New Research Focuses on Bees

Image: New Research Focuses on Bees

Research has come full circle for Jessie (Lanterman) Novotny, Ph.D., adjunct professor of biology at Hiram College. The 2010 alumna of the College spent her days as a biology undergraduate student working as an animal caregiver and research assistant at the James H. Barrow Biological Field Station, which also happens to be the same place she is conducting research today on bees alongside her own students.

Previously, she conducted research on bumble bee diversity, distribution, and flower preferences at more than 300 locations across Ohio with several other project leaders and principal investigators from The Ohio State University, University of Akron, and Environmental Solutions and Innovations, Inc. With ongoing reductions in the amount and quality of pollinator habitats worldwide, the research specifically focused on efforts to improve habitats for bees. The initial project lasted from 2017-2019 and two articles were published from the data collected.

Now, Dr. Novotny looks to bring awareness and further study on the topic to Hiram’s Field Station. Recently, she constructed wooden nest boxes to enable study of the nesting ecology of wild bees. The boxes hold stacks of grooved trays that provide nesting sites for a certain group of wild bees that prefer standing dead and woody plant stems, including mason bees (Osmia) and the leafcutter bee (Megachile rotundata). Both species are now raised commercially as alternatives to honeybees and are considered economically important pollinators for fruit trees.

The boxes have been placed in the restored native tallgrass prairie, a project led by and continues to be tended by Emliss Ricks, land stewardship manager at the Field Station. For the next few years, Dr. Novotny will work with student research assistants and use the nest boxes to study how the prairie improves foraging habitat for wild bees. She will also experiment with nest box designs to determine the best means for attracting the bees, increasing their populations, and minimizing parasites.

This past summer, Dr. Novotny worked with a biology student intern at the Field Station, Brian Friedt ’24. As part of his internship, Friedt collected bees and their pollen, monitored nest boxes for activity, and surveyed the abundance and types of flowers the bees collected pollen from.

“Bees are such an important part of terrestrial ecosystems,” said Friedt. “They are the main reason why flowering plants are so widespread today. The short-term goal of our research is to develop an effective nest box and soil bucket to collect brood (eggs, larvae, and pupae of honeybees), so the bees can be brought to areas that need more pollinators, such as agricultural areas. In that respect, I feel that the work we are doing is important for not only the bees, but flowering plants as well.”

In addition to the nest boxes for twig-nesting bees, Dr. Novotny is experimenting with designs for creating artificial nest sites for soil-nesting bees in buckets filled with loose, sandy soil. Most of Ohio’s 100 plus wild bee species dig tiny burrows in well-drained soil to nest.

“This new research seeks to explore non-lethal ways to study wild pollinators beyond the non-native managed honeybee, by learning about what we can do to promote their nesting activities and maintain healthy populations,” said Dr. Novotny.

Inspiration Behind the Research

Dr. Novotny was inspired to pursue botany by the late Matt Hils, who was a professor of biology and director of the Field Station during her time as a student at the College. After her graduation from Hiram, Dr. Novotny worked as a seasonal field botanist at Cleveland Metroparks, where she monitored forest vegetation in the Cleveland forests. From there, she began her own research on plants and pollinator ecology under the guidance of Karen Goodell, Ph.D., associate professor at The Ohio State University, while pursuing her doctoral degree in ecology.

New Research Focuses on Bees

“As humans, we sometimes feel disconnected and forget that the natural world sustains us. To give back in appreciation for that, the greatest tribute I can think of is to try to promote the well-being of species like bees that we rely on. And good environmental choices that will sustain our way of life should be based on high-quality scientific data.”

Dr. Novotny

Her research was conducted in southern Ohio on how wild bee communities recover over time on former coal mines that have been reclaimed to grassland. Following her graduation, she continued her research in Dr. Goodell’s lab as a post-doctoral researcher and helped lead a statewide survey of Ohio’s bumble bees and their floral preferences. The project primarily focused on the federally endangered species known as the rusty patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis), and whether the species still existed in Ohio. She was motivated to do further research on the species because it was common in Ohio just 30 years ago and has since
disappeared, which led her to focus on how to prevent other common species from meeting the same fate.

“Humans have the capability to bring unprecedented amounts of change very quickly to natural systems,” said Dr. Novotny. “Pollinators, like other animals, can have difficulty finding food, mates, and nest sites in the wake of the landscape-scale changes that we make. In addition to habitat loss and degradation, chronic exposure to pesticides negatively impacts many pollinators, not just honeybees.”

Environmental changes create winners and losers, which lead some species to decline and others to adapt and thrive. While Dr. Novotny knows that some bees and other pollinators are in decline from the combined pressure of lack of habitat, increased diseases, and exposure to pesticides, she does not believe that all bees will disappear if we as humans continue to do our part in preserving their ecosystems.