North Texas Daily

UNT graduate student leads bee research efforts

UNT graduate student leads bee research efforts

UNT graduate student leads bee research efforts
July 09
20:32 2015

Rhiannon Saegert | Senior Staff Writer

@Missmusetta

For a while, there were no Texans researching the impacts of the declining bumblebee population. But that was before Jessica Beckham, an environmental science graduate student, began catching and investigating bees when she came to UNT.

Her work on North Texas bumblebees and their natural habitats could answer questions about the national and global decline of bee populations.

After two summers of catching bees, Beckham is nearly ready to publish a research paper explaining her findings on a topic that, historically speaking, hasn’t had much light shed on it. This summer, Beckham said she is more focused on crunching numbers and analyzing data than collecting bees.

“Bees in general, and bumblebees specifically, are important pollinators of our wild flowering plants and a lot of our agricultural crops,” Beckham said. “As those populations decline, the flowering plants aren’t going to be able to reproduce as well because they’re not being pollinated. So that’s bad for our food supply, but more importantly, it can cause a collapse in our ecosystems.”

Texas has nine bumblebee species that are usually most active from March to October. Beckham said two species in particular, American bumblebees and Southern Plains bumblebees, seemed to be thriving in North Texas but declining nationwide.

“Maybe we’re doing something right in Texas, or maybe we just can’t detect the decline,” Beckham said. “One of the problems with bumblebee research is that there’s just this historic lack of data.”

Beckham gathered DNA samples by keeping the captured bees at a cold temperature, which made them sleep. Then, she snipped off a small part of one of their legs. The process doesn’t hurt and the bees can be released once their “toes” have been collected.

BeeToes9

A honey bee enjoys a snack as it climbs onto a sunflower. The honey bee is well populated in Texas but risks extinction across the U.S. 

Beckham collected 450 bee toes, then extracted DNA from each. After releasing the bees, she ran nine different tests on each DNA sample. From there, she can figure out how many hives she sampled and how inbred the population is.

“One of the hypotheses for why bumblebees are declining is a loss of genetic variation,” Beckham said. “Being inbred means they’re less able to adapt to a changing environment.”

Inbred male bumblebees are also more likely to be sterile, contributing to further population decline.

Pollinators worldwide have been in decline since the early 2000s, according to the Bees In Decline report on sos-bees.org.

The report states that the U.S. has lost between 30 and 40 percent of its commercial bee population since 2006. Wild bees have been picking up the slack, but “increasing agricultural intensification puts further pressure on wild pollinators through habitat destruction and reduced habitat diversity,” the report reads.

It goes on to say while the remaining wild bees will be able to do part of the job, the declining commercial bees can’t. They won’t be able to satisfy all of the demand, leading to the decline of commercial crops that depend on the bees for pollination.

Destruction of natural habitats, pesticide use, natural predators and, in some cases, invasive species of parasites like Varroa destructor all contribute to the death of beehives. The study shows bees are necessary and global conservation measures may need to be taken to protect them.

Beckham said many bee species are close to extinction, but she believes the situation can improve. She encourages people to help by planting flowers where they can and by creating green spaces in urban areas.

“We’re killing things we haven’t discovered yet.  I think that’s the saddest part,” Beckham said. “I think humans have to take notice and change their behaviors. We’re not to a point from which we cannot return.”

Beckham said the way agriculture has evolved has also impacted bees’ natural habitats.

“You basically get rid of a prairie and put in one crop that blooms for a few weeks of the year,” she said. “That eliminates food sources for the rest of the year for a bumblebee.”

Beckham said she’s always liked studying insects. As an undergraduate at the University of Texas – Austin, she studied ants. When she came to UNT as a graduate student in 2011, she wasn’t sure what she should focus on.

“When I came back, they removed this huge honey bee hive from the RTVF building,” Beckham said. “It was huge! And so that got me thinking about bees and then I naturally moved to native bees and bumblebees.”

BeeToes11

With a bee in her sights Jessica Beckham, an evironmental science graduate student at UNT, hopes to continue her study of the bumblebee population by catching and analzying them. 

Texas Parks and Wildlife program supervisor Michael Warriner, who is co-authoring the research paper, has been researching bee conservation since 2005.

“We didn’t have any idea of how they were doing in Texas,” Warriner said. “Right now, [Beckham’s] the only one looking at the conservation status of bees in Texas.”

Since moving to Texas in 2009 to work as an invertebrate biologist, Warriner has collected and compiled museum records of bee studies in Texas, some as early as the 1910s, in an attempt to fill the information gap. He said Beckham’s research is unique, and should be reproduced in other areas.

“If I could clone her and put her in various universities that would be great,” Warriner said. “I’m just excited she’s doing it. I hope she continues to stay in the state.”

Beckham recently received another grant from Texas Parks and Wildlife for about $50,000. This time, she’ll use the grant money to recreate her bumblebee studies in multiple parts of Texas.

Featured Image: Jessica Beckham, an environmental science graduate student at UNT keeps a sharp eye out for bumblebees. Hannah Ridings | Visuals Editor

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