Student’s bee find bodes well for Denton green spaces

Student’s bee find bodes well for Denton green spaces

Student’s bee find bodes well for Denton green spaces
September 17
07:57 2013

Joshua Knopp / Senior Staff Writer

A doctoral student researching bumblebee populations has unearthed a species that hasn’t been recorded in Denton since 1998.

Environmental science doctoral student Jessica Beckham collected bumblebees from parks and preserves within Denton over the summer. She was testing the effects of green spaces on bees. In urban areas, green spaces have been declining partially due to a loss of habitat, according to her presentation on the project at the Ethnobiology Conference in May.

After going through museum population records, Beckham and her group started with a baseline of four bumblebee species that have existed in Denton since 1952. Of those, only the American bumblebee had been found since 1998.

But among the 450 bumblebees she and her team caught, Beckham found the southern plains bumblebee at the Clear Creek National Heritage Center on the north side of Lake Lewisville. They later found another group in the Bowling Green Community Garden.

The species had not been recorded in Denton for 15 years.

“The [southern plains bumblebee] was relatively common historically, but now has dropped off,” she said.

Native to North America, bumblebees are vital for pollinating native plants such as Chile peppers and tomatoes. The European honeybee, introduced to North America in the 1700s, has pushed native bees hard for territory but isn’t able to pollinate the way bumblebees do, said biology professor James Kennedy, who works with Beckham on her research.

“Bumblebees can pollinate certain plants that honeybees cannot because of the anatomy of certain plants,” Beckham said. “A diverse assemblage of pollinator species is important in order to ensure that both agricultural and wild plants are pollinated. Native pollinators, like bumblebees, serve as insurance against the loss of the European honeybee.”

Biology department chair Sam Atkinson, another professor who has helped with this research, said keeping a healthy bee population is vital to the economy because replacing what they do for agriculture could cost millions.

“We have to protect these systems, we have that naturally operate because we get them for free,” he said. “It’s a whole lot better to protect something that’s free than to fix something that’s going to cost a whole lot of money.”

Though Beckham and her team have found new bees, they have not received a grant for the research. Kennedy and biology department chair Sam Atkinson have been funding the project with excess grant money, hoping to lay the groundwork to get grants for more bee research in the future.

Kennedy said he has spent several thousand dollars on the project up to this point, but he still views it as an efficient project.

“It’s a relatively low-cost but high-impact potential study,” he said. “This was an opportunity for us, for a low investment to have some very large gains in information.”

Doctoral student Jessica Beckham captures a bumblebee to research the effects of urbanization. She has captured and taken small DNA samples from hundreds of bees around DFW all summer. - Photo by Aidan Barrett / Senior Staff Photographer

Now, Beckham begins the next phase of her project – testing DNA samples taken from the bees to find out how many hives they represent. While collecting samples, she cut a toe off each captured bee and released it back into the wild.

The bees were taken from green spaces within cities and from more rural environments. By cross-referencing how many hives visited each collection site, Beckham will have an idea of bumblebee biodiversity in the area and how natural spaces in cities affect it.

Beckham said the analysis is just getting started, and formal results won’t be in for another few months. She will present her findings in November at the Entomological Society of America Conference in Austin.

The Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center was constructed as a nature preserve and an environmental education facility by the city of Denton and the Army Corps of Engineers. After reforestation efforts, sustainability and special projects administrator Katherine Barnett said the center hasn’t had any development for 30 years and that has attracted vast amounts of wildlife to the site.

Barnett said she was excited about Beckham’s find.

“I think that it’s awesome, because it’s in an area that’s intentionally been left as natural as possible,” she said.

Beckham is currently scheduled to finish her dissertation on the project in the spring. She said she enjoys working with bees and hopes she can continue her research when she’s done.

“They pollinate, they’re important for our food supply, they’re pretty,” she said. “People don’t realize how cool they are.”

A Bumble Bee explores a flower. Bumble Bees are not attracted to any one flower in particular. They collect as much pollen as possible to help support their queen through hibernation. Feature photo by Aidan Barrett / Senior Staff Photographer 

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