Is urban sprawl in Texas swatting out bumblebees?

07/05/2014 12:00 AM

07/03/2014 6:18 PM

This summer 32-year-old Jessica Beckham will find herself on the side of the highway, just as the summer before, doing what many would run from.

She’ll go searching for different species of bumblebees with her 2-year-old-son in tow.

Beckham, an environmental science doctoral student at the University of North Texas, wants to know how Texans can counteract the effect that urban sprawl has had on bumblebees.

“People are fearful of them and a lot of times just don’t want to mess with them,” said Beckham, who has never been stung by one.

But people might not know that bumblebees are important pollinators for oa lot of native, wild and agricultural plants, she said.

Unlike honeybees, bumblebees are native bees with larger, hairier bodies and tend to nest underground in hives that last only one year, Beckham said. They are less common than honeybees, whose hives last for several years.

The annual value of crops that are pollinated by animals is $18 billion to $20 billion a year. Honeybees are responsible for $15 billion of that, but unlike bumblebees are easy to manage, said Michael Warriner, a supervisor with the Wildlife Diversity Program of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

Bumblebees pollinate foods that honeybees cannot — like tomatoes, chile peppers, squash, melons and blueberries, Warriner said.

“We don’t have any data on the decline. No one has really paid attention to bumblebees until the last few years,” Warriner said.

In 2010 he started an effort to determine how the insects are doing, which is part of his work with the Wildlife Diversity Program.

Thanks to $26,000 in grants through the program, Beckham has collected bees since 2013 in dozens of counties to contribute to his research. She uses large butterfly nets to catch bees while they forage. For her roadside work she keeps one of each species to turn over to Parks and Wildlife.

Warriner said preliminary information indicates that bumblebees are doing “pretty well” in North and Northeast Texas. The multiyear effort will continue in different parts of the state, like West Texas, where only two species of bumblebees thrive.

When Beckham submits her final collection in September, she estimates she will have collected samples from 90 counties.

Beckham is also in the process of completing genetic work on bees for her dissertation at UNT — “ Utilization of urban green spaces by bumble bees (Bombus spp.) in Denton County.”

She is studying how such spaces as parks and community gardens can serve as a habitat for the declining insects. Of the 450 samples she has collected since last summer, only 15 are Southern plains bumblebees — a species last found in Denton County in 1998, she said.

“When we found they were still here, it gave us hope that there was at least a small population,” she said.

Beckham said Southern plains bumblebees’ nests are different from those of American bumblebees, which seem to be “a little bit less picky” about where they build hives.

As a part of her dissertation, she is now narrowing down how many hives she sampled and their genetic diversity. That could show where the bees thrive the most and how Texans can emulate that environment.

There are 250 species of bumblebees worldwide, Beckham said, and Texas has nine.

Both of her projects have the same goal.

“Cities are spreading, but there are ways we can grow our cities to be sustainable for the existing bee population,” she said.

Her preliminary recommendations are to maintain community gardens and parks and to include such spaces in city planning.

Beckham said locals can take that a step further by planting flowers in their back yards to serve as habitats and by joining watch groups like bumblebeewatch.org.

“The take-home here is that community gardens and parks are important for bumblebee conservation,” she said. “We need to keep them instead of turning them into parking lots.”

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