SRS Funds Graduate Student’s Pollinator Study

Deerberry, a type of wild blueberry, is an important early spring forage plant for bees. Photo by Robert Mohlenbrock, courtesy of USDA NRCS Wetland Science Institute.
Deerberry, a type of wild blueberry, is an important early spring forage plant for bees. Photo by Robert Mohlenbrock, courtesy of USDA NRCS Wetland Science Institute.

Through its Partnership Enhancement Initiative, the U.S. Forest Service Southern Research Station (SRS) provides funding to students – especially minority students – and professors interested in studying natural resource issues.

One of the recent grant recipients was Hampton University, a historically black university in Virginia. “The grant funded Michael Mitchell – a Master of Science graduate student – as he completed his coursework and conducted research,” says Barbara Abraham, associate professor at Hampton University and principal investigator of the study.

The project involved identifying other forage plants used by native bee pollinators of wild blueberries, and identifying bee species in the high elevation forests and natural areas near the Mountain Lake Biological Station in Virginia.

Over the two-year study period, Abraham and Mitchell captured almost a thousand bees, either directly from flowering plants or in bowl traps. Mitchell identified bees to family and often genus, and Sam Droege, a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, examined specimens under a microscope to verify the identifications.

Results from the research project will also contribute to a nationwide bee survey that Droege designed. The survey relies on a network of monitoring stations on public lands, including the SRS Coweeta Hydrological Laboratory, and the Crossett, Bent Creek, Hitchiti, Santee, and Stephen F. Austin Experimental Forests.

A number of rare native bees were collected including two species never seen in Virginia before. In general, there was very high species diversity during late spring through early summer. “We also documented nonnative bees in the study area,” says Abraham. “Most of the collected bees were native, and the most common nonnative species were honeybees and mason bees.”

The researchers found that when flowering, wild blueberry bushes were visited by 12 pollinator species, which was more diversity than any of the other plants in the study supported. “However, many of the bee species that visited blueberries also visited other flowering plants,” says Abraham. Other important native plants for bee species included early-blooming rhododendron, wild geranium, bee balm and daisy fleabane, followed by later bloomers such as mountain laurel, milkweed, and nonnative plants such as clover and chicory.

“The experience Mitchell gained in research methods, data collection and analysis, and collaboration will be valuable as he pursues a career in natural resources,” says Abraham. Ultimately, Mitchell hopes to work with a federal agency such as the Forest Service.

For more information, email Barbara Abraham at barbara.abraham@hamptonu.edu

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