MSU is recognized for its commitment to protecting bees and other pollinators

A honeybee appears on honeycomb at the Honey Bee Research Site and Pollinator Garden at Montana State University's Horticulture Farm. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham

BOZEMAN — In an effort to support healthy populations of bees and other pollinators, Montana State University has joined a nationwide initiative certifying the university’s pollinator-friendly practices and programs.

In November, MSU was designated a Bee Campus USA by the international nonprofit Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, becoming the first Montana campus to qualify and enroll. The program includes 58 other campuses nationwide.

“This recognizes some incredible work on campus that many people might not be aware of,” said Mathew Bain, program coordinator in MSU’s Office of Sustainability.

Bee Campuses are required to have pollinator-friendly habitat that includes native plants, engage in outreach programs and teach courses related to pollinators, among other things.

“Becoming a Bee Campus builds upon, and unifies, ongoing research and outreach efforts aimed at promoting pollinator health at MSU and supports student and community member involvement.” Michelle Flenniken, assistant professor in MSU Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology

“Becoming a Bee Campus builds upon, and unifies, ongoing research and outreach efforts aimed at promoting pollinator health at MSU and supports student and community member involvement,” said Michelle Flenniken, assistant professor in the Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology in MSU’s College of Agriculture.

Flenniken, who co-directs MSU’s Pollinator Health Center with Laura Burkle, assistant professor of ecology, led the development of the Honey Bee Research Site and Pollinator Garden at MSU’s Horticulture Farm in 2015. The half-acre garden includes native plants that bloom throughout the spring and summer to provide a steady supply of the pollen and nectar that pollinators need.

“One of the factors that contributes to bee deaths is lack of suitable forage,” said Flenniken, whose research focuses on pathogens such as viruses that are another contributing factor to the high annual losses of honey bee colonies in the U.S. Even small areas of blooming plants can make a significant difference for pollinator health, she said.

Flenniken and Bain are members of an MSU committee that is tasked with developing a pollinator habitat plan for campus, which is required by the Bee Campus program. Native plants along the west side of Leon Johnson Hall are an example of what could be done in other areas of campus, said MSU facilities director EJ Hook, another member of the pollinator habitat committee.

“The Bee Campus designation recognizes the steps we’ve been taking and pushes us to go even further,” Hook said. In addition to maintaining flowering plants, MSU manages weeds and insect pests with the minimum of herbicides and pesticides, he added. That means tolerating dandelions in some areas because the blossoms are an important early-season forage for bees and other pollinators, he said. As a result of the Bee Campus designation, MSU Facilities Services will increase communication to explain those landscape management decisions, for instance with signs to point out areas of native plants.

MSU’s pollinator education and outreach offerings currently include nine undergraduate courses, several outreach activities for local youth and the Pollinator Symposium, where MSU graduate students and faculty present their research on honey bees, bumble bees and other pollinating insects in an open, public forum.

Flenniken, who has organized the symposium since it began in 2017, said the Bee Campus designation could inspire additional course offerings and other opportunities for MSU students, particularly undergraduates, to learn about bees and the important role they play in pollinating numerous important plant species — including fruit, nut and vegetable crops — in addition to producing honey.

Bain, who earned his bachelor’s in environmental science at MSU last year, initiated the effort to designate MSU after visiting another certified bee campus last spring.

“This will make campus even more of a living laboratory where we can learn about best practices,” he said.

–MSU Extension