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Student Research Spotlight - Carley Miller

Posted: April 1, 2016

This is the 4th of thirteen short news articles written by students, during the professional development class, about each other's research.

Keep Calm and Pollinate On!
By Ngoc Phan

For years, growers have been renting commercial honey bees in order to provide reliable pollination for many different crops. New evidence suggests that many growers may be receiving additional pollination services from wild, native bees.

“In Pennsylvania, we have found that wild bumble bees are really active in pumpkin fields,” explains Carley Miller, a Master’s student in Penn State’s Entomology Department. She is part of a research team at Penn State that has been investigating just how helpful these native, wild bees can be.

With enthusiasm, Miller says “Growers rent honey bees because they need reliable pollination. You rent honey bee colonies, and boxes of tens of thousands of bees show up in your field, ready to go! In contrast, wild pollinators are more mysterious -  growers are not sure how many wild pollinators are nearby, and if they will show up to pollinate their crops. But with my research, I hope to make those wild pollinators, especially bumble bees, a little less mysterious.”

Miller wants to evaluate the size of bumble bee populations in the areas where growers have pumpkin fields, and to determine if there are any trends in population size and growth. But unlike honey bees that are delivered in boxes, wild bumble bees nests are trickier to locate.  “We can’t just go out and count bumble bee nests – they are secretive. They live in underground chambers, like abandoned mouse borrows at a field edge.”

Instead, Miller captures bees from pumpkin fields, and uses modern molecular tools to analyze their DNA, using this information to estimate the number of bumble bee colonies visiting a pumpkin patch. She then compares those colony numbers over the course of 3 years. If the colony numbers are increasing from year to year, then she knows the bumble bee populations are strong and healthy. “Once we know how strong the bumble bee populations are, we can tell growers that they can rely on the bumble bees to help the honey bees with pumpkin pollination.”

Growers are taking this research pretty seriously. Based on preliminary results alone, one pumpkin grower in Columbia County rented only half his normal number of honey bees last year, saving about $14,000.

But, as Miller reminds us, “It’s not about replacing the honey bee, it’s about providing as much information as possible so growers can make informed decisions about pollination management.” Miller and many researchers at Penn State are working towards a more resilient pollinator community for generations to come.