Minnesota bee researcher takes aim at Quarry Park
WAITE PARK, Minn. (AP) — Crystal Boyd strained four bees, three flies and one leafhopper from a yellow pan trap, the third of 12 in a transect topping a granite outcrop in Quarry Park Scientific and Natural Area.
She popped everything into a labeled, zip-top plastic bag, which will share space in her home freezer with her husband’s chocolate Popsicles until the field season ends. Then she’ll process the bees; identify, label and enter them in a database; and send them off to the University of Minnesota Insect Collection.
The aim is to discover what lives where — data that could inform small-scale farmers looking for alternative pollinators and land managers considering wildflowers’ genetic diversity.
Boyd, a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources bee researcher working with the Minnesota Biological Survey, thinks she may ID as many as 400 native bee species, the St. Cloud Times reported.
In June, she wrapped up a Scientific and Natural Area project that took her to 12 sites, many of them southwestern Minnesota prairies. During the two-year effort that launched July 1, she’ll work on that state species list, visit insect museum collections and complete more surveys. The last attempt to establish a baseline for state species, made in 1919, went unfinished after the researcher died. At the time, insects weren’t high on the list.
“We need to know what’s out there,” said Elaine Evans, who is earning her doctorate in entomology from the University of Minnesota. “The survey is the first step to assess the health of our pollinator population in Minnesota.”
Evans spoke from the University of Minnesota’s Bee Lab, where the focus is on bee health. Most of that research centers on honeybees; hers centers on native bees — in particular, on how landscape affects the biodiversity of bees in North Dakota.
At Quarry Park Scientific and Natural Area, some of the bees that turned up in the shallow plastic cups painted white, blue or yellow inside to resemble flowers looked more like flies and nothing like honeybees. Boyd said people often are surprised to learn honeybees aren’t native. They came here with European settlers who wanted effective pollinators.
What researchers learn about the problems affecting one may help the other.
“Honeybees are like cattle. We know a lot about how to manage cattle and what to do when cows get sick. And native bees are like moose. We don’t know as much about what to do when moose get sick or how to manage moose,” Boyd said.
Still, native bees aren’t as flashy as moose or other large, hairy animals.
“The only reason they’re getting attention is because honeybees are in trouble so people are looking at alternatives,” said Heather Holm, Minnetonka-based landscape designer and “Pollinators of Native Plants” author.
Some bumblebees have been used to pollinate crops in Western states. Harnessing bumblebees and other native species for that purpose is largely ineffective. They don’t nest in colonies, and they don’t fly far. Holm said the maximum range is usually about a mile — not far enough to reach the center of many fields.
Smaller, organic operations might plant flowers and maintain nesting habitat to attract native bees.
While adept at pollinating crops, honeybees might not be as effective at pollinating wildflowers. Some plants don’t meet honeybees’ nutritional needs. Some are pollinated only by certain bees. Deep-throated flowers, for example, might require a bumblebee’s long tongue. Flowers such as Dutchman’s breeches may require a bumblebee’s strength to pry it open.
“Native bees are really important pollinators, too,” Evans said. “Over 80 percent of plants and flowering plants are dependent on animals for pollination. Most of those are bees.”
Holm said native bees help to ensure cross-pollination and the sort of genetic diversity that makes plants resilient to disease or other environmental stressors.
Scientific and Natural Areas were chosen as study subjects because they tend to contain the best examples of native plants. Boyd said she expected to enter at least a few county records — the first time a species is documented in a county — because so little past research has centered on counties outside Hennepin and Ramsey.
Boyd used topographical maps to pinpoint where to set the traps, aka bee baskets, within Quarry Park Scientific and Natural Area, which shares a boundary line with Quarry Park and Nature Preserve. Armed with a long-handled kitchen sieve, she returned 24 hours later to see what turned up.
Flowers including yarrow, spiderwort, harebells and goat’s beard grew in the cracks and around the edges of the bald granite dome. Getting there required a muddy walk through a face-slapping buckthorn thicket. Boyd moved effortlessly through the tangle.
The final tally included about 20 bees, 27 flies, four leafhoppers, three butterflies and two dragonflies.
She may send some of the leafhoppers to the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History. Rove beetles may wind up at The Field Museum in Chicago, weevils at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania and mites at Ohio State University.
Meanwhile, Minnesota continues its focus on native bees. Six pollinator projects funded by the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources started in 2014; five more applied for funding starting in 2015.
For those projects that involve native bees, the survey will be the starting point.
“It’s really hard to know how things are doing when we don’t even know all of what’s here,” Evans said.
“We need to know who’s out there.”