Tech uncovers pollinator connections

Published 9:20 pm Saturday, August 5, 2017

Local farmers and gardeners who want to attract native pollinators to their plants may be interested in the summer research project of Laura Stange, a rising senior majoring in horticulture in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Virginia Tech.

Funded by the Fralin Life Science Institute’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship, Stange observes and analyzes the behavior patterns of pollinators around plots of native wildflowers at Kentland Farm in Blacksburg. Her goal is to determine which pollinator species prefer which types of flowers.

Honeybees, wild bees, bumblebees, wasps, beetles, butterflies, moths and syrphid flies are regulars to the 40 flower plots, which include a mix of annual and perennial native species, with household favorites like black-eyed Susan, purple cone flower and beebalm.

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So far, Stange has recorded several “matches” between pollinator and flower. Wild bees and wasps tend to prefer the black-eyed Susans, she said.  Meanwhile, the European honeybees don’t seem interested in any of the native Virginia wildflowers, deciding instead to hover around clover.

Understanding these preferences is key to conserving pollinators, many of which are experiencing population declines.

Approximately 75 percent of the world’s food crops depend at least partly on pollination, amounting to a $235 billion to $577 billion annual value in the United States, according to an assessment by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.

Meanwhile, beekeepers in Virginia reported a 41-percent loss of their hives in the last completed survey for 2015-2016 administered by the Bee Informed Partnership.

“With pollinator population decline on the rise, it is becoming exceedingly important to support our native pollinators,” said Stange. “One way to help conserve these helpful communities is to plant more native flowers that provide nectar and pollen for bees.”

Stange’s advisor on the project is Megan O’Rourke, an assistant professor of horticulture in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and affiliate of the Global Change Center at Virginia Tech.

O’Rourke is trying to figure out which species of wildflowers are easy to grow and provide the best bang for the buck for bee conservation.

She’s working with farmers and policy makers to make conserving native pollinators easier and envisions “a day when native wildflowers will be a common site on farms and in home gardens,” she said.