Old Records, New Bees Result In Major Study For Montana Ecologist

Probe shows high resilient nature of busy buzzers.

Published on: Apr 23, 2013

A Montana State University ecologist with a big interest in bees has completed research that shows the relationship of the buzzy bugs to the plants they like.

Laura Burkle captured more than 2,500 bees in the study for MSU, publishing results in a recent issue of "Science."

While she conducted her work in Illinois, the impact of the findings are important in western agriculture, since she compared the current population of the bugs with those that existed in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

What she found is that many species of the important insects have been lost, and the flowering plants the earlier populations worked have also been reduced.

This bee, andrena naqsonii, may be emerging before the majority of spring blooming plants with which it once interacted.
This bee, andrena naqsonii, may be emerging before the majority of spring blooming plants with which it once interacted.

Her work is linked to findings of the earlier bees based on notes provided from long-gone researchers.

Despite the loss, however, bees and plants have been surprisingly resilient in the face of        warmer temperatures and changing land use, she says.

"The good news is that these systems and the way they are structured make them really resilient to change," says Burkle, even if temperatures might have risen 3.6 degrees F in the winter and spring.

What the study may mirror is an ability of bees – an important agricultural tool – to minor changes in temperatures, countering some concerns of dire impacts of warming trends.

Tiffany Knight, MSU faculty advisor on the study, notes that most plants  important to humans for food rely on pollinators for reproduction.

"There is concern that human changes to the environment are disrupting plant-pollinator interactions," says Knight. "Our study is the first that has been able to look at this problem using historical data."

One of the study findings is that climate change has caused mismatches between plants and their conventional pollinators, and some of the insects may not be active during bloom stages when they should be on the job.