Student research highlights pollinator preferences

By Dana Kobilinsky

Meg Gable stands with her poster at an undergraduate research colloquium in Austin, Texas. She studied how flower density and variety affects pollinators. Image courtesy of Waite-Altringer.

Pollinating insects — such as bees, beetles and butterflies — choose habitats with the most flower cover, according to a student’s undergraduate research that was performed with the help of a seed donation from Bayer’s Feed a Bee initiative.

“It popped out at us that percent flower cover was the key to getting a diversity of pollinating insects,” said Melanie Waite-Altringer, a biology faculty member at Anoka Ramsey Community College. “It had nothing to do with flower diversity.”

Waite-Altringer handpicked student Meg Gable to conduct the project with a few of her peers. Gable later presented her poster and research at an undergraduate research colloquium in Austin, Texas.

“Students I select are most enthusiastic about the environment,” she said.

As part of the study, Gable and her colleagues looked at pollinators in three sites in two different Minnesota counties, Isanti and Sherburne, for one month. They selected three landowners who volunteered to be part of their project and plant seeds on their land to attract pollinators.

“Bayer was an essential part of this,” Waite-Altringer said. “They actually donated all of the flower seeds.”

During the month, Gable and her peers walked very slowly through these plots and recorded into a voice recorder if they saw a bee, fly, butterfly or any other pollinator and how many they had seen. They also determined flower coverage by density as well as flower diversity in the plots.

“This research has been a great experience,” Gable said. “Being able to go into the field and collect the data that was analyzed was fantastic. I did not have to rely on previously gathered information. It was all data I was present for.”

What they found surprised them. An increase in plant variety did not seem to have a significant impact on the quantity or diversity of pollinators. But flower coverage did.

They also found that the greatest diversity and number of pollinators was at water buffer zones, or the edges of the land plots that were adjacent to water sources, Waite-Altringer said.

“Whatever is native to your area that will grow the best, even if it’s a monoculture of flowers, as long as those native flowers grow, you’re going to attract a wide variety of insects and a high number of insects,” she said.

Waite-Altringer said people can even consider strategically planting flowers that bloom at different times in the season so that there are always different flowers blooming and covering the field.

Gable, who plans to work for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, learned a lot from the project. “This has been a great opportunity to show my ability to begin with an idea and then work through until the finish of a project,” Gable said. “My favorite part was seeing where the data went. We had no real idea of what was going to happen when we started, and this study has lead to some interesting information that can be applied as soon as the next growing season.”

Waite-Altringer said the project has even helped Gable prepare for her future. “She got a true understanding of what her future job could be,” she said. “It’s already helped Meg get into different programs. It’s already benefiting her.”

Dana KobilinskyDana Kobilinsky is a science writer at The Wildlife Society. Contact her at dkobilinsky@wildlife.org with any questions or comments about her article. You can follow her on Twitter at @DanaKobi.

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