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Biology Students Dig Into Invasive Species 

Oct. 3, 2019 — Ayna Galtseva-Bezyuk ’22 is seeing bittersweet everywhere. Bittersweet the plant, that is.

In her honors biology class, Galtseva-Bezyuk spent a week studying non-native plant species — including Oriental bittersweet. Science teacher Mary Hefner took Galtseva-Bezyuk and other students in the class to the western edge of campus to explore the woods and trails near Shadow Lake. The students identified plants and gathered and analyzed data on how non-native plants affect local biodiversity. They also spent time removing the plants by hand, pulling them up by the roots or digging them up with shovels. The bright red berries of the Oriental bittersweet vines became a familiar sight.

Galtseva-Bezyuk said, “Even just riding the bus to Mountain Day, I found myself looking out the window and trying to spot it on the side of the road.”

The hardy vine will “twine itself around a tree trunk,” explained Julia Fedoruk ’22. “If it’s a smaller tree or a sapling, it can wrap itself around and around and eventually pull it down or block the sunlight and kill it.” 

According to the Massachusetts Audubon Society, more than 65 plant species in the state are considered invasive. Animals eat the plants or their fruit and spread the seeds, so the plants proliferate. Removing them requires manual labor unless chemicals are used to kill them, which can have other harmful effects on the land.

Many non-native plants exist because “people thought they were pretty,” explained science teacher Kara Walker, whose biology class also studied invasive plants in September. Walker’s students used plant-identification apps on their smartphones to identify species such as Japanese barberry and burning bush. Walker said, “Barberry has these nice-looking red berries that are used in wreaths, and burning bush turns pretty colors. People planted it in their yards but it has spread into forests.” 

Hefner, who’s also chair of the science department, explained that all of NMH’s biology classes took on invasive-species projects this fall. They hope to make their work available to future classes, so students can use the research that already has been done and build on it.

The more immediate goal, however, is to learn about the scientific process and persistence, Hefner said. “It can take scientists years to conduct their work. Sometimes it’s very tedious and sometimes it even requires manual labor.”

For Adrian Purba ’22, that’s a worthwhile lesson. “The best part was going outside and taking the bittersweet out of the ground,” he said. “Pulling it up by the roots, I found that really satisfying. And being outdoors on a nice day is better than sitting inside.”