Jesse Smith identified six types of bumblebees on the Quad during his first year as a graduate student in the School of Biological Sciences. When he returned his second year, he found only two species.
Smith also knew that Illinois State University is in the direct path of the monarch butterfly migration. Even though he had seen countless butterflies the previous year, the next year there were many fewer that stopped on the Illinois State Quad before continuing their journey south. Smith realized that this sharp decline in pollinators on campus was an indicator that the University had the capacity to host these pollinators, but there was more that needed to be done in order to achieve that.
“I knew that there had to be something we could do to improve the campus’s floral resources for pollinators and that we should be supporting these things,” said Smith.
Then Smith discovered the ISU Sugar Creek Savanna, a four-acre patch of land located adjacent to Cardinal Court. The area was set aside in 1975 for educational purposes and as a nature preserve. In the 1990s, the land fell into disrepair. It was overrun by invasive vegetation like Amur honeysuckle, which out-competes native species. To the untrained eye the site would have appeared to be a lost cause.
However, Smith knew that the preserve had the potential to provide a home for dwindling pollinators and serve as a functional habitat for insects and other animals. Instructional Assistant Professor of Biology Dr. Ben Wodika was also interested in this opportunity, and soon a plan for the site grew to include space for education, nature viewing, and research.
“In the northern portion of the site, we created an area for a long-term research project that will be carried out by professors at the University,” said Smith. “That project is likely going to be looking at the impact of plants that we use in landscaping compared to native plants in terms of how they attract pollinators or how the roots affect the soil.”
Now in his third year at Illinois State, Smith has become the leader of the ISU Sugar Creek Savanna restoration project and has several goals for the site.
“Our short-term goals are to upkeep a small trail we created this summer than runs through the site and to seed the areas that we removed the honeysuckle from, and our moderate goals are to continue removing honeysuckle,” said Smith. “Ultimately, we want to create stations that can be used for lab courses for students in the School of Biological Sciences.”
One area has already been designated for education, specifically for an experiment that will help students in the ecology class understand and test the Equilibrium Theory of Island Biogeography.
“On the forest floor, logs and rocks are ‘islands’ of suitable habitat for animals that need shelter and high humidity. By watching, over short and long time periods, how these animals disperse between the logs we placed at this site, and how which and how many animals are present change over time, we can explore principals that explain patterns of diversity at much larger scales,” according to an email from Drs. Victoria Borowicz and Matthew Dugas, assistant professors in the School of Biological Sciences. “This site will also allow for students to design their own original projects within this framework, encouraging learning through inquiry.”
In addition to Smith, there have been many individuals involved with the success of the project so far, including Illinois State University Grounds Services, as well as Borowicz, Dugas, and Wodika, who are part of a committee within the School of Biological Sciences to oversees the restoration.
Professor Emeritus Dr. Angelo Capparella initially informed Smith about the site.
“Over the years the Student Environmental Action Coalition (SEAC) spent time cleaning up the site, and I spent time advocating its reestablishment as a restored natural area that could be used for nature study and enjoyment,” Dr. Capparella said. “Due to my impending retirement, I was very pleased when Jesse Smith volunteered to take over the hard work of coordinating the further development of the site.”
Smith emphasized that even the smallest spaces can serve as potential living areas for a wide variety of insect and animal species.
“A space the size of the planter in the center of the Quad had six different bumblebee species,” said Smith. “There is no amount of space that is too small to have plants that support native fauna.”
The savanna is still a work in progress; before the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the project was taking groups of 20 or more volunteers to the site to work on restoration. This has since come to a halt as a result of safety restrictions. Smith hopes to reopen this program as soon as it is safe to do so.
Apply now for fall 2021.