Campus Gets Buzzing to Increase Bee Population

Students, employees get active in encouraging pollinators

Members of Facilities Management's horticulture team plant flowers along Campus Drive. Using native plants and flowers has enabled Duke to encourage a healthier bee population. Photo by April Dudash.
Members of Facilities Management's horticulture team plant flowers along Campus Drive. Using native plants and flowers has enabled Duke to encourage a healthier bee population. Photo by April Dudash.

Each morning when Ken McKenzie steps off his Triangle Transit express bus by the corner of Duke University Road and Chapel Drive, he enjoys a walk to his office in the Physics Building.

During the spring and summer, he had grown accustomed to often seeing - and sometimes hearing - bees amongst the flowers and plants along campus sidewalks. Nearly three years ago, he started to notice a decrease in buzzing.

“I grew concerned knowing that pollinators are experiencing declines in the U.S., so I wondered if that was the case here,” said McKenzie, lab coordinator in the Department of Physics.

Across the country, researchers and scientists alike have been paying attention to the trend. In June 2014, the White House issued a presidential memorandum warning against a decline in pollinators, in this case, insects that move pollen from flower to flower. Last year, a research team at the University of Vermont estimated that wild bee abundance declined 23 percent between 2008 and 2013 across the contiguous U.S. Long term impacts could threaten U.S. crop production.

When McKenzie started to reach out to experts at Duke to learn more about a potential trend on campus, he found that in recent years, students and staff, sometimes unbeknownst to each other, had been working to preemptively address a potential bee decline for years.

Across West Campus, Facilities Management has been installing insect-friendly plantings for years, with an emphasis on native North Carolinian plants and flowers to encourage a natural ecosystem. The hedges along Chapel Drive leading up to the road’s namesake building are flanked by glossy abelia, which blooms throughout the summer as an ideal source of nectar for bees and other pollinators. Beds of flowers spotted near university and Medical Center buildings are all selected to also attract native insect populations. 

Andy Currin, Facilities Management’s assistant superintendent for landscape services, has been a beekeeper for 10 years and knows the importance of focusing on plantings that help local insect populations. Some species of bees can travel anywhere from two to five miles, so keeping populations high at Duke means benefiting locations across campus and in Durham.

“Anything we do here could have an impact in a far radius around campus, which we always keep in mind,” Currin said. “If you have more pollinators you’re going to have more flowers, and more flowers means a more beautiful landscape.” 

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The Duke Campus Farm initiated a partnership with the Durham County Beekeepers Association to grow a bee population that can help crops grow. Photo courtesy of Duke Campus Farm.

Trying to aid the bee population is actively happening off Duke’s main campuses, too. At the Duke Campus Farm, staff began partnering with the Durham County Beekeepers Association about four years ago to increase pollinator populations around the one-acre agricultural space. This spring, the association installed three active hives at the farm, which are maintained by Beekeepers Association volunteers and used as educational tools for Duke students.

The potential to have upward of about 150,000 bees between the hives is a big boon to the farm, said Emily McGinty, assistant program manager. 

“When we started the farm we were working on depleted soil with poor ecology, so creatures of all kinds didn’t want to live on or near our space,” McGinty said. “Having bees on-site and attracting other pollinators helps us because if we don’t have these insects, our stuff wouldn’t grow as well.” 

Cucumbers and okra are particularly benefiting from the arrangement, as both vegetables need the attention of bees to be their healthiest. There are about 1,200 feet of plantings at Duke Campus Farm between the two.

In addition to staff, students have been paying close attention to pollinators on campus. Gaby Benitez, a graduated senior and member the undergraduate club Food4Thought, organized a free screening of More Than Honey, a documentary about declining bee populations.

Along with her peers, Benitez spent the past year coordinating with Facilities to formalize a campus commitment to ban the use of neonicotinoids in pesticides, which are particularly harmful to pollinators. Duke already uses pesticides free of the compound, so Benitez wanted to work with staff at Duke to adopt a policy to formally acknowledge the use of pollinator-friendly items. 

“It’s important for our whole community to understand the everyday connections between ourselves and our environment,” Benitez said. “Pollinators have relevance in our lives.”