University of Western Ontario: Western’s bee garden humming with community volunteers

The short strip of rich earth that’s newly cradling 1,300 plants – including hyssop, aster and three species of milkweed – is an ambitious beginning for a new pollinator garden on Western’s campus.

But Western’s Friends of the Gardens (FOGS) aren’t nearly ready to put away the trowels and call it a day.

The group of volunteer students, staff and alumni cultivated 30 plant species in a Western greenhouse and planted them last week between two parking lots east of Middlesex College.

As this garden grows, they hope to expand its borders with an increasingly diverse range of native plant species that will provide a food source for a variety of insects and birds.

Blanca Mora Alvarez, a biology lab assistant who works with butterfly species, founded the garden project last September as an offshoot of the FOGS regular volunteer work.

“Western has beautiful lawns and beautiful grass all over,” Mora Alvarez said. “But when we go looking for certain butterfly species, we sometimes have to go out of the city to find the habitat they like. That’s why I thought a garden on campus could attract all kinds of pollinators. We provide native plant species, and then we can enjoy the beauty of insects and enjoy the beauty of the flowers too.”

Western Facilities Management provided the land and Western biology gave access to its greenhouses, while many others donated time and money toward seeds and supplies.

“To me, it’s therapeutic to work with plants,” said FOGS member and biology PhD student Matheus Sanita Lima. “I was born and raised on a farm and, even though I don’t study plants, this feels like home.”

Volunteers include undergraduate students, alumni and staff and retired staff from across campus.

“There are many species of pollinators that rely on plants for food and shelter and these gardens are super-important to improve biodiversity and improve their survival,” said entomology student Zach Balzer.

Flies, butterflies, bees, wasps, honeybees, native bees and hummingbirds all need these plants for sustenance, just as the plants need them to help propagate their species.

Deep roots of sustainability

Home to honeybee colonies, Western was designated by Bee City Canada as the first bee-friendly campus in the country. Environmental sustainability is also one of the pillars of the new strategic plan, Towards Western at 150.

Western recently was ranked first in Canada (and third in the world) among universities working towards United Nations sustainability development goals.

A new rain garden beside the Physics & Astronomy Building, and a similar one planned beside the Music Building, include native plant species and pollinators.

But the university’s roots of sustainability run even deeper.

Western has had two other pollinator gardens: one now dormant near the North Campus building; and another, Jane’s Garden, a courtyard oasis that is home primarily to trees and shrubs and thrives in the Biology & Geology Building.

When FOGS founder Frances Howey, BA’60, retired from working in advancement services, she wanted to find a way to continue to contribute to Western. “I was interested in gardening and I looked at the St. Marys Cement rock garden here (behind the Biology and Geology Building) and I thought, ‘Gee, this could use a bit of work.’ It wasn’t hard to find other volunteers. It also helped that we had an honorary patron in (philanthropist and noted Western supporter) Beryl Ivey.”

That was 27 years ago, and their work behind the scenes has quietly, and colourfully, grown.

Learn more: What to plant in your own pollinator garden

FOGS holds a sale of perennials, biennials and shrubs every year and is host to garden workshops, talks and garden visits.

It has disbursed more than $50,000 in bursaries to support undergraduate science students.

Improving insect habitat

Volunteers include Sarah Lee, who, before she retired from the biology department, would give up her lunch breaks to volunteer in the greenhouses. She soon found a community of people who shared her passion for gardening and she is now a mainstay of FOGS.

Harry Kim, who is in medical school and was a beekeeper when he lived in Montreal, said the bee population has been in decline around the world, in part because of habitat loss.

They sometimes travel four to five kilometres away for flowers, so it makes good sense to create spaces on campus to help them out, Kim said.

“Joining this initiative has helped me learn what plants bees like,” Kim said.

The gardening team has even left gaps between the plants to house native bee species that burrow into the soil for shelter.

Kim waters plants in the greenhouse once a week and is aiming to make a bee hotel.

“Hopefully efforts like this can keep the bee population growing,” he said.

Mora Alvarez said new members are always welcome, regardless of their role in the Western community. “The success of a pollinator garden – because even perennials need maintenance – is to find and keep enthusiastic volunteer gardeners,” she said.