Tiny but mighty pollinators are an essential contributor to many of Michigan’s high-value fruits and vegetables. In the past 10 winters, however, American beekeepers have lost a high proportion of their colonies, with some of the biggest losses recorded in the Midwest. At the same time, some wild bee species once common in the Great Lakes region, such as the rusty-patched bumble bee, have become extremely rare. Even the iconic monarch butterfly is less common because of the many challenges facing pollinators, such as habitat reduction, pathogens, parasites and pesticide exposure.
In response, over the past decade Michigan State University (MSU) has been bolstering its pollinator expertise in the Department of Entomology. This past summer, the department launched a new $1 million project funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute for Food and Agriculture aimed at improving Great Lakes landscapes to support healthy pollinators. Led by entomology professor and extension specialist Rufus Isaacs, the team is building on previous work to explore the complexities of poor pollinator health.
“The challenges faced by honeybees, wild bees and other flower-visiting insects threaten our food security,” Isaacs said. “Addressing this in Michigan is of particular importance. We have a significant honeybee industry that provides local and national pollination services and honey production, and Michigan is a leader in growing fruits and vegetables that depend on these insects for pollination.”
The research team also includes Doug Landis, University Distinguished Professor; Meghan Milbrath, Michigan Pollinator Initiative coordinator; Larry Gut, professor; Zsofia Szendrei, associate professor; and Julianna Wilson, tree fruit integrator. Pollinators are being studied in cherries, blueberries, cucumbers, field corn and prairie plantings in four regions of the state to address key gaps in knowledge: understanding long-term changes in pollinator communities, developing habitat management practices for challenging settings and predicting optimal landscapes for pollinator habitat investment. They are working with MSU Extension and industry stakeholders such as growers, beekeepers and conservationists to ensure that pollinator protection and habitat improvement plans are relevant and that new findings reach those who can use them.
The project’s outcomes will include improved best management practices for pollinator health to serve beekeepers, farmers, gardeners and other landowners in four key regions of the state: southwestern, central, eastern and northwestern Michigan. These regions bring to the project a range of relevant issues, including relative importance to commercial beekeepers, varying intensity and type of specialty crop production, and degrees of landscape diversity. The team, including several students, is measuring pollinator diversity and relevant bee health intensively within these regions. This information will serve as the baseline for future monitoring and comparison of sites that will be resampled intensively every 5 years.
MSU postdoctoral researcher Kelsey Graham is providing oversight of the project.
“We can’t move forward and figure out what is going on with pollinators unless we look at historical records and establish a good baseline,” she said. “This past summer we collected over 5,400 pollinators at our research sites.”
Michigan has over 460 species of wild bees, and identifying each of those pollinators to species is the task of Jason Gibbs, former MSU postdoctoral researcher. Gibbs, now a faculty member at the University of Manitoba, is recognized as a lead bee taxonomist in the eastern United States and Canada. The bee identification information will be digitized and entered into a searchable database for easy use by future researchers.
Honeybees are the foundation of modern crop pollination, but some crops — such as tomatoes, blueberries, potatoes, peppers and pumpkins — have flowers that are more easily pollinated by wild bees. The wild bees practice what is called “buzz pollination” — they grab onto the flower and shake or vibrate it. This releases more pollen than can be spread by a honeybee visit. Graham said that increasing wild bee populations can enhance the sustainability of crop pollination.
Once researchers identify where bees are in the landscape, that information will be merged with spatial information about where pollinators are needed. For example, researchers will determine where pollinator habitat should be expanded to increase pollination needed for crop production and optimal locations for future pollinator habitat investment.
“With this level of landscape analysis, we hope to identify where habitat should be placed to have maximum benefit for crop orchards or fields,” Graham said. “We will be able to determine the benefits if the habitat is right next to a blueberry field rather than three miles away.”
Better-informed choices will result in healthier pollinators and will help guide state and national plans to support pollinator health.