pollinators because they're meant to target pests that are eating the plants, but they're not distinct to any insect. And so, they will also take out all sorts of pollinators that are nesting or traveling through that area. And then, in terms of loss of habitat, that is also a major impact. Though the bright side of that, as what we've shown, is even small recreation of habitat, can bring those bees back. That is, that you can have suitable habitat for many bee and pollinator species with little gardens in backyards.

David Fair: WEMU's Issues of the Environment conversation on bees continues with Dr. Sheila Schueller from the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability. As I mentioned, Dr. Schueller is Project Advisor for the SEAS Bees team that was a part of helping the U of M when it's bee-friendly campus designation. So, how did formation of this team come about?

Dr. Sheila Schueller: Well, at the School for Environmental and Sustainability, we have a fabulous capstone requirement for students. They either do a thesis, which is more research, or they do a master's project. And master's projects are always client-based and trying to solve a problem. And they are interdisciplinary teams of master students who work with, in this case, the University of Michigan was the client. It was Anya Dale who reached out to me as an advisor trying to get student support for this project to get bee campus certification. And Anya works through the campus sustainability, so it was something on her radar of this would kind of celebrate some of the things that they had been working towards already.

David Fair: So, what functions does the team perform in leading up to earning that bee-friendly designation?

Dr. Sheila Schueller: Well, there were certain things that needed to be documented that the campus was already doing in terms of reducing pesticide use, increasing habitat, but also the actual awareness and education and community outreach around pollinators as part of the certification. And so, to meet all of the requirements, they not only sort of documented what have we done so far, but they added pollinator habitat to campus by creating a garden where there wasn't one before, using the best available research of what plant species would make sense, and how do you support not just the food but also the nesting habitats. They also created a whole survey tool that allowed them and future both ground services and others to track what habitat there is on campus and what bees are there, what pollinators are there at any one time. So, it's a spatial data collection tool that you can use on a mobile device that basically says how many flowers are here and are any bees visiting right now? So, that's a way of pointing out, "Okay, we could add habitat here or we need to improve this habitat there."

David Fair: All of it sounds very ambitious, and it is part of a pretty ambitious campus community looking to make even greater differences as a whole. I believe the school has already achieved its 2025 goal of reducing chemical use on campus landscapes by 40%. The U of M is also now using organic fertilizers at a rate of 80% across campus. But, as we take a look at the current and future needs of pollinators and particularly bees, how much more does the University of Michigan have to improve?

Dr. Sheila Schueller: Oh, there's always room for improvement, and institutional change is slow, but I think we are definitely moving in the right direction. And something like the certification just brings that to light and brings the conversation up more. And I think the direction that needs to happen is a bit of a cultural shift in the way that we landscape. So, the university could provide a model of that. But it's also, you know, we can start with the campus, and it will influence other people's perceptions of what's an acceptable landscaping for a suburban area. And mode lawn is sort of our typical American addiction. But we could move beyond that to have more wildflower meadows, even on a campus environment and just increase the available pollinator habitat, which also has all sorts of benefits for human well-being: walking through more natural areas.

David Fair: That is a real interesting conversation to have with your friends and neighbors about the lawn, because people are really dedicated to lawn care.

Dr. Sheila Schueller: Dedicated is a great word to say. It's an industry, right, of this country. And, in fact, more land is taken up by turf as a crop than any other crop. So, it's interesting, too, in terms of institutional change and how that would happen. Ground services that I worked with together with this student team to make this happen, they actually don't manage turf. That's separately managed within the university. So, it requires some real cross talk, you know, over all of these different jurisdictions within a complex institution in order to make change happen.

David Fair: It is about education, in fact.

Dr. Sheila Schueller: In fact, it is.

David Fair: We're talking with Dr. Sheila Schueller on 89 one WEMU's Issues of the Environment. And we've been discussing the vitally important changes taking place on the U of M campus and the effort to conserve and protect pollinators, including bees, as they are essential to the environment and our ecology. And, Dr. Schueller, there are a number of communities across the state and country that are working pollinator conservation plans. Based on bee populations today, it's still not enough. Have you assessed where we might be in a decade absent more aggressive remedies?

Dr. Sheila Schueller: Well, it's a good question and somewhat speculative, but it certainly follows the line of everything else we're seeing with species extinction. That species extinction has already started and the rate is likely to increase as we add, like I said, extreme weather events of climate change. Anything that disrupts an already small population just makes it more likely to be lost. So, we definitely need to make more efforts and be creative about those efforts. Like I said, suburban habitat has great potential. I think many people think of parks and preserves as the way and the future of conservation, but we really need to think of the youth landscape: our campuses, our backyards, even our agriculture as places where we can support pollinator species and other species.

David Fair: And as I consider agriculture, I think it might be fair to say the consequences could go beyond ecological impacts and become, if it hasn't already, truly a public health issue.

Dr. Sheila Schueller: It absolutely is. And, in fact, they've found that pollinator declines in certain places where the diet shifts because of those pollinator declines that leads to malnutrition. So, you can think of not having certain foods available. And there are many staple crop plants that depend on pollinators. And, again, when we say pollinators, it is in the broadest sense and not just honeybees.

David Fair: So, as our time together winds down, I want to ask a final question. When you have these individual conversations in your neighborhood and out in your community, what is the one thing you ask people to consider and perhaps do?

Dr. Sheila Schueller: Probably the primary thing is reducing pesticide use. That's just kind of a no-brainer starting point in terms of let's stop killing them off. And then, in parallel with that, it would be plant, especially native plants that these pollinators have evolved with and can use the foraging resources. They can use those flowers to sustain them.

David Fair: I'm going to guess that you have done some of that.

Dr. Sheila Schueller: We sure have. We have a prairie in my backyard.

David Fair: And how do you like it? Is it much more maintenance-free?

Dr. Sheila Schueller: It is. It is much more maintenance-free. It's also just such a joy to watch everything that comes. I know some neighbors actually who have apiaries nearby, and I know that their honeybees come and visit my prairie. And we actually burn the prairie every 2 to 3 years. And I invite neighbors over, and it becomes a community event in which we really celebrate the more novel ways of landscaping.

David Fair: Now, that sounds like a change worth making. Thank you so much for the time today, Dr. Schueller. I appreciate it.

Dr. Sheila Schueller: Thank you.

David Fair: That is Dr. Sheila Schueller discussing the University of Michigan's designation as a bee-friendly campus and the importance of protecting our pollinators. For more information on today's conversation and topic, visit our web site at your convenience at WEMU dot org. Issues of the Environment is produced in partnership with the office of the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner. We bring it to you every Wednesday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM, Ypsilanti.

Non-commercial, fact based reporting is made possible by your financial support.  Make your donation to WEMU todayto keep your community NPR station thriving.

Like 89.1 WEMU on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Contact WEMU News at734.487.3363 or email us at studio@wemu.org

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
Related Content