Professor and students continue to fight invasive plant in the region
Amur Honeysuckle, the shrubby plant known for its white blossoms and sweet aroma, is becoming a major problem for many local ecosystems. Local ecologists and environmental management agencies have begun studying and combating the honeysuckle, hoping to learn what strategies best alleviate the problem.
Assistant professor of biology and environmental science Kristy Hopfensperger is collaborating on an ongoing project studying local honeysuckle populations.
The Amur Honeysuckle, which originated in China, is an invasive species found in abundance throughout the tri-state. Honeysuckle out-competes native vegetation by beginning to grow earlier in the spring, which gives the honeysuckle an advantage over native plants by blocking their access to sunlight.
Hopfensperger began studying the plant two years ago after discovering how far reaching the problem has become. Even after several years of research, she still gets surprised by exactly just how far, citing an example of when she discovered the honeysuckle in an urban area of downtown Cincinnati a couple weeks ago.
“That was the plant, it was everywhere in this really concrete area,” she said.
According to Hopfensperger, honeysuckle is a major problem, not only because it blocks native plants’ access to sunlight, but because native wildlife does not generally feed on honeysuckle and because seeds are readily transported by the wind and wildlife.
Hopfensperger works in conjunction with the Center for Applied Ecology. The CAE works with private landowners, companies and government agencies to restore local Kentucky ecosystems which have been altered by commercial and agricultural practices. The CAE offers students an opportunity to learn, in the field, through the availability of internships and co-ops.
It was the Stream Project which created a perfect opportunity for researchers to study the honeysuckle invasion. According to Hopfensperger, the reconstruction of a Northern Kentucky creek created a great area to research how long it takes honeysuckle to return to an area after it is removed.
Alicia Weber, a biology major who graduated in December 2012, helped research the ways honeysuckle seeds are dispersed throughout the environment. She monitored seed traps, mesh screens placed within a wooden frame, for two years.
Weber worked closely with Hopfensperger at the reconstruction site last school year measuring honeysuckle seed dispersal. Last semester she worked predominantly alone in the field, collecting data which will help researchers designate areas that are likely susceptible to honeysuckle invasion.
Hopfensperger is currently working on several other projects including wetland restoration, salt water intrusion studies and the study of invasive earthworms.
Hopfensperger’s current student working with her is freshman environmental science major Ellen Albrecht. Albrecht, who decided to pursue a degree in environmental science after taking a class with Hopfensperger last semester, said she will continue to monitor the seed traps for the honeysuckle project.
Hopfensperger said she is excited to have an incoming freshman student to work with. She likes the fact she will be getting a student who is new to the project and will be able to stay with her for several years.
“I didn’t even know honeysuckle was an invasive species, this is all new to me,” Albrecht said. “I had never even heard that earthworms were an invasive species either.”
According to Hopfensperger, the earthworm is not native to this area and, although helpful in your garden, can wreak havoc on a forest ecosystem.
“The way earthworms move around organic matter has a big impact on nutrients and seeds that are available for the forest,” said Hopfensperger.
There are many ways students who want to help the environment can become actively involved, those interested can look at the CAE website at www.appliedecology.nku.edu, or visit the student resources section of the department of biology’s website at www.artscience.nku.edu/departmetns/biology.