Cataloging Minnesota’s native bees

Through the University Insect Collection, the Department of Natural Resources seeks to track and analyze the impact of the climate crisis on bees native to the state.

by Becca Most, Campus Activities Reporter

Using the University of Minnesota Insect Collection, a team of bee researchers at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is tracking and studying native bees in the hope of understanding how the insects have been impacted by the climate crisis.

Because researchers do not have a comprehensive list of which bees are native to Minnesota, they do not know much about these insects.

By collecting and studying native bees, future research will examine deeper questions about migration patterns and changes to bee habitats, said Robin Thomson, the University’s Insect Collection curator. Through this, the Minnesota DNR has been able to put together a historical picture of which bees have lived in the state and when, she said.

This research will also help scientists predict what bee species they would expect to find today, Thomson said.

“There are some species that maybe have shifted ranges. They’re being found in different counties, which might correlate to changes in land use for agricultural reasons,” she said.

Some bee species that the DNR has found in the past are no longer popping up in their recent surveys.

“There’s a question of where did they go? And why did they move?” Thomson said.

Nicole Gerjets, the bee survey specialist for the DNR’s Minnesota Biological Survey, has been leading a survey of native bees since 2017. Part of this project, which has continued in the pandemic, is creating a baseline survey documenting what bees are present around the state.

Gerjets and her team have already covered the western and northeastern areas of Minnesota, with next year being their last field sweep through the state. The project is anticipated to finish in 2023 and is funded by the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund, as recommended by the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources.

The commission makes funding recommendations to the Minnesota legislature for environmental and natural resource projects.

The survey work includes physically capturing bees in the spring and summer, sorting through and identifying the bees, then pinning and labeling each one. The information is then entered into a database, and the bees are stored at the University’s Insect Collection.

A case of Borealis Kirby bees, a type of bumble bee, is displayed as part of the Insect Collection for the University of Minnesota’s Department of Entomology on Thursday, Nov. 19. (Audrey Rauth)

So far, the team has collected around 45,000 specimens, tens of thousands of which have been donated to the University Insect Collection, Gerjets said. The University collection has over 65,000 bees in storage, both native and nonnative to Minnesota.

“We can’t know what we need to conserve unless we know what we have,” said Jessica Petersen, a research scientist at the DNR who also is involved with the Minnesota Biological Survey. “Bees are incredibly diverse. So, it’s really important to be able to look into what bees we have here in the state … and be able to see what makes them so diverse.”

With around 450 bee species in Minnesota, she said there are many questions that need answers, such as the long-term impact of the climate crisis on bees.

Typically, surveyed bees are thrown away after they are catalogued, Petersen said. But once the data is collected, these bees will be transferred to the University’s collection, where they will be available to anyone who needs them.

“We hear about pollinator decline in the popular press, but we don’t have any numbers to put to that,” she said. “A lot of the initial pollinator decline interest and worry was with respect to honeybees, which are not native, and it’s just one species.”

Because native bees are different biologically and ecologically from honeybees, Petersen said they are likely being impacted by environmental change in different ways. Without knowing what bees are out there, they will not know the effects.

“People talk about pollinator habitat and pollinator decline as if it’s one species, and it’s really 450,” she said. “If we don’t ask questions about how they’re interacting with the environment, we can’t know how to help save them either.”