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Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Students looking for a good buzz

URI students tackle bee decline with lab, field studies
URI seniors Casey Johnson (left) and Danielle Butler pose with their insect nets before collecting bees for their research. (Photo courtesy of Casey Johnson)

University of Rhode Island seniors Casey Johnson and Danielle Butler have seen the news reports about the global decline of bees and other pollinators and what that may mean to the world’s food supply and ecosystems. But it wasn’t until this summer that they had an opportunity to learn about the situation first hand.

The two students spent the last three months conducting laboratory and field research on local bee populations, bee parasites, and related topics through URI’s Coastal Fellows program.

“Losing pollinators is going to be catastrophic to the environment,” said Johnson, a wildlife and conservation biology major from Warwick, Rhode Island. “Most people think that the problem is mostly with honeybees, which are useful to agriculture, but our wild and native bees are forgotten about.”

Working with Professors Steven Alm and Howard Ginsberg, Johnson and Butler launched a statewide survey of native bees to document the species, abundance and distribution of local bee populations and to compare data with historic records. They started by focusing on bumblebees.

“Between habitat fragmentation, invasive species and climate change, things are changing fast. And since some bumblebees only pollinate certain plants, if those plants aren’t available anymore, then the bees will decline or go elsewhere,” Johnson said. 

“It’s important to know which ones we need to be looking out for so we can start conservation efforts and find ways to protect the bees that need protecting.”

Using a series of colorful funnel-shaped traps placed at 19 locations around the state, the students collected 638 bumble bees and identified them to species. Of the 11 species previously known to occur in Rhode Island, they found just six, and 65 percent of their specimens were of just one species.

“Whether we just haven’t found a hotspot for the others yet, we don’t know,” said Johnson. “But it could be that they’re declining greatly.”

In a second project, Johnson and Butler collaborated with Associate Professor Matthew Kiesewetter to test a novel method for controlling varroa mites, which infest honeybee hives and have been implicated in the decline of commercial hives around the country.

“The mites wreak havoc on honeybee hives,” said Butler, an animal science major from Oxford, Connecticut. “It’s like having a rabbit on your body constantly. It’s uncomfortable for the bees, and the mites can transmit up to 20 different viruses to the bees.”

Most previous efforts to rid hives of mites involved the use of a chemical spray that’s harmful to bees and people. So the students tested lactic acid vapor, which is believed to be safer and easier to administer. Throughout the summer, Butler and Johnson conducted experimental trials using the vapor on seven honeybee hives and kept track of the number of mites found on the bees.

“Based on our last trials, the vapor seemed to be working, but we have to continue the process to confirm it,” Butler said. “And then we have to see if the bee population survives the winter or if the mite population increases.”

URI’s Coastal Fellows program, which supported the students’ research, is a unique initiative designed to involve undergraduate students in addressing current environmental problems. Now in its 23rd year, the program pairs students with a mentor and research staff to help them gain skills relevant to their academic major and future occupations.

“I loved the opportunity to be in a research lab and do something that could change the world,” said Butler, who plans to become a large animal veterinarian. “After this experience, I want to get more involved in the research world to see if it’s something I can do to help animals and insects in the future.”

“I’ve been interested in entomology for a couple years, and I loved working with bees,” added Johnson. “I don’t have a future plan yet, except to go to grad school, but I know I want to experience more field work and continue researching pollinators. I have a soft spot for bees because they’re so important and they’re quite cute once you get up close with them.”