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U of M researchers study bee population at Belwin Conservancy

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Afton’s Belwin Conservancy is the place to “bee” this summer. 

Belwin is the site of several research projects, being conducted by researchers from the University of Minnesota, on the behaviors of both wild and honey bees. 

“A lot of people in my lab like bees because they’re really diverse,” said Morgan Carr-Markell, a graduate student and lab technician at the University of Minnesota in the entomology department. “But I really like honey bees because they’re social, they have all these amazing behaviors.”

Researchers have been at Belwin since last summer. 

“We were looking for big prairie sites,” Carr-Markell said. “Belwin already does some research on the effect of bison on prairie so they were really receptive to having some other projects here.” 

The research projects currently taking place relate to honey bees and native prairie, stem nesting bees and native prairie and some bee surveying. 

FINDING FOOD

Carr-Markell, of St. Paul, has been studying honey bee behaviors at Belwin since last summer. 

The goal of Carr-Markell’s research is to identify native prairie plants that can supplement the non-native plants on which honey bees feed. 

“Minnesota is a big honey-producing state and the beekeepers here really need a lot of forage for their bees,” she said. “However, they were getting concerned that a lot of the plants bees have relied on in the past, like sweet clover, are non-native and sometimes people try to control them because they take over areas.” 

Carr-Markell is working with three large honey bee colonies. 

Every two weeks Carr-Markell heads out to Belwin’s Stagecoach Prairie, where the colonies are set up, to collect nectar and pollen in hopes of learning what plants the honey bees are gravitating towards. 

“Are there particular prairie species that would be a good replacement for these non-native plants?” she said. “What is it that they’re actually collecting near these sites?” 

At this point Carr-Markell’s research is still inconclusive except that the honey bees are collecting roadside weeds and some native prairie mint. 

“We’re still in the preliminary stages of identifying everything,” she said. “We’re working our way toward identifying things as species and then we’ll be able to say better what species would be a good substitute.” 

Another component of Carr-Markell’s, and her team’s, research is the observation of the honey bee waggle dance, which is  figure-eight dance that is performed to share information with other colonies about the direction, distance and location of good nectar sources. 

“We’re looking to see if they’re recruiting to other prairie sites,” Carr-Markell said. “It’s a very cool behavior.” 

Carr-Markell will continue her research through the fall and then she might pick it up again in the spring before moving to another prairie location. 

“Can native prairies provide a large percentage of all the food that is coming into the honey bee colony?” she said. “If they can, what are the species that we can say are great?”

HOME SWEET STEM

Another research project currently occurring at Belwin is being conducted by St. Paul resident Colleen Satyshur, a staff scientist in the ecology department at the University of Minnesota. 

Satyshur is specifically studying the nesting habits of wild bees. 

“We know so little about the wild bees’ ecology,” she said. “This is unexplored territory so anything that I find is new.” 

Wild bees, which are native to Minnesota, generally nest individually either underground or in plant stems. 

For her research, Satyshur has set up 19 species of native grassland plants in order to see in which plants the wild bees are most frequently nesting. 

Every week Satyshur checks the plants to look for any evidence of nesting, specifically bee larvae. 

Given that this is the first year that Satyshur has been researching at Belwin, her findings are still developing. 

“There’s no clear preference yet from the bees,” she said. “I’m seeing bees in the stems, which is exciting.”

BRINGING BACK BEES

In recent years there has been a renewed interest in protecting the bee populations because they are such an important element of Minnesota’s ecology. 

“We’re starting to be more aware of where our food and our livelihoods come from,” Satyshur said. “We’re starting to focus on taking care more of where our food comes from and bees are so important for producing food.” 

Honey bees specifically have gained more attention because so much of the species died off during the winter of 2006-07, Carr-Markell said. 

“That started us thinking about the implications of that,” she said, “since about a third of the things we eat depend on pollinators of some kind.” 

When it comes to protecting the bee populations, both honey and wild, Carr-Markell said, the solution can hopefully be found in the plants. 

“A lot of research seems to be pointing towards food as a really critical thing for bees,” she said. “If they are well nourished, they can deal with a lot of other threats much better and that’s why there’s a big push to plant more for bees.”

Amber Kispert-Smith

Amber Kispert-Smith has been the schools and Afton reporter at the Woodbury Bulletin since 2008. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota. She previously worked as a reporter for Press Publications in White Bear Lake.

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