Seeking the building blocks of pollinator conservation

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By WEITING DU 
Capital News Service

LANSING — Great Lakes researchers are seeking fundamental knowledge about pollinators like bumble bees and butterflies, hoping to reverse their decline.

A new Michigan State University study in the journal ”Environmental Entomology” identified drought-tolerant plants that could best attract these beneficial insects. 

Because much of the fruit and vegetable production in the region occurs on coarse soils and because periods of extended drought are becoming more common in the region, the researchers concentrated on drought-tolerant plants, the study said. 

Another study investigated what drought-tolerant plants attract wild bees the best, said Rufus Isaacs, an author of the studies and a professor in the Department of Entomology at MSU. 

“What they answered are some basic science questions,” Isaacs said, “But a lot of our work is applied as we try to extend the results of the research to the farmers and general public.”

The information from the studies will contribute to a plant selection tool called Native Plants and Ecosystem Services, Isaacs said. People can use it to select plants that support pollinators or other beneficial insects at the same time as meeting their own planting goals. 

The researchers’ long-term goal is to create landscapes that support pollinators, Isaacs said. They need to learn which plants to use to fulfill that goal by testing them on a small scale. That’s how the two small-scale studies are connected to a more significant project he leads called “Enhancing Great Lakes Landscapes for Healthy Pollinators.”

Since 2017, Issacs’ team has been working on the project to align Michigan with national priorities for supporting honeybees, native bees and monarch butterflies whose decline threatens national food security.

A key gap in pollinators studies is the lack of monitoring, Issacs said. 

“Part of this project is to create a baseline for future comparison,” Issacs said. “We’ve been resampling places where pollinators were sampled 50 years or 100 years ago and trying to see how the populations have changed.” 

They found evidence of decline. One of their studies found that during the last 20 years, the population of half of Michigan’s bumble bee species dropped by 50% or more.

Nevertheless, there is good news. 

In the Saginaw Bay area, they rediscovered some Epeoloides pilosulus, a parasitic bee that hadn’t been seen in Michigan since the 1940s, Isaacs said. 

“Because we haven’t been monitoring them over decades, it’s hard to know if the reason why we’re finding them is that we’re looking for them harder, or if they just weren’t there in between,” Isaacs said. “But if we don’t look for them and don’t identify them, we remain knowing nothing.” 

Monitoring pollinators isn’t just for scientists — the general public can play an important role too.

“I always tell people that there’s a great monitoring program called the Bumble Bee Watch,” Isaacs said. “It’s easy to use and you can put it on your cell phone. I think they’re doing a good job in gathering data from around North America.” 

Another national program called Queen Quest helps people look for bumble bees in the winter.

“The goal of the program is to get researchers and citizens out to collect information on the hibernation of bumble bees because we don’t know much about how they live through the winter,” said Jacquelyn Perkins, a research technician at MSU’s Department of Entomology.  

Other groups around the Great Lakes also collect pollinator information. 

For example, the federal government established the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative Pollinator Task Force in 2018. It consists of staff and scientists from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, Natural Resource Conservation Service and U.S. Geological Survey.

“We want to know the distribution and status of native pollinators and their communities all around the Great Lakes Basin,” said Meri Holm, the coordinator of the task force.

The group is designing a common surveying protocol that all these agencies can use, Holm said. 

“There haven’t been many efforts where multiple agencies have come together to collaborate on such an important issue,” Holm said. “So it’s exciting to see where it will go. Hopefully, we can make a big impact on native pollinators together.”

Weiting Du writes for Great Lakes Echo.

A male Macropis nuda, the principal host of a rare parasitic bee (Epeoloides pilosulus) at Algonac State Park. Credit: Thomas Wood
A bee visiting flowers in Michigan State University’s Harold & Martha Davidson Bees, Butterflies & Hummingbirds Garden, which was designed for pollinators and education. Credit: Weiting Du