Elementary students planting garden during Sustainability FestivalVideo: Gaetana Almeida

The Pollinator Garden Project

Passion for the Planet

The Pollinator Garden Project

Passion for the Planet

Elementary students planting garden during Sustainability FestivalVideo: Gaetana Almeida

Professor Greg Teegarden (Sciences) and his intern Caleb Gravel ’19 share a passion for the planet. And they’re in good company at Saint Joseph’s College of Maine. Teegarden and Gravel were members of a large, interdepartmental team working on The Pollinator Garden Project on campus. This project reveals the heart of the College’s identity: a place for experiential learning and for action based upon a commitment to sustainability.

A senior majoring in environmental science and double minoring in biology and sustainability studies, Caleb described why he cares about this project, “I’m passionate about making a spot, a safe space to conserve a species. I want to pursue conservation biology and help provide species with safe living spaces. I want to ensure that species are not going extinct.”

Caleb Gravel working at the Saint Joseph’s College pollinator garden Photo: Kaitlynn Hutchins

Co-coordinator of the Center for Sustainable Communities Dr. Greg Teegarden supports Gravel’s commitment. Teegarden points out that an important part of conservation projects is demonstrating the value to society. “The idea of formally researching and working with a plant is a way to create a connection to the natural world. Most people do not have a vegetable garden. They are disconnected from the production of their own food,” said Teegarden, who is also a biological oceanography professor in the Department of Sciences. He points to the need for people to reconnect to the natural world and to where their food comes from. “The average American youth can not even identify three tree species, but they can identify over a thousand corporate logos,” he said, citing an article by Kevin Armitage in Solutions.

Teegarden and Gravel are just two members of the Pollinator Garden Project team on campus, a team involving dozens of students, faculty members from several different departments, and a gaggle of fourth graders from Riverton School in Portland. And, if the project proceeds as planned, local seniors from the community will also have an opportunity to engage with the garden over the summer.

teardrop-shaped pollinator house at Saint Joseph's College's Sustainability Festival.
Teardrop-shaped pollinator house at Saint Joseph’s College’s Sustainability Festival Photo: Patricia Erikson

As an intern, Caleb serves as the project manager. He credits SJC’s Community and Sustainability Engaged (CASE) Scholars as launching the first phase of the pollinator garden project. CASE Scholars are SJC students who were identified as incoming first year students that already showed extraordinary commitment to environmental sustainability and community. They receive an annual scholarship and engage with the Community-Based Learning program. “The CASE Scholars were preparing for a conference and focusing on an issue that related to climate change. We chose the loss of biodiversity, specifically bees,” said Caleb.

Bee gathering pollen from a rose
Bee gathering pollen from rose Photo: Emma Joyce

Following the conference, SJC’s Center for Sustainable Communities (CSC) identified Becoming Bee Certified (via the Bee Campus USA program of Bee City USA) as an achievable goal for the College (not to be confused with “Certified B Corporations” that pursue social and environmental standards). CSC secured a grant award from Maine Campus Compact to help fund the project. Becoming Bee Certified requires everything from designing and then implementing a pollinator-friendly habitat plan to hosting awareness events and educational workshops to involving students in service learning projects.

In this regard, the scope and elements of the pollinator garden project match all five of the Institutional Learning Outcomes that Saint Joseph’s College of Maine identifies with excellence:

  1. Identify and apply the ethical and moral dimensions of their particular field of study. 
  2. Demonstrate effective communication skills in both written and oral formats. 
  3. Demonstrate competency in programmatic content and career preparation through applied and/or experiential learning opportunities. 
  4. Engage in responsible citizenship, social justice, and environmental stewardship. 
  5. Demonstrate critical thinking skills and the ability to analyze and evaluate information from diverse sources and perspectives.

The bee certification process has entailed remarkable, campus-wide and interdepartmental collaboration. Teegarden, who teaches the ES100 Ecology and the Environmental Challenge–a core course covering environmental science and sustainability primarily for non-science majors– explained the role of his students in the project.

“Students respond best to a hands-on component. While they can learn through traditional lecture and note taking, that does not always meet them where they live. On the other hand, experiential learning–physically doing something themselves–provides students with something interesting to dig their hands into,” said Teegarden.

“The ES100 students started the seeds in the greenhouse, nurtured the seedlings, and then transplanted them into the beds. They worked in groups of two. Each group was assigned to a particular plant to establish optimal soil, nutrients, water, and light conditions. They researched: what does it take for this plant to succeed? What pollinators does it attract? The plant selection must be diverse because our goal is to attract a cross section of pollinators.”

Nine raised garden beds alongside the path down to Sebago Lake host the wide range of pollinator-attracting plants. The selection may eventually include: blueberry and elderberry bushes, snap peas and hops on a fence, bee balm, blue lobelia, and a range of herbs, such as oregano and thyme. The list is long.

“Without pollinators, there’s no food on the shelves. So we should be very concerned that their numbers are on the decline.”

As Caleb discovered, bee-friendly certification is not just about bees.

“Before this project, I didn’t realize how many different pollinator species there were and how different they looked. Some don’t even look like what we think of as a bee,” Caleb said.

According to Environment Maine, agriculture relies upon bees to pollinate 71 of the 100 crops that supply 90% of the world’s food, including everything from strawberries to almonds to the alfalfa we feed dairy cows. When pointing to the declining health and population of pollinators–including bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds, to name a few–the federal Environmental Protection Agency points to pests, disease, poor nutrition, pesticide exposure, and other factors.

“Without pollinators, there’s no food on the shelves. So we should be very concerned that their numbers are on the decline,” warned Teegarden.

Teegarden advised that everyone consider using pollinator-friendly practices where they live.  “Plant shrubs and flowers that feed pollinators. Milkweed is one of the principal foods for monarch butterflies. We plant borage in my own family’s vegetable garden, for example, and the bees go nuts. We dedicate that space to the pollinators because it really brings them in. Shun the use of pesticides on your lawn and garden. The neonicotinoids (like RoundupTM) are terrible.”

Students and faculty from the departments of education, communications, and sciences each contributed to the project. At the same time that ES100 students raised the seedlings for the garden, Education 205 Science Methods and Technology students prepped and delivered lesson plans about soil health, garden design, and the role of pollinators in food production to nearly one hundred Riverton Elementary students. Communication students documented the service learning aspect of the project, capturing–and then communicating–how the elementary students interacted with the curriculum in their classrooms. They also documented the elementary students’ experience when they attended the Sustainability Festival on campus. Anatomy and physiology students researched the medical properties of some of the plants, as well as the physiological response to gardening itself.

“One of my roles,” Teegarden said, “is to help students see how the work accomplished by all of the different classes intersect with each other. The loss of biodiversity is a complex problem and we need to prepare students to work in large teams that produce solutions that can match this complexity.”

Caleb concurred, “I had lots of help from members of the project committee; we have a good team. All the faculty, CASE Scholars, EcoReps, and students. Getting the gardens up and ready by Earth Week to show people at the Sustainability Festival was an aggressive goal.”

“Oh, and now we have to achieve that Bee Certification for the College, too,” Caleb said with a smile.

Update: In June, Saint Joseph’s College received the Bee Campus USA® affiliate designation.