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Plant native species, pollinators will come: Catawba College recognized for improving bee habitat, reducing pesticide use

A look under the hood of the apiary reveals the frames where the bees make their honey.
Hannah Addair
Catawba College
A look under the hood of the apiary reveals the frames where the bees make their honey.

Catawba College is becoming the buzz of Salisbury after receiving an award for increasing pollinator habitat and native plants around campus, joining 191 other Bee Campuses certified by the environmental nonprofit The Xerces Society.

Besides paying the application fees, schools must increase pollinator habitat, reduce pesticide use, and develop programming to teach people about pollinators and native flora. Fifteen other N.C. schools have received the certification, and Charlotte has received its own Bee City USA affiliation.

Joshua Cool, the college’s ecological preserve keeper, piloted a rugged cart down a trail in the 189-acre Fred Stanback Jr. Ecological Preserve, which abuts Catawba’s Center for the Environment.

A pool appeared through the treeline on Cool’s left. He said it dries up during parts of the year, but for now, it was providing aquatic habitat for salamanders and other species.

“Last August, I could walk across all of this. It was cracked —,” said Cool. He paused as something caught his eye across the water. “There’s a great blue heron right there.”

Sightings like this were common in the preserve. Cool is driving to an apiary, or bee box, deep in the preserve. On the way, he encountered deer, otter scat and signs of beaver activity in a dried creek bed.

Hannah Addair and Joshua Cool recently received their beekeeper certifications.
Hannah Addair
Catawba College
Hannah Addair and Joshua Cool recently took their beekeeper certification class.

At the apiary, Hannah Addair, the campus’ sustainability specialist showed off the five frames of their bee box. Addair places a hand on the apiary without hesitation as she counts. But Cool and Addair, who recently took a beekeeper certification class, assure me there’s nothing to worry about … just as long as I don’t smell bananas.

“Bee alarm pheromone smells like bananas,” said Cool. “So, if you smell bananas, they’re not happy.”

There’s another reason Addair feels so comfortable next to the apiary, besides her recent training.

“You’re not seeing a lot of action coming in and out of the front, because all the girls are probably out foraging right now,” Addair said.

When Addair says "the girls," she’s talking about the worker bees, all of whom are female. A student started this apiary before the pandemic. Now, Addair hopes to pass the torch to another group of students in Catawba’s Environmental Stewards program.

Bee Campus USA also fits into the campus’ larger vision for how it handles pest control and landscaping, according to Lee Ball, executive director of Catawba’s Center for the Environment.

“We want to mimic these ecological systems as much as possible,” said Ball.  

A bumblebee alights on a wildflower in Catawba’s ecological preserve, pollinating it.
Zachary Turner
A bumblebee alights on a wildflower in Catawba’s ecological preserve, pollinating it.

The idea is for the campus to require less pesticides and pest removals because those niches are already filled with native species. Ball says that by building out the ecosystem, students participate in a “living laboratory.”

Addair showed me an example outside Catawba’s Center for the Environment, where the college built a small pond. She pointed out the eastern redbud and jewelweed growing along the edges — examples of native plants that border the pond.

The bright jewelweed, a native flower, jutted out like a trombone over the water. Orbicular baby frogs hung suspended in the pond, unbothered by their audience. Soon, powerful legs would sprout, and they would lose their long, flat tails.

Human development and climate change have put stress on many species, but it’s especially hard out here for bugs. A global analysis of insect surveys found that one-third of our invertebrate neighbors are threatened with extinction.

“People complain about, ‘No, there are no more lightning bugs in the yard, not many butterflies,’” Addair said. “Well … if you create the habitat for them, they will come.”

The pond provides a habitat for birds, amphibians, and many species of pollinators. Their proximity to the center gives students an opportunity to study them, collect samples and learn about how these species respond to their environment. The Center for the Environment will be building new bee boxes with students next fall.

“Hopefully, when people see how beautiful campus is, that will motivate people to create their own habitat in their own yard or across the city,” Addair said.

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Zachary Turner is a climate reporter and author of the WFAE Climate News newsletter. He freelanced for radio and digital print, reporting on environmental issues in North Carolina.