A national study co-authored by a Franklin & Marshall College professor is expected to have the science community and federal policymakers buzzing over the plight of wild-bee populations in the U.S.
This week, the journal of the "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences" is publishing a paper that maps the decline of populations of wild bees, which, like honey bees, are pollinators, vital for fruit and nut crops to grow and flourish.
"With recent threats to honey bees, there has been more and more concern and focus on wild bees and their ability to provide pollination naturally," said Eric Lonsdorf, professor of ecology, evolution and behavior and a research associate in biology.
"There are hundreds and hundreds of wild-bee species that most people don't even think about, beyond the bumblebee, that pollinate," Lonsdorf said. "There are really tiny bees, and medium bees, and green bees, and little black bees and others that do the work as well."
Lonsdorf co-authored the paper, "Modeling the Status, Trends, and Impacts of Wild Bee Abundance in the United States," with lead author Insu Koh, a postdoctoral researcher co-advised by Taylor Ricketts at the University of Vermont's Gund Institute for Ecological Economics.
"Our paper is a national assessment of habitat available for wild bees, as well as habitats near those specialty crops that require pollination," Lonsdorf said. "Where we have a great demand for pollination, where a lot of crops are planted, there isn't as much land available for wild bees."
In June 2014, the White House issued a presidential order to start investigating the state of the nation's bees. Each year, more than $3 billion of the U.S. agricultural economy depends on the pollination services of native pollinators like wild bees.
“Until this study, we didn’t have a national mapped picture about the status of wild bees and their impacts on pollination,” Koh said. “Now we have a map of the hot spots. It’s the first spatial portrait of pollinator status and impacts in the U.S."
While development is often blamed for decimating bee-pollinating habitats, the authors found that between 2008 and 2013, the areas where wild-bee habitats declined had been converted to farmland for corn and soybeans. The area of decline comprised 23 percent of the United States.
"In the Midwest, because the price of corn is going up and up, a lot of the natural land that was there has been converted into cornfields, while a lot of the other crops that flowered and provided some habitat for wild bees also are being converted to corn," Lonsdorf said. "The urban footprint is growing, but not quite as much as the agriculture maps. In fact, a lot of urban areas are pretty good because there are a lot of flowers and plants and areas for bees."
The research team determined that in 139 counties mapped, 39 percent of pollinator-dependent farmland showed a mismatch between pollination supply and demand. The wild-bee population in these areas was low because pollination sources were low.
Their research is the fruit of three years of study on a five-year, $10 million project with researchers from Michigan State and University of California, Davis. It is funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Lonsdorf developed a model to analyze habitat, which has been used to analyze the state of bees in Europe.
"It's called the integrated crop pollination project and it's to really figure out how to bring honey bees and wild bees together to provide pollination," he said.
"There's lots of big issues in agriculture and this has become one of them. I've heard through the grapevine that the president has asked the Secretary of Agriculture from time to time, 'How are the bees doing?' So, he thinks about it," Lonsdorf said. "It doesn't rise to briefing the nation about Syria, but it's gotten to that level."
Professor, Student Develop Web Tool to Help California Farmers
In work related to his wild-bee research, Eric Lonsdorf, a Franklin & Marshall College professor of ecology, evolution and behavior and a research associate in biology, is getting help from a recent alumnus.
Matt Loiacono '15 has assisted in the development of an educational tool for an agriculture website to help California bee farmers.
"Pumpkins, watermelons and squashes, in general, have a specialist bee called a squash bee. Their dynamics are slightly different than all the other wild bees," Lonsdorf said. "The model we created helps provide some guidance to squash-bee farmers on sustainable practice to keep the squash bee going."
In November 2014, Loiacono was awarded a travel grant and joined Lonsdorf at a research meeting in California, where the colleagues collected research data used to design the web-based tool.
Loiacono was the only undergraduate to attend the meeting and helped develop the underlying predictive model being used on a website created by the University of California's agriculture extension program, Lonsdorf said.
"It's another example of trying to provide insights to farmers who have a particular crop," Lonsdorf said.
Loiacono is now planning to attend graduate school in biostatistics.