GGC faculty-student team researches native alternatives to honeybees

May help protect food supply, reduce costs for farmers, consumers

May help protect food supply, reduce costs for farmers, consumers

Honeybees are in trouble. The primary agents of pollination for many crops are dying in massive numbers, threatening food production.

The cause of the threat to honeybees is uncertain. Scientists are debating the phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), and studying suspects such as inbreeding, parasites and pesticides.

“Farmers say they have scores of bees fly out, land on their plants and drop to the ground, dead - or they can’t even fly,” said Mark Schlueter, associate professor of Biology at Georgia Gwinnett College. “This could jeopardize the food supply of the whole planet. Also, farmers’ costs go up dramatically when they have beekeepers come out with hives to help pollinate crops, and those costs are passed on to consumers.”

Schlueter and undergraduate student, Nick Stewart, were recently awarded a $15,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture Southern Region - Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) Grant to support their research into a solution for this problem.

The researchers hope to identify local, native species that can supplement or even replace the commercial honeybee for crop pollination. Even before obtaining the grant, Schlueter and Stewart spent more than 1,000 hours conducting field experiments at various North Georgia apple orchards, including the state’s largest orchard, Mercier.

The duo has collected, sorted and identified more than 10,000 insect specimens, which included 1,500 native bees. They have identified more than 90 native bee species found within Georgia apple orchards. The insects are sampled in the field using pan traps, vane traps, malaise traps and sweep nets.

“We want to find out which native species are out there, how abundant they are and, if we find good pollinators, create habitats for them, even if it’s just to provide piles of sand where they can nest,” Schlueter said. “If a native bee could be identified to replace or supplement the commercial honeybee, then food costs would be reduced for the public.”

While investigating the diversity and abundance of native bees found in various North Georgia apple orchards, and the quality of their pollination, Schlueter and Stewart have found that bees from the Family Andrenidae have proven most abundant and effective during apple bloom season.

“Of the 4,000 species of bee in North America,” Stewart said, “there are roughly 300 species I believe could be capable of relieving the over-burdened, non-native, dwindling European honeybee.”

The research team’s work has relevance beyond Georgia’s apple orchards.

“If we can develop a good experimental design, our methods can be replicated by others,” Schlueter said. “In fact, this research has significance well beyond Georgia, as it can help predict possible pollinators in other states and for other crops.”

Grant funding enables Schlueter to recruit and compensate additional GGC students for helping with the tedious, sun-up to sun-down research, during which the researchers gather vital information and critical background data on the bees. While at the same time, students learn about experimental design, field collection techniques, the natural history of bees, and many other applied research techniques.

The bee survey data provides a snapshot of the diversity and abundance of native bees in apple orchards.

“The initial survey results and the SARE grant will be a stepping stone to much larger, multi-year studies. This will open the door for future research into this subject at GGC.” said Schlueter, who has 16 years of experience conducting field studies and coordinating student research.

“Dr. Schlueter has introduced me to facets of research which were entirely foreign to me,” Stewart said, “like writing grants, detailing budgets, dealing with the business side of research work, and getting our study into the hands of a wider audience.”

Stewart is a senior biology major who plans to pursue graduate studies at the University of Georgia after earning his bachelor’s degree at GGC. He then plans to teach at the college level, but also hopes to continue his study of bees, as well as spiders, scorpions, reptiles/amphibians and evolutionary biology. Having an opportunity to conduct research at the undergraduate level enriches his educational experience.

“Research is hands-on learning,” Schlueter said. “It allows students to take what they learn in the classroom and apply it to real-world problems by asking and answering questions never before considered. It enables them to make a contribution to human knowledge before they ever graduate.”

GGC students conducting research with faculty often participate in scientific presentations at the Georgia Academy of Science, local conferences and national events. Last December, Stewart presented his research at the annual meeting of the Entomology Society of America.

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