Today@Sam Article

Texas Comptroller Grant Supports Bee Research

August 3, 2022
SHSU Media Contact: Campbell Atkins

The Texas Comptroller’s office is contributing $500,000 to support a research collaboration between Sam Houston State University and Stephen F. Austin State University in an effort to understand and model pollinator diversity in rural East Texas. They will be relying on the unique expertise of personnel from both institutions over the next five years to tell them what all the buzz is about.bees 2

“Recently, the American bumblebee has been listed as a potential species of concern by the federal government,” Justin Williams, SHSU professor of biology, said. “The comptroller’s office would like to contribute information concerning the status of the bumblebee populations in Texas. The project is not limited to information regarding the bumblebee, as it will also include research into long-horned bees, which are important pollinators of melon crops such as cucumbers and watermelons.”

The state is supporting independent research into the health of the bees to inform voluntary conservation efforts and Endangered Species Act decisions. The project will provide accessible data and methodologies to agencies, land managers and other potential end-users. The project focuses on rural East Texas because of the commitment of diverse stakeholders to provide land access, geospatial data and in-kind services. The combined effort of species experts and local stakeholders will provide the most up-to-date information to FWS to enable data-driven Endangered Species Act decisions.

“This is an examination into the health of the bee communities in East Texas,” Williams said.

Williams is the project’s botanist while Daniel Bennett of SFA will act as the head entomologist. Two other entomologists, both from SHSU, will help with the identification of the bees, including Dean of the College of Science John Pascarella and Jerry Cook, a professor of biological sciences. The project leaders will conduct surveys of bees in 74 counties throughout East Texas covering the Neches, Sabine and Trinity River Basins. Covering such a large area is possible due to substantial assistance from the Texas A&M Forest Service. Regional Forest Health Coordinator Allen Smith and colleagues have extensive experience surveying insects in forests of East Texas and have lent a helping hand to the project.

“We find out where we are going to survey for these bees, traps are set and I look at the plants to see what the bees have been feeding off of,” Williams said. “Then we observe the bees on these plants, collect them and look at the pollen the bees have collected under our scanning electron microscope here at SHSU. We are identifying what the bees eat down to the microscopic level, down to the pollen they are collecting.”

The process, as precisely outlined in the contract, will take a considerable amount of time. The project is broken down into four tasks and will last five years. Since they got a late start in 2022, the first year will be more of an experimental period for the scientists.

“This year is more like a pilot study and, the next two years, we are going to really hit it hard knowing what we are doing and the right locations to pick,” Williams said. “Beyond the work funded by the Comptroller’s office, we are going to spend the next four years writing an identification guide to the bees of East Texas.”

These identification guides will include informational materials to help educate children in schools as well as citizens in relevant public parks. 

Much of these species, according to Williams, have not been examined since the 1950s or 60s. The traps are intentionally set later than April and May because that is when the Queens are active and they are trying to avoid impacting their population numbers.

The official layout states the agency will conduct surveys across the geographic area to determine occupancy and land management associations of bumblebees and long-horned bees, utilizing a volunteer network and expert-led sampling. In ‘Task 2’ (year two through four), the agency will evaluate diversity and floral interactions of bumblebees in post oak savannah ecosystems, with focus on wild eastern turkey habitat restoration impacts on bumblebees at the Gus Engeling Wildlife Management Area (WMA).

In ‘Task 3’ (year one through three), the agency will evaluate diversity and floral interactions of long-horned bees in longleaf pine ecosystems, with focus on fire regime impacts in the Big Thicket region. Lastly, in ‘Task 4’ (year one through five), the agency will synthesize and disseminate East Texas bumblebee and long-horned bee data to support pollinator conservation, education and outreach.

“I think this is a testament to the expertise of the professors that we have here at Sam,” Williams said. “It is good for the university to show that we can conquer such a problem. It shows that our faculty and students are capable of performing at a state-wide level.”

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