Celebrating bees (and birds and butterflies and bats and …)

A honey bee, Apis mellifera. This bee was collected from Beltsville, Md. Credit: USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab

Exploring gut microbes in honey bees. High school students tracking monarch butterflies. Robotic imaging of insect collections. What do these projects have in common? They are all part of the National Science Foundation’s pollinator portfolio — a diverse suite of research on pollinators, their health and the roles they play in ecosystems across the world. We’re highlighting this research for Pollinator Week, and the release of the White House Pollinator Partnership Action Plan.

Female broad-tailed hummingbird visiting a nectar-containing tall larkspur in summer. Credit: David Inouye.

Pollinator declines are of enormous societal relevance, given the central role of pollinators in both natural ecosystems and in human agricultural enterprise — honeybees alone contribute over $14 billion each year in pollination services for U.S. agriculture. And NSF-funded research has shown that removing even one bumblebee species from an ecosystem makes pollination less effective, and makes plants produce significantly fewer seeds.

NSF supports pollinator research across all fields of science and engineering. Biologists have explored how climate change affects the intricate pollinator-plant relationship — in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, for example, research has shown that glacier lilies are blooming earlier, causing them to be out of sync with the arrival of broad-tailed hummingbirds, which depend on glacier lilies for nectar.

Earlier-than-normal snow melt has also lead to a decrease in the region’s overall flower population, which has in turn lead to declines in the Mormon Fritillary butterfly population.

A Mormon Fritillary butterfly feeding on an aspen fleabane daisy, a main nectar source. Credit: David W. Inouye, Department of Biology, University of Maryland

Citizen scientists can play a big role in pollinator research, too. More than 1,000 volunteers have collected data on monarch butterflies through the NSF-funded Monarch Larva Monitoring Project.

Karen Oberhauser of the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project with young citizen scientists. Credit: Bruce Leventhal.

Monarch butterflies migrate across North America; citizen science data helps explain geographic and temporal variations in the continent’s monarch population. Other NSF-funded research is supporting the development of better tools to visualize and share large databases of butterfly monitoring data, giving researchers a more comprehensive view of the distribution of butterflies, and allowing more citizens to help track and study these important pollinators.

To learn more about that pollinating all-star, honeybees, NSF-funded researchers are exploring their African ancestors. “If we can understand the genetic and physiological mechanisms that allow African bees to withstand parasites and viruses, we can use this information for breeding programs or management practices in U.S. bee populations,” said Christina Grozinger, director of the Center for Pollinator Research at Pennsylvania State University.

Members of a bumblebee colony within their nest. These insects share specialized gut bacteria, which are transmitted among colony members. Credit: Kim Hammond, UT-Austin.

Others are peering within honeybees themselves, studying the diversity of microbes that live in honeybee guts, and how these impact bee exposure to antibiotics. University of Minnesota-Twin Cities entomologist Marla Spivak is researching bee immunity by studying honeybee propolis — tree resin collected by bees and deposited on the walls of their hive. This propolis envelope acts as a antimicrobial layer protecting the bee community; learning how the insects select and exploit the health benefits of resin could help scientists and beekeepers better protect honeybees (populations of these crucial species are declining rapidly worldwide — since 2006, the U.S. honeybee colonies have seen an average annual loss of over 30 percent).

Researchers sample bumblebees in a subalpine meadow in Colorado. Credit: Karen Levy, Emory University.

Can’t get enough of pollinators? Learn about more pollinator research, and the role they play in ecosystems around the world, here.