Jacob Buchanan, M’Della Moon endowed chair in botany and environmental science, splits his time between teaching and managing the Bluffton University Nature Preserve. After starting in July, he began working on surveys of the nature preserve and overhauled the General Ecology class. With labs now being held onsite, we followed students as they completed a survey of the species in the nature preserve’s pollinator garden and prairie.
In a field near the Moyer Nature Center at the Bluffton University Nature Preserve, groups of students tossed a hoola hoop and recorded the species – both plants and insects – found inside the ring. Their findings characterized the ecosystem and revealed a mix of native and non-native species.
“They’re looking at the different plants – the abundance and diversity – in that area,” explained Buchanan. “What are the different flowers they can identify? How many pollinators do they find? They’ll take this information and do the same in the prairie across the road and compare them.”
Featuring a plethora of plants – goldenrod, wild carrot, fleabane daisy – the pollinator garden lives up to its name and students took note of the bees, flies and crickets among the leaves and stems.
“We want the area to be species rich,” said Buchanan. “The more pollinators, the more we can support higher organisms on the food chain.”
Having a diverse and abundant bottom of the food chain means more organisms can feed and thrive. Flowers, fruits, berries and seeds support insects. Insects support birds, small mammals, amphibians and reptiles which in turn support larger birds and mammals in an ecosystem.
“Building up the bottom, builds everything,” said Buchanan.
The lab served as practice for future data collection. Later in the semester, each student created their own hypothesis and developed a project based on an area of the preserve of their choosing – lake, forest, river. By the end of the semester, they analyzed the data and proved or disproved their hypothesis or received an inconclusive result.
“Whether it works or not, the point is they learn from it,” said Buchanan. “Here’s how I can improve. Here’s why it didn’t work. Here’s what I learned anyway.”