The Buzz on Arkansas Delta Bees

While the rest of us try to avoid bees, Phillip Stephenson is spending his second summer surrounded by the hovering, buzzing insects.

Stephenson, a master’s student in the Department of Biological Sciences, is studying an eight-county area known as the Lower Mississippi Alluvial Valley in east Arkansas to document and describe insect pollinator communities in emergent wetlands and how they are contributing to the pollination of crops in adjoining lands.

Phillip Stephenson sweeps yellow primrose with a net to catch bees. | David Krementz, University of Arkansas

Phillip Stephenson sweeps yellow primrose with a net to catch bees in Monroe County. | David Krementz, University of Arkansas

Insect pollinators are essential to native plants and agricultural crops, while also playing a crucial role in our nation’s economy and environmental health. But pollinator communities that use emergent wetlands have been poorly documented and their benefits to plant communities on surrounding lands are not fully appreciated.

In 2015, the study focused on multiple pollinators – including flies and some beetles – but the project is now solely focused on bees. The research team captured and processed more than 1,700 bees to assess their species richness and abundance.

The study should help wetland managers make more informed habitat decisions and justify future funding for conservation easements targeting valuable floral resources for insect pollinators, Stephenson said.

A clump of pollen is visible on a bumble bee's legs as it collects pollen from a purple vetch. | Phillip Stephenson, University of Arkansas

A clump of pollen is visible on a bumble bee’s legs as it collects pollen from a purple vetch in Woodruff County. | Phillip Stephenson, University of Arkansas

“We’re painting a picture of our bee communities in emergent wetlands in eastern Arkansas,” Stephenson said. “Our preliminary data show a similar species richness in actively and passively managed areas, but we still have many samples to process. Arkansas is one of the top five states for the amount of acres enrolled in the USDA Farm Bill wetland reserve program, and so our research demonstrates the potential benefit of having these wetland areas for both bees and their associated pollination services. That’s very promising for the bees.”

The U.S. Geological Survey Arkansas Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, housed in the U of A’s Department of Biological Sciences, is collaborating on the project with several entities. Among the 14 sites the team surveyed last summer were wildlife management areas managed by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, national wildlife refuges managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, one natural area managed by the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission and two private lands.

The research area is expanding this year with additional funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“We’re going to look more at the interactions between these bees and the plants they are using,” he said. “We’re also adding a crop component. There isn’t much data about bees that are in these wetland systems that are going into croplands. In our part of the world, we have a lot of areas that used to be wetlands that were drained to create cropland and so the two areas flow together in a mosaic across our and other states. With our sampling in these emergent wetlands that are next door to cropland, we hope to demonstrate that bees can exist in and be beneficial to both environments.”

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