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Penn State researchers collaborate to combat bee declines around the world

April 27, 2016

Spring is a season of new growth, with buds on the trees, green grass and flowers beginning to bloom. It’s also a prime time for pollinators such as honey bees, as they begin to feed off of the pollen from the newly blooming flora. 

But recently, the bees have been creating a different kind of buzz. About 10 years ago, beekeepers began to notice a significant decrease in the North American honey bee population—and that decrease can have big implications beyond your backyard.

Honey bees are one of the most efficient pollinating species. Responsible for about 80 percent of insect pollination, the honey bee plays a critical role in food security and biodiversity. 

“Three-fourths of our major food crops need pollination,” explained the College of Agricultural Sciences’ Christina Grozinger. “Without the help of the honey bees and other pollinators, yield from those crops would be significantly reduced.” 

Grozinger, distinguished professor of entomology and director of the Center for Pollinator Research, has devoted much of her work over the past several years to identifying and mitigating the problems behind the honey bee population decrease.

Along with many colleagues across the college—and throughout the University—Penn State has become known as one of the top universities addressing holistic pollinator health. 

Through continued research on diseases, diet and nutrition and the sometimes unintended effects of pesticides, Grozinger believes that we can begin to alleviate the problem of pollinator declines.

Collaboration

The scope of the pollinator crisis, coupled with a long-standing interest from members of the Penn State community to work on globally important problems, has attracted a diverse group of researchers and educators to bring their own unique perspectives to address these issues. 

“In the beginning, there was a core group of people who worked on bees, but it wasn’t very many,” Grozinger said. “Then, because Penn State is a really collaborative place, so many others began to see ways they could apply their own research, extension and outreach efforts to these issues.” 

The students, too, help move the project forward, bringing together new pieces of the puzzle each year. 

“We attract really good students, and they create projects that bridge labs and bring different groups together to solve problems.”

Sustainability

Pollinators are an important indicator of health in the wider ecosystem and speak to general issues of conservation and sustainability. 

“Bees are very good representatives of larger issues like how to live thoughtfully in the world to maintain biodiversity and resilient environmental systems,” said Grozinger. 

Though there are no quick fixes for the issues impacting honey bees and other pollinators, Penn State researchers are well on their way to discovering new ways to alleviate those issues—which will have cascading benefits into other areas, like food production.

For example, one current research thrust focuses on landscape ecology and management. Researchers are working to understand the kinds of plants that bees prefer and how to design landscapes that will provide bees with their specific nutritional needs. Then, they hope to spread that knowledge to the general public.

“Sustainability and conservation aren’t just things that happen in a nature reserve; they happen in our backyards,” said Grozinger. “We really want to shift perceptions into new ways of thinking. People are really excited about that, and we just have to give them the tools to do it.”

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