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Honors students to lead pollinator habitat Planting Fiesta May 6 in Phoenix Park

April 30, 2012
 Pollinators - Hives
A UW-Eau Claire honors class visits the bee hives maintained by the Foodlums on the UW-Eau Claire campus. The class has spent the semester working on a project to help educate the Eau Claire community about the importance of pollinator species and strategies for creating pollinator habitats. Photo by Ruth Cronje.
EAU CLAIRE — After months of research, planning and community outreach, a group of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire students and community volunteers will gather May 6 in downtown Eau Claire to plant a pollinator habitat in the Phoenix Community Gardens.

During the Planting Fiesta, students in the "Civic Agency: Environmental Stewardship" class will work with community volunteers — including youth scouting troops, school groups, local gardening club members and others — to create a pollinator habitat that will help support the pollinating animals that are vital to the Chippewa Valley's ecosystem.

The Planting Fiesta, which will include live music and food, will run from 1-4 p.m. May 6 in the Phoenix Community Gardens, located across Madison Street from Phoenix Park.

"It is important for all citizens, regardless of whether they live in an urban or rural setting, to feel a connection with nature and a responsibility for environmental stewardship," said Dr. Ruth Cronje, an associate professor of English who is teaching the honors course. "People need a reason to get outside, experience nature and become environmental stewards of their own backyards. And university students need opportunities to apply the environmental information they have learned and to develop their civic engagement skills in authentic community projects."

The 13 undergraduate students in the class are partnering with community agencies to create educational materials and to offer communitywide events, such as the May 6 Planting Fiesta, to encourage people in the area to create and monitor pollinator habitats, and to monitor the abundance and diversity of pollinator species, said Cronje, who specializes in teaching science and technical writing.

 Pollinators - Bee
Bees — along with birds, butterflies, bats and beetles — are among the pollinating animals that are vital to the ecosystem in the Chippewa Valley. Photo by Bill Hoepner, UW-Eau Claire.
Students hope the habitat they create in Phoenix Community Gardens will become one of many established and maintained by individuals and groups in yards and parks throughout the community, Cronje said, adding that Mike Huggins, the recently retired city of Eau Claire administrator, has donated his expertise and many hours of time to help guide the students as they work to establish grassroots support within the community for pollinator habitats.

"Mike's involvement added a huge richness to the class; our students benefited from his involvement in so many ways," Cronje said. "He has decades of experience working to bring people and communities together. Our students were fortunate that he was willing to donate his time to help them learn the skills and strategies they need to be successful community advocates."

Research shows that pollinating animals — including bees, birds, butterflies and beetles — are vital to the ecosystem and support wildlife, provide a healthy watershed, and pollinate food crops and flower gardens, Cronje said of the importance of the pollinator project.

"Yet in many places, pollinator species are in crisis due to habitat loss, use of pesticides and other assaults, such as viruses and mites," Cronje said. "There is evidence that pollinators actually thrive better in urban environments, due to higher plant diversity. So an urban project to create a pollinator habitat may be a particularly promising means to steward pollinators."

In 2010, Beaver Creek Reserve, one of the class's community partners, worked with volunteers to collect and identify native bee pollinators from the Coon Fork State Natural Area. The study was the beginning of the tracking of pollinators in the area, and the data serves as a reference in monitoring the population of native pollinators, Cronje said, noting that the reserve also has a butterfly garden and house, which are educating visitors about pollinators and the plants that sustain them.

To support those efforts, the UW-Eau Claire class is preparing multimedia materials, including online videos, to educate community members about pollinator habitats. The materials will be available in English and in Spanish, allowing the information to reach a wider audience.

 Pollinators - Field
UW-Eau Claire student Elizabeth Beilke is one of 13 honors students who have spent their spring semester learning about pollinator species in the Eau Claire area. The students have organized a "Planting Fiesta" May 6 during which they and community volunteers will plant a pollinator habitat in the Phoenix Community Gardens in downtown Eau Claire. The pollinator habitat will be maintained by the local Girl Scouts organization. Photo by Bill Hoepner.
Among the educational materials created by the students are pollinator kits, which will include information that will help citizens understand how they can best help pollinators. The students also are creating a portable pollinator exhibit that can be taken to venues around the community, including school classrooms, community festivals, neighborhood association meetings, talks at the public library and local horticulture events. Students already plan to have the pollinator exhibit at the Eau Claire Sustainability Fair in August, as well as other appropriate events this summer, Cronje said.

The students also plan to distribute "This is a pollinator habitat" signs to people who plant habitats in their yards, Cronje said. They will be encouraged to put the signs in locations visible from the street or sidewalk as a way to pique neighborhood interest in the habitats, she said.

"All these materials are intended to build citizen-to-citizen networks of neighbors who can swap information and plant materials to help spread the creation of pollinator habitats throughout our community," Cronje said.

In addition, work is under way to create an online monitoring database that will allow people to enter and view observations of pollinator species. The database is being created by Dr. Joe Hupy, a UW-Eau Claire assistant professor of geography and anthropology who has expertise in interactive maps on which citizen scientists can enter observational data. The database would be yet another way to bring together people who share an interest in the pollinator habitats, Cronje said.

"The diversity of local people who are involved with the project — including students, faculty, community organizations and gardening enthusiasts — will naturally lead to interesting discussions and networking," Cronje said of how the project will continue after the honors course ends in May. "Ultimately, we hope this student-led initiative will foster a community of people in the Chippewa Valley who are committed to sustainable practices."

Already, Cronje said, the local Girl Scouts organization has said it will maintain the pollinator habitat that will be created in the Phoenix Community Gardens, and other individuals and organizations have expressed an interest in building on what the students have started.

This positive response from people and organizations in Eau Claire to the student project is surprising and inspiring, said Blake Weimerskirch, a philosophy major from Plymouth, Minn.

 Pollinators - Group
A group of honors students spent an afternoon at a farm near Fall Creek learning about pollinators and their habitats. Denny Johnson and Judy Schwarzmaier, both Beaver Creek Citizen Science Center volunteers, shared their expertise with UW-Eau Claire students. From left: Emily Holman, Breana Meyer and Kelly Shea. Photo by Bill Hoepner.
"I realize now what a small group of students can accomplish," Weimerskirch said. "We made things happen that I would not have guessed we could make happen when we started. I'm more passionate about Eau Claire and excited about what else I can do here. It's empowering to realize that we can make things happen."

Learning the skills that will help them be better advocates for pollinator habitats or other community-based initiatives that are important to them was a highlight of the class, said senior Shauna Stoeger, a Spanish and psychology major from Hortonville.

"This class helped us understand what it means to be responsible citizens," Stoeger said. "It taught us what it means to identify a need and then go out and do something about it. We know as citizens we can't just expect the government to take care of everything. We have a responsibility to get involved and to help when we see a need regardless of what our career might be. These are lessons we'll use wherever we go after we graduate."

As part of the class, students attended neighborhood association meetings and met one-on-one with community members, business owners, government officials and representatives from community agencies and organizations. Through those conversations, students gained and shared information, and built relationships with people who will be important to moving the pollinator habitat initiative forward now and in the future, Cronje said.

Those interactions with community members and organizations also helped the students feel more connected to the Eau Claire community and the region, several students said.

"I grew up in Eau Claire but never felt part of the community in the way that I do now," said John Schoen, a biology, ecology and environmental biology major. "I'm realizing now how cool it is to be a citizen who is contributing something to my community and not just a bystander watching what others are doing."

Greg Nelson said the project has changed how he thinks about the Eau Claire community, something he expects to carry with him long after he graduates.

"I'm seeing us make a change in this community," said Nelson, a biology major from Oconomowoc. "Now Eau Claire won't ever just be the place I went to college. I feel like I set down roots here now because we are doing something real for the Eau Claire community."

Details about the May 6 Planting Fiesta and the Partnerships for Pollinators project can be found on the project's Facebook page.

For more information, contact Dr. Ruth Cronje at 715-836-5384 or



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