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Protecting Pollinators: UT Researchers Buzzing About Bees

On May 19, President Barack Obama announced new steps to protect pollinators, bees in particular. Researchers on the Forty Acres, meanwhile, have been studying bees and protecting pollinations. Here’s a quick look at some of the bee-related projects on which Longhorns are working.

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You’ve seen them buzz and bumble through gardens and bluebonnets, but don’t think of bees as scary bugs or annoying pests — they’re important pollinators.

On May 19, President Barack Obama announced new steps to protect pollinators, bees in particular. A special task force created a strategy to protect honey bees and other pollinators, like native bees, insects and bats. The White House noted honeybee pollination alone “adds more than $15 billion in value to agriculture crops each year,” helping to make sure we have “ample fruits, nuts and vegetables.”

“We are potentially in a pollinator crisis,” says Shalene Jha, an assistant professor of biology who has studied bees and whose research is cited by the task force. “Honey bees are declining precipitously, and wild bees have also been exhibiting population declines across the globe. Native bees provide critical pollination services for fruit, nut, fiber and forage crops. Understanding how bees move around the landscape can help us both preserve biodiversity and improve crop yields.”

Researchers on the Forty Acres, meanwhile, have already been studying bees and protecting pollinators. Here’s a quick look at some of bee-related projects Longhorns are working on.

The Basics of Bees

In 2012, Jha studied bumblebees and found they thrive in landscape with less pavement and more floral diversity.

Bumblebees, Jha says, are “among the most effective native pollinators,” and reducing the local use of pavement and increasing natural habitat within the landscape could improve nest opportunities for the wild bees, in turn helping protect food supplies around the world.

To get up to speed on all you need to know about bees, here are some of the basics from Jha’s lab:

  • Honeybees aren’t native to the American continent, Jha says. Europeans brought honeybees here and began managing the colonies for honey production and crop pollination, as has been done for hundreds of years.
  • There are approximately 20,000 species of bees in the world. Only six species are honeybees.
  • Nearly 900 native species of bees call Texas home.
  • Bees vary in color, shape and size, ranging from blue to green to gold, fuzzy to hairless, and rice-sized to bigger than popcorn.
  • To tell the difference between bees and wasps and other insects, look at what they’re eating, note their body shape and count their wings. Bees exclusively feed on nectar and pollen, while wasps will eat insects or spiders. Bees have rounded bodies rather than long pointy bodies like wasps. Flies have only one pair of wings, but bees and wasps have two pairs of wings.
  • Bees visit flowers for pollen and nectar, often transferring pollen stuck to their hair between plants and, in turn, facilitating pollination.

“Bees work hard for their pollen and nectar, but they share the ‘fruits of their labor’ with us — most fruits and vegetables we eat are a product of bee pollination,” Jha says. “Since 30 percent of fruit and vegetable crops depend on bee pollination to set fruit, every third bite we take can be traced back to their nectar or pollen gathering activities.”

Protecting Pollinators

The university’s Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center recognizes the importance of pollinator conservation and is fighting the documented decline by creating urban habitats for pollinators, educating the public about how to protect pollinators and selling plants for homeowners to cultivate pollinator-friendly gardens, among other endeavors.

The center’s staff even fields questions from the public, answering inquiries like what plants for specific regions will attract honeybees and if certain plants are harmful to honeybees, as part of the “Ask Mr. Smarty Plants” service.

Bees on a Building

When Professor Nancy Moran moved from Yale to UT Austin in August 2013, she had to figure out a way to bring a colony of 100,000 bees along with her. Moran is an integrative biology researcher who studies the diversity and function of bacteria in the guts of bees, which share similarities with humans and other mammals, she said in an article about her work on LiveScience.com.

She recruited a couple of grad students and took a road trip, driving the nearly 2,000 miles in a minivan packed full of bees. To keep the bees from overheating, they kept the AC cranked to the max during the day and left the windows down at night.

“It seemed unlikely that anyone would try to steal something from a van full of bees,” said Moran. The bees arrived in Austin with no problems and now live on the roof of Patterson Hall.

[Read more about Moran and her research with bees in the first installment of #HiddenUT, a series shining a spotlight onto UT’s unheralded gems.]

Bees Need ZZZs

In the busy world of a honeybee hive, worker bees need rest to best communicate the location of food to their hive mates, according to research from UT Austin.

“When deprived of sleep, humans typically experience a diminished ability to perform a variety of tasks, including communicating as clearly or as precisely,” said Dr. Barrett Klein, a former ecology, evolution and behavior graduate student at the university. “We found that sleep-deprived honey bees also experienced communication problems.

A Closer Look

A team of students in the Insect Image Lab is taking spectacular digital photographs of Texas’s smallest wildlife, including bees, and opening the resulting pictures to public use. In other words, your daughter’s science-fair project about bees is going to look amazing.

To help fund the high-tech photography, the team is using HornRaiser, the university’s crowdfunding platform, to turn their plan into reality.

[Want to help change the world? Learn how UT’s crowdfunding tool lets you back an array of projects, from digitizing fossils and tracking migrating butterflies to building bathrooms in developing countries and photographing bees.]

Photo of bee on flower courtesy of Insects Unlocked.