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Episode 127: To bee or not to bee

The Bee Lab is a research center focused on promoting bee education and conservation with projects like pollinator gardens at the U.

MAYA ATHERLY-LARSEN: Hey there busy bees! I’m Maya Atherly-Larsen, your host from the Minnesota Daily, and you’re tuning into In The Know, the podcast that brings you all the latest on the University of Minnesota.

You guys hear that? You better bee-leive we are talking about bees! The UMN Bee Laboratory, nestled within CFANS, is dedicated to all things relating to bee conservation, including direct field work and outreach. One important project includes the construction of campus wide pollinator rain gardens. These gardens serve a dual purpose: aiding in the filtration of rainwater to remove pollutants and replenishing the soil, all while offering a thriving ecosystem for pollinators. 

Rain gardens are used to help filter out pollutants from the rain and be reabsorbed into the soil and are typically populated by deep-rooted native plants. These plants help provide food and habitat for many pollinators. They also help soil health, birds and our water systems. Elaine Evans, associate professor in wild bee diversity and conservation explains.

ELAINE EVANS: There are a few different pollinator projects going on around the Twin Cities campus and continuing to grow too, I believe. So there are the gardens I’m most involved in are those that are right around the Bee Lab, which was a new building that was built, I believe it’s six years ago now. So part of the building being put in is then we were able to design the gardens around there. So we focused on native pollinator friendly plants. We also wanted to have rain gardens and, and you know, dealing with our water runoff from the building and all of that through the bee campus program, we’ve also worked to map the pollinator habitat all over campus. So there’s a lot of different pieces of really nice pollinator habitat and we actually have a story map that can lead you around if you want to go on a tour of all the pollinator gardens on campus. 

ATHERLY-LARSEN: The U has pollinator gardens spread across all three sections of campus, but the main gardens are located in St. Paul. These gardens are tended to by Bee Lab faculty and members of the Bee Squad, a campus organization dedicated to preserving pollinators. You can find the story map that Evans mentioned on the UMN extension website under “UMN Twin Cities Bee Campus.” This interactive map updates whenever new habitats are discovered or created.

Rain gardens are thoughtfully designed, hosting specific native plants and flowers to ensure effective runoff filtration and provide a diverse habitat for pollinators. When designing the garden around the Bee Lab, Evans and the rest of the team collaborated with a landscape architect to determine the ideal plant placements. 

EVANS: A few of us all looked at this list, thought about what different kinds of bees would use those plants, tried to make sure that we had something blooming, all through the season. So we, especially, focusing kind of on early and late in the season because those are kind of harder to get things blooming. We also wanted to make sure we had different types of plants.

So we’ve got forbs, flowers that kind of, you know, die back. We’ve got trees. We’ve got shrubs. We tried to make sure we had a wide variety. 

ATHERLY-LARSEN: As beneficial as these rain gardens are for bee conservation, they do require a fair amount of maintenance and upkeep. But that’s the nice thing about working with native plants: they’re adapted to be here. 

EVANS: And especially if you’re planting the right ones in the right place. So we did have to look at that when we were planting things, thinking about how much light they get, how much water they get. You know, is this usually a prairie plant? Is it usually in the woods? You know, making sure that we put plants where they would do well. So there’s a lot of just regular weeding that needs to be done to make sure that we’re keeping that diversity, that we don’t have just a handful of our plants that are taking over the whole garden.

ATHERLY-LARSEN: Aside from rain and pollinator gardens, the Bee Squad and Lab are dedicated to research and outreach for bee conservation. Stephen Tolentino, a Bee Squad student member, shares insights into his work.

STEPHEN TOLENTINO: So I will do like tabling events across the Twin Cities. Presentations, for example, at the state fair this year on the dirt stage, I presented about bees. I also have taught classes, I guess. We’ll go around to little younger kids, like K through 12. I’ve also, like, sold honey at farmers markets. As for research, I’ve painted, like, put little dots on live bees before. Yeah, I helped with little research projects like that. I’ve done like, bumblebee counts. So like, we’ll go out into the fields and just count, capture bumblebees and count them.

ATHERLY-LARSEN: The bee lab collaborates with various groups and organizations to help create programs for a variety of communities. Some include the Mentoring Apiary Program, the Bees in Prison program, and the Bee Exchange, which is a global partnership that connects the bee lab and various beekeepers from around the world. 

EVANS: Besides our research, we do a lot of outreach and mentoring. We also partner with a bunch of different organizations that are interested in bees, interested in supporting bees. So there’s a wide network, bee, there’s a bee network that we have of many different organizations.

ATHERLY-LARSEN: In addition to community programs, the U offers a couple of courses related to bee conservation. The freshman seminar “Got Bees?” introduces students to basic concepts of bee conservation. 

EVANS: There’s also a class on social insects that covers a lot of that. There are a couple other classes through entomology that also will talk about pollinators a good deal as well. 

ATHERLY-LARSEN: The bee labs work on rain gardens, community outreach and research has been continuous with no plans on stopping. The team plans on extending outwards, improving education and expanding gardens with new plant additions.

EVANS: We’re always looking at opportunities to improve the gardens, the gardens around the bee lab. The focus the last few years has been more on improving the kind of educational value. So we’ve been trying to add more signs to the garden that explain what’s happening, why we’re doing things, as well as just little plant signs so people can see what plants are where. And even though we have always focused on diversity, we always are thinking of other plants that we want to add to the garden.

One of the things that we’ve been doing more now that our garden is really well established, we’ve been able to also share out more. So one of the great things with native plants is a lot of them are really good at producing seeds. You can take these seeds and collect them and it’s a much less expensive way to be able to grow native plants.

ATHERLY-LARSEN: So, why is bee conservation important? 

TOLENTINO: Bees and other pollinators, they make up like a third of the food that we eat. So, and most of that is produce. Without bees and other pollinators, we just won’t have a lot of food like that. And, you know, a third of our food source being missing is obviously a big issue. That and like obviously they play a role in like the ecosystem and like, for example bumblebees are the only ones that can, are the only insects that can like pollinate tomato plants through a process called buzz pollination. Losing bumblebees for example just means like, Oh, we’d have to pollinate tomato plants by hand, which is a lot more work, a lot harder to do. Without these little bugs we’ll just lose a lot.

ATHERLY-LARSEN: If they’re interested, what are some ways in which students and community members can help? 

EVANS: One of the best things you can do is to look at how you can improve habitat. So, not everybody may have a garden that they’re working with. But if you do have a garden, looking at the flowers that are there, looking at areas in your garden that you can leave alone, because bees not only need those flowers to eat, they also need places to live.

ATHERLY-LARSEN: According to Evans, something easy you can do is leave plants alone. Having messy corners of your garden and keeping pots empty can actually be beneficial.

EVANS: I know, especially students are moving around a lot, doing a lot of different things on your plate. Just being aware of pollinators, making sure that you are paying attention to what’s happening politically and legislatively. There’s a lot of important impacts that our political system can have on how things are for bees.

ATHERLY-LARSEN: Tolentino mentioned there are over 500 different species of native bees in Minnesota, and just like us, it’s important for bees to have a balanced diet. So one of the best ways to help is to plant a variety of native flowers, ensuring a diverse source for food and habitat options.

TOLENTINO: I know a lot of people who want to help bees, like what comes to mind to them is like, ‘Oh, I could be, become a beekeeper.’ Honeybees are actually pretty stable because they are essentially farm animals. They’re, you know, taken care of and managed by beekeepers. But these native pollinators that are not managed by beekeepers, they’re the ones who need the most help. Because one, I don’t think people are very aware that there are more than just honeybees and bumblebees.

You gotta have a balanced diet to stay healthy. Bees are the same way. Planting flowers that bloom like consecutively throughout the year. So like, from early spring to late fall. That’s really important. Make sure they have like a good food source so they stay healthy. A variety of plants so that they get the nutrients that they need.

ATHERLY-LARSEN: So next time you’re on a walk around campus, maybe stop and smell the flowers. But before we buzz off, here’s one for you: what’s a bee’s favorite sport? Rug-bee.

This episode was written by Maya Atherly-Larsen and produced by Kaylie Sirovy. As always, we appreciate you listening and feel free to leave us an email at [email protected] with comments or questions. I’m Maya, and this is In The Know.

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