UBee Abuzz with Native Pollinators

Student performing research in bee suit

When you see plastic cups on a college campus, you might imagine that they were flung out of a car window or remnants of a hopping weekend party. However, if you happen upon one of nine strategically placed white, yellow, or blue 2” x 3” polyurethane cups on the periphery of the University of Bridgeport campus, you have encountered an integral part of an important research project that is slated for at least two years. 

“The ultimate outcome for my research is to write a guide book informing the general public on the how and why to optimize land use in creating urban nesting habitats for native pollinators such as wild bees, wasps, flies, and butterflies,” James Durrell, a 2016 graduate in biology from the University of Bridgeport, said. 

Urban ecology, urban restoration, and pollinator research have captured the attention of both scientists and the public alike. Aside from honey production, bees account for approximately one third of the food consumed by humans. Fascinated by bees, Durrell said that “the University of Bridgeport has a unique opportunity to study the diversity and abundance of native pollinators in an urban and coastal environment.” 

While an undergraduate, Durrell took classes from Kathleen Engelmann, associate professor of biology. "James’ project is bringing together several very interesting and topical issues, including urban ecology, the pollinator crisis, and the conservation and biology of native plants and native pollinators,” Engelmann said. 

Although allergic to bees, Durrell possesses a strong affinity for urban wood, twig, and stem-nesting bees that are indigenous to the region and represent 30 percent of all known bee species. Durrell said that wood, stem, and twig nesting bee species are highly abundant in Connecticut, including 73 species in eight different wild bee groups. 

“It is crucial to incorporate multiple types of flora that bloom from early spring to late autumn for our local pollen producers—bumblebees (Bombus), sweat bees (Halictus and Lasioglossum) and the brightly colored metallic green Agapostemon bees (also known as sweat bees)," Durell said. And, put on your dancing shoes because the two-spotted longhorn (Melissodes bimaculata) bees often called disco bees have also been documented on UB’s campus. 

The plastic cup colors simulate flower petals and are stabilized against the forces of nature due to stakes in the ground, picture hangers, and hair ties placed around the top of the cups. The colorful cups attract bumble bees, sweat bees, butterflies, flies (lots of them) and solitary wasps like the Great Golden Digger Wasp. 

The content of the bowls, mostly pollinators, are gathered, sorted, and processed every two weeks from March until October. The species collected from the contents of the bee bowls as well as observations of native pollinators at the UB research plot give significant insight into how humans can better change the landscape to support native pollinators. 

“Another project goal for the UB research plot is to determine which native plants can make the greatest impact on local pollinator ecology,” he explained. The plant research contains six different cultivars of native plants in the area, including Jerusalem artichokes, giant sunflowers, elderberries, purple raspberries, swamp milkweed, and Hollow-stemmed Joe-Pye weed. These plants are of interest because their stems are hollow and have been documented in providing nesting habitats for wild bees. 

Your garden in Connecticut might be adorned with beautiful ornamental plants such as purple coneflower (Echinacea) or hydrangeas. However, some ornamental plants, especially hydrangeas, can produce non-functional flowers as a result of interbreeding.

Durrell said that as natural areas become less prevalent, the benefits native plants provide to not only insects but also to birds and mammals is crucial in maintaining biodiversity. The plants in the UB research plot were selected because of their varying bloom times and their effect on local ecology in terms of providing habitats for insects and birds. “Planting native provides floral resources to flies, butterflies, and wild bees which in turn provide food for other animals,” he said.

An exciting find for Durrell was the discovery of Bombus fervidus, a golden northern bumblebee, which has been on the decline in Connecticut and was last recorded in 2012. There are about 16 other interesting garden finds that include the beautiful Monarch butterfly as well as eggs and caterpillar offspring that feed off swamp milkweed. So far species from the Lasioglossum sweat bee genus have been the most abundant bee collected. 

In early fall 2018 and 2019, three bee houses will be placed throughout campus with differing sized holes drilled into blocks of hardwood on a post that will accommodate the varying sizes of the pollinators. “In early 2019, we will assess the bee houses along with the dissected stems to establish an effective method for citizens to aid in promoting native bee diversity,” Durrell said. 

Durrell believes that urban areas provide numerous opportunities for the planting of wildflowers and other flora in currently unoccupied parking lots and other unused spaces. “Flowers and other flora provide soft groundcover, produce strawberries and other berries for birds, and more,” he said. He added that dandelions (species from Taraxacum) and other common “lawn weeds” are viewed as nuisances, but they play a crucial role in providing flora resources all season long to foraging pollinators.

Durrell currently splits his time working between UB as a laboratory instructor in biology and as a research assistant in the Entomology Department at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station. He plans to pursue his graduate studies in pollinator ecology.