By Bill Krasean
If you happen to have been driving along North 40th Street in Ross Township, Mich., early some morning last summer and saw a light moving through Michigan State University’s Kellogg Biological Station agricultural research fields, no worries — it wasn’t aliens or St. Elmo’s fire.
It was Sean Griffin.
A self-described, lifelong bug nerd, Griffin is a Ph.D. candidate in integrative biology at KBS. He hopes that his long and frequent sleep-deprived research hours and data collections will lead to a better way to encourage the successful nesting of the 450 native bees that reside in Michigan.
His primary focus has been to find what conditions are needed for native bees to successfully nest and breed. And, from a growers’ perspective, carry out successful pollination of one-third of American food — fruits and vegetables — that must be pollinated to grow.
“We’re just trying to determine the best way to make bees happy,” he says.
Griffin’s parents worked for the Environmental Protection Agency, so he has always been interested in insects and bees. Over the past decade, he has focused on bee research while working on his master’s and Ph.D., and since last June, at the KBS Long-term Ecological Research site.
Of all bee species, honeybees have gotten the most attention in the past decade as their numbers have declined as the result of mite infestations, pesticides and the loss of habitat and nutrition. However, honeybees are not native, and there are more than 4,000 other bee species found in the U.S. that also pollinate wild plants and crops.
Although scientists and the public have increasingly become aware of the importance of these other bee species, there remains a need to find the best way to protect these pollinators.
To understand the behavior of native bees that may be difficult to study directly, Griffin is using a model species of a solitary bee, the Alfalfa leafcutter bee, which can be used as a proxy for the other bees. The Alfalfa leaf cutter bees are native to Europe but were imported to the U.S. in the middle of the past century.
Griffin has released about 30,000 of these bees across KBS research plots to study how flowers, landscape and other factors influence bee nesting and reproduction.
He has set up nest boxes on the trial fields and uses those wee-hour wanderings to count the number of slumbering bees in nest to gather data on bee success.
He has established three research plots at KBS — small, medium and large. “We didn’t know if resources like flowers are benefiting or limiting or how other factors affect how bees make decisions where to nest,” he explains.
“We know that landscape matters hugely,” he adds. “We didn’t know how flowers and availability of resources will affect bee success.”
After analysis of the data, Griffin has found that bees are responding strongly to flower resources across the research plots, especially at larger scales where the bees must travel farther for food. He says he found, “many more bees nesting in the plots with more flowers, such as early successional fields.” Very few bees nested in soybean and empty fields.
“What this tells me is that bees are, to some extent, assessing the area around potential nest boxes before making the decision to nest,” Griffin says. “They are choosing their nests based on the ‘neighborhood’ or distance to food resources, rather than just occupying any nearby nest.
“This is occurring even at relatively small scales ... bees are able to fly pretty far if they have to, but this indicates that they are choosing to nest in places where they don't have to travel far to find food, probably to save their energy.”
These results tell Griffin that planting food resources is critical for bee conservation, and that conservation methods should continue to prioritize the planting of flowers for bees.
Krasean is a volunteer at the KBS Long-term Ecological Research site.