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Conservation Ecologist Shares Bee Research

Studying the behavior of various bee species and their habitat activity in restored prairies is the research of Sean Griffin, Michigan State University PhD candidate. For more than a decade Griffin has studied wild bees and habitats across the US including the tall grass prairie of the Nachusa Grasslands in Illinois and currently at the restored native prairie at MSU’s Kellogg Biological Station.

Sean Griffin (right) talking about the different types of bees he has collected during his research. Veronica Bolhuis (left); 4-H Program Coordinator holds the case containing lots of different bees.

Griffin’s February 28 presentation, “Bee Conservation Across Fragmented Landscapes” captivated members of the Kalamazoo County 4-H Bee and Pollinator Club and the public as they learned about the Nature Conservancy’s Nachusa Grasslands tall grass prairie restoration project and Griffin’s research in identifying how quickly certain bees colonize new habitats in an effort to determine if native bees can take over for honey bees. Attendees also learned that carefully planned experiments can have major issues.

Ordering insects through the mail can be tricky, especially if they emerge unexpectedly. An order of native bees was lost in the mail while on its way to a North Carolina State University lab where Griffin was working. The box somehow opened and out flew the bees…in a post office.

After that fiasco, he ordered a different bee species but was concerned about heat tolerance and flowering bloom times since it was summer. Instead of heat issues, the bees died from an unusual overnight freeze! The self-proclaimed “optimist” says failures are a valuable part of research and there is always something to learn from the experience.

To study the insects visiting restored prairies, Griffin explained how he catches the bees (besides running around with a long net). Yellow, white, and blue bowls are filled with soapy water. The color of each bowl attracts the insects into the soapy water and they drown. In six years, Griffin has collected 14,000 bees covering 217 species – “incredibly high diversity for prairie,” says Griffin. Most commonly found insects include bee mimic flies, cicada killer wasps, and sweat bees. Griffin works with taxonomists who rely on microscopes to identify the bee types and Griffin shared several displays of mounted insects with the audience.

One of the cases where Sean has pinned his collection of bees and other insects he has found during his research.

What are his findings so far? “What we should be striving for are larger prairies and a mix of habitats like savannah,” explains Griffin. “More different habitats equal more variety of pollinators.”

So how does an area of land that’s a desert to pollinators become a prairie? Griffin briefly described how the Nature Conservancy is restoring the prairie in the Nachusa Grasslands:

  • Seeds are collected by hand

  • Controlled burning maintains high diversity of plants

  • Invasive species are controlled by hand with herbicides

  • Bison have been introduced to serve as major grazers

  • Bison change the plant community by grazing

  • Bison hooves change the landscape – a benefit to bees

  • Half the prairie has bison

Griffin says restored habitat is super important to pollinators and offered these tips: “Reduce the amount you mow, use clover - something that provides nectar, plant native plants, reduce or eliminate pesticide use, and provide nesting materials.”

For more ideas and information visit: Squash bee citizen scientist survey

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