Netting wild bees is not as scary as it sounds. At least that’s what Sandy DeBano says.
“It’s really not that bad,” said DeBano, an associate professor of entomology at Oregon State University’s Hermiston Agricultural Research and Extension Center. “Bees rarely sting you, and they’re really pretty amazing to look at.”
Over the past three years, DeBano has collected thousands of bee specimens buzzing along Meadow Creek in the Starkey Experimental Forest between Pendleton and La Grande. The goal, she said, is to determine how the diets of deer, elk and livestock may overlap with native bees competing for the same flowers.
So far, DeBano said their research shows there is potentially some overlap between ungulates — especially elk — and all types of bees, feasting on plants such as common yarrow, mountain aster, clover and beardtongue. The findings were recently published in Natural Areas Journal, with fieldwork scheduled to continue this summer.
“Elk had the highest level of overlap, given the types of plants we see here in Eastern Oregon,” she said.
Pollinator research is nothing new to scientists, especially considering the conspicuous decline of honeybee populations. According to the American Beekeepers Federation, colonies took a massive 44 percent hit between 2015 and 2016.
DeBano is quick to point out how valuable bees are for farmers, pollinating roughly $3 billion worth of crops in North America alone. The federal government even developed a National Pollinator Health Strategy under former President Barack Obama in 2015 that aimed to restore honeybee colonies to sustainable levels by 2025.
But DeBano said there are still gaps in knowledge when it comes to wild bees and how they interact with the environment.
“It’s surprising how little we know about them,” she said.
For years, DeBano studied how livestock grazing affected bees on the Zumwalt Prairie in Wallowa County. In 2014, she agreed to collaborate with the U.S. Forest Service on the Starkey Experimental Forest, expanding the project’s scope to include deer and elk.
“That really hasn’t been done,” she said. “We know deer and elk eat different things on average from livestock.”
DeBano and her team combined on-the-ground surveys of bees at Meadow Creek with historical research into the diets of deer and elk to determine where there may be overlap. It has been no easy feat, considering they identified more than 180 species of bees and 116 species of wildflowers in bloom.
“It’s tough,” DeBano said with a smile. “You have very distinct groups of bees and flowers progressing over the summer and the growing season.”
Catching bees is done using simple traps or nets, and DeBano figures she’s been stung fewer than a dozen times. The team plans to return to the field for a fourth consecutive summer beginning in May, and this year will also mark the first time cattle are introduced on the landscape.
DeBano said working at Starkey has been a great experience, with ample ecological data already at their fingertips.
“I had never worked in a forested system before,” she said. “It was a chance to do bee work in riparian areas, which was a big plus.”
The results of the study could have additional impacts on wildlife management to preserve the health of pollinators, DeBano said, and may also help farmers to know what plants they can incorporate around their fields to possibly lure native bees.
“I think there are a lot of practical applications, for sure,” she said. “The more you understand the cumulative effects of certain management practices, the more informed decisions you can make.”
Contact George Plaven at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-966-0825.