Studying the Bee Communities of Nachusa Grasslands

In recent years, recognition of the importance of pollinators—bees in particular—has grown in response to their rapid decline. Loss of habitat has been identified as one of the leading causes of bee decline; therefore, restoration may be an increasingly important tool for saving native bees.

To understand the effects of prairie restoration on bee communities, biologist Bethanne Bruninga-Socolar and her colleague Sean Griffin of Rutgers University have been collecting samples at Nachusa Grasslands preserve since 2013. This summer will mark the study as the longest-running of its kind.

 “There’s an assumption that the restoration of habitat promotes the return of native creatures. We wanted to test whether this was true of bees and, if so, to what extent,” explained Bethanne.

Measuring Restoration
To determine the extent to which the restoration of prairie habitat increases the abundance and diversity of a bee community, Bethanne and Sean collected bees from agricultural fields surrounding Nachusa, as well as restored and remnant prairie sites within the preserve.  The fields and remnant prairies respectively establish the lowest and highest levels of abundance and diversity, which researches can then compare to the abundance and diversity found in bee communities from restored prairie sites.

In addition to comparing levels of abundance and diversity, Bethanne and Sean wished to determine the amount of time needed for a newly established bee community on a restored prairie to reach levels of abundance and diversity similar to those of a long-established, remnant prairie bee community.

To do this, Bethanne and Sean employed a sampling method known as chronosequencing.  Sometimes explained as “substituting space for time,” chronosequencing allows Bethanne to observe how a bee community’s abundance and diversity change over time without needing years of observation.  By sampling bees from restored prairie sites ranging in age (time since seeding) from two-26 years, Bethanne gains insight that would have taken nearly three decades to record.

Validation for Restoration
Bethanne’s study confirms that if prairie habitat is restored, bees will populate it. In 2016, Bethanne and her colleagues collected an astonishing 72 species of bees at Nachusa.

The study also showed that as a restored prairie increases in age, the abundance and diversity of its bee community increases as well. After just two to three years, bee communities of restored prairie sites begin to reach target abundance and diversity levels. After five to seven years, levels are similar to those of remnant communities.

“The diversity and abundance of the bee communities on Nachusa’s restored prairies matches the abundance and diversity of bee communities on native prairies,” explained Bethanne.

For prairie managers, this is great news. It affirms that current prairie restoration techniques successfully restore plant communities as well as promote the restoration of healthy bee communities.

“It’s validation of what he had hoped for,” said Jeff Walk, director of conservation for the Conservancy in Illinois. “It’s fulfilling to see that we’re successfully helping restore the whole prairie ecosystem, not only the plants.”

Flowers, Fruits, and Veggies
Across the globe, bees are the most ecologically important creatures when it comes to pollination. Roughly 87 percent of all flowering plants require pollination, and the vast majority are pollinated by bees.

“Bees are highly adapted pollinators,” said Bethanne. “They have developed unique traits specifically for pollination. For instance, their fuzzy hairs are ideally suited for holding pollen. We don’t see pollination-specific adaptations such as this in any other pollinator species.”

Unfortunately, for some, bees are a source of fear. But Bethanne believes that this fear is often the result of mistaken identity.

“’Bees are often mistaken for wasps. True bees are remarkably non-aggressive and remarkably uninterested in people,” confirmed Bethanne. “I spend a lot of time with my hands very near bees and I’ve only been stung 3 times—each because a bee had become trapped in my clothing.”

For other, bees can simply be an annoying, uninvited picnic guest. Before you swat them away, consider that they made your picnic possible.

“Bees are fundamentally important to our food crops. If you like any fruits or vegetables, you have a bee to thank. We should appreciate the job that bees do every time we sit down to a plate of fruits or veggies,” explained Jeff.

Be Kind to Bees
If you’d like to help bees around your home, consider installing a pollinator garden that provides array of native plants blooming throughout the entire season and avoid using insecticides. For more tips, check out Habitat Network.


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