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Take Note: Entomologist Margarita López-Uribe on the preservation and identification of bees in Pa.

Take Note: Margarita Lopez-Uribe
Dr. Margarita Lopez-Uribe

On this episode of Take Note on WPSU, we talked with Penn State professor Dr. Margarita Lopez-Uribe about a recent bee monitoring project with the Penn State Extension Master Gardners and the environmental threats facing bee populations.

Here's the conversation:

John Weber 
Welcome to Take Note on WPSU. I'm John Weber. Today we are talking with Dr. Margarita López-Uribe. López-Uribe is an assistant professor of entomology at the College of Agricultural Sciences at Penn State and has published several works related to bees and their effects on pollination and agriculture. The López Uribe lab recently began a bee monitoring project with 10 Penn State Extension Master Gardeners spread across Pennsylvania. This project aims to collect data on a large scale and encourage environmental stewardship of native bee species. Margarita, thank you for talking with us today.

Margarita López-Uribe  
Thank you, John, for the invitation. This is really exciting.

John Weber 
In the past you've said you're not a beekeeper, but it seems like you spend a lot of time around bees. How have bees influenced your research?

Margarita López-Uribe  
When most people think about bees, they think about honeybees and beekeeping. And my background in bees started with wild bees in the tropical rainforest in Colombia. That's where I'm from. I grew up in Colombia, did my bachelor’s there. And so, I really started my life as a scientist investigating bees because I wanted to understand how deforestation of the Amazon was impacting wild bees there. And then, you know, like I continued my training, continued studying bees, and you know, genetics, evolution, and conservation. And then I arrived to Penn State. And I am now working as an extension specialist in pollinator health. And so, part of my job is to help beekeepers work on management practices that help them sustain healthier honeybee colonies, right, and more sustainable kind of beekeeping operations. So, my exposure to honeybee research actually came really late in life, in my scientific, you know, career. And so right now, I think one of the things that I really enjoy, or I would say like the flagships of our research and extension program, is how to help develop practices that are going to help conserve wild bees. And help honeybees that are you know, managed, and kept in operations.

John Weber 
Are you ever surprised by the organized behavior of bees? I've heard that honeybees are very social and collaborative and different from other bees.

Margarita López-Uribe  
I mean, honeybees are fascinating organisms because they have very complex...they live in very complex societies, they have very complex behaviors. They use a lot of like chemical cues to kind of like organize their societies, right. But yeah, as you mentioned, honeybees are really outliers among bees and only 10% of all the bees on the earth are social. And even when species or social, most of species don't show those complex, you know, like behaviors in large colonies, large societies like honeybees. So in many ways, honeybees are very unique and different from a biological perspective than most other bees.

John Weber 
I know a lot of your research involves feral bees, in my mind that sounds like bees that are wild and free doing their own thing. But what makes feral bees different from other bees?

Margarita López-Uribe  
Yeah, so the name of feral bee comes from the fact that honeybees are actually not native from the US. They were introduced when Europeans arrived to the new world. So of course, they were brought here because the settlers were interested in, you know, starting beekeeping for honey production. But because of the reproductive biology of honeybees, they naturally swarm, right. So, you can keep them in bee boxes, right like and do a great job with beekeeping. But they naturally when the colony starts growing, they're going to have this tendency to swarm. And so very early on when they arrived, colonies that were, you know, bee boxes...well, in that time, we didn't have you know, bee boxes, they weren't kept differently. But they swarm and then they colonize basically, wild environments. Feral bees are less abundant to these days because of all the problems with pests that honeybees have to deal with. And so that's part of what we study, right. Like how is it that feral colonies that don't have any sort of like help from beekeepers managing diseases and pests, how is it that they are surviving? They do exist and that's why we call them feral because they are basically escapees of colonies that were managed at some point. And so that's different from wild bees, which have never had that kind of history.

John Weber 
Could you talk a little bit more about the pests that are facing bees? I know that there are little mites that live in bee colonies and make problems for the bees themselves. But what are some other issues that are facing bees right now?

Margarita López-Uribe  
One of the major problems for honeybees these days are varroa mites, which I think is the mite that you're referring to. That mite is a relatively recent past of the Western honeybee. That mite actually evolved with Asian honeybees. And because, you know, now the Western honeybees found everywhere, it jumped to a different host, and now it's spread all throughout the world. I think there are only a couple of places on the planet that don't have varroa mites. And one of those places is Australia. And they have very strict, you know, like regulations...eventually it will get there but, you know, like they do their best to keep the pests you know, outside. And so yeah, so basically is, you know, like any colony in the United States has a varroa mites right, like they have 100% prevalence. One of the problems is that they transfer a lot of viruses. It is not only the varroa mite, but the problem of the viruses that get transmitted, and that weakens the immune system of the bees. And in of course, it becomes kind of an energetic, you know, like problem for the bee because they're fighting diseases compromised nutritionally. And so, I think, you know, varroa mites are one of the main problems that beekeepers have these days.

John Weber 
How are people affecting bee populations? And what are some of the problems that bees face from human interaction?

Margarita López-Uribe  
I think one of the major things that is changing, this is not only for bees for, like, in general, right, like most animal and plants are suffering from habitat loss, right. So humans have been transforming landscapes for centuries now. So, the availability of floral resources is definitely you know, like a problem. Bees don't have as many floral resources available, because humans have modified, you know, like large proportions of the landscape all across the planet. Now, that in some ways, right now, there are some conflicts between what to do to feed honeybees, and what to do, to feed wild bees, because those are separate issues. Honeybees are managed pollinators. And they are introduced, they are not native from the US. And so, as a result, really, you know, like they are social, right, so every colony that you have, and you place anywhere has 10s of 1000s of you know, like individuals that are foraging in the landscape. And so, it has become a little bit problematic because we need foraging resources for both, right? But because the foraging resources are so limited, this is creating a little bit of conflict between how do we conserve wild bees? And how do we provide enough floral resources for managed honey? Right. So well, that's, that's a little bit of a kind of like a separate problem for wild bees and honeybees. But another major problem is pesticides. So, we like we're getting better at producing pesticides that are way more effective killing pests, right. Like they are way more toxic. They stay in the environment longer. I mean, these pesticides do their job, they kill insects that are pests. But you know, like, there are kind of unintended consequences for beneficial insects like pollinators. And then I mean, what we see is that there are synergistic effects with you know, like poor nutrition and pesticide exposure. And I think these makes, in general, these more susceptible to pests and diseases. Right. So, it's a complex problem.

John Weber 
You mentioned that honeybees aren't native to North America, but have you seen honeybees evolve or change in other parts of the world?

Margarita López-Uribe  
I consider myself an evolutionary biologist. So that aspect of you know, like honeybee, evolutionary history, I find fascinating. The Western honeybee, which is the species that was brought here, and he's used all throughout the world for beekeeping actually has a tremendous amount of diversity within the species, right. So, there are five main major lineages and that are over 20 sub species that, you know, like vary in color, behavior adaptations to climate, adaptations to local floral resources. And now with the beginning of beekeeping in humans, you know, like moving things around the world, of course, you know, like, all of that has changed, right. And so, what we have here in the US is really a mixture of many of these lineages that have been brought to the US, you know, like for centuries. So, there is really interesting research that Brock Harper, who is at Purdue University has done on the genetic diversity of honeybees in in North America. And basically, what he shows is that actually, because of all of these admixtures between different sub-species of honeybees, the overall genetic diversity of the population Since here tend to be higher than in many of the native areas. Because basically, as you know, like you have brought a lot of different things, and they have intermixed here. And then we have, you know, like breeding programs within the US. And so, we are actually doing a project right now comparing how he said that these different genetic stocks that have been bred for different traits, kind of like how well they behave in beekeeping operations in Pennsylvania. And it's fascinating, like, I cannot share the details because it's a blind study right now. So, we're working with 10 beekeepers in Pennsylvania, we gave them Queens colored with different colors, they don't know what genetic stocks they have. And they have been, you know, like, basically managing them. And the differences are mind blowing. Right. So, we hope that, you know, like using genetics...I think the end goal with this project is to help beekeepers use genetics and rely less on chemicals, for example, the pest problems, the mite problem that they have. I guess, going back to your question, are honeybees evolving in the US, I mean, there is of course natural, you know, like, processes of, you know, changes in adaptation, but because humans have such a huge, you know, like print in the evolution of the species because they are managed, I think what we see is that the breeding programs are having the greatest kind of contributions to you know, like, if you want to call it like the evolution of honeybees in the US.

John Weber 
From what I'm hearing, it sounds like the bee family tree in America is really large with all these branches kind of stemming from the honeybee. Sounds like human influence is a really big factor in the changes in honeybees, right?

Margarita López-Uribe  
Yeah, the honeybees, because then you know, if we talk about the other bees, right, like in Pennsylvania, we have 437 species recorded here. And, again, of those 437, I think we have a little bit over 20 that are introduced, but only the honeybee is you know, managed and kind of like, selectively bred for certain traits.

John Weber 
As these bees have been introduced to a state like Pennsylvania, have you or your team seen an increase in flowering plants or crops that have benefited from more bees being around? My thought is that with more bees, you would think there would be more pollination, right?

Margarita López-Uribe  
These introduced species are shaping floral diversity. There are some studies, you know, in Europe, and you know, like here in the US from what I know, that hasn't been very well studied broadly speaking. What I can share is that one of the reasons why honeybees are managed and some of these other bees were introduced to the US is because we, you know, we were thinking about pollination services for crops, right. And so, the couple of studies that we have done on crop pollination, in Pennsylvania actually gives us very good news. Pollination services that we're getting from managed pollinators in combination with wild pollinators generally, is serving the needs of the crops, right. Like, I don't think we have evidence of serious problems on crop pollination in Pennsylvania. Does that mean that the bees are not, you know, like not doing well? That's a separate issue. Right. And so, I think there's less emphasis on pollination of wild rare plants. We just for example, we just started a project on endangered plant species in Pennsylvania, because I think your question is very valid, right. Like how are these changing things, changes in the pollinator community impacting bio plants? And I think we know far less about that.

John Weber 
If you're just joining us, this is Take Note on WPSU. I'm John Weber and today we are talking with Penn State assistant professor of entomology Dr. Margarita López-Uribe about environmental stewardship, and bees. Margarita, the recent Penn State Extension Master Gardeners bee monitoring program that your team has started seems like a really big project. You need to train people in different parts of the state on the collection and identification. But how did this project begin?

Margarita López-Uribe  
So that project was really motivated by a project that preceded that one where we wanted to compile a list of the bees of Pennsylvania, right. So, a student in my lab, Shelby Kilpatrick, she spent years collecting information from databases, from museum collections. And compiling you know, like this list all of these available in our website. If you know anyone who's curious and would like to see you know what species are in PA. And so, one of the things that we noticed when we were plotting the data on the species of bee records across Pennsylvania, by county. We realized that there were counties in Pennsylvania where we had like maybe one species ever recorded. So, there's these huge gaps of information. So, we have the university effect, right. So anywhere where you have a university, of course, you have a lot of research. So, the numbers go up to 100, 150, 200 species for that county. But then there are all of these corners of the state where we have no information. Actually, doing this kind of work is very time consuming. It's very labor intensive. So, we thought, okay, this is a great opportunity to engage members of our community to help us kind of like solve this puzzle, right? Like, what are the bees that are in those parts of the state. But as I was saying, you know, this sort of project is very time consuming. And so, while you know, like, community science is a fantastic idea, there are so many community science projects these days. However, you know, like you really need participants in these projects who are very committed and interested in participating. And so, when we were thinking, okay, what group could really have the time and the interest in participating in a monitor and Bee monitoring program, it was a no brainer. Master Gardeners were our first choice because my experience working with Master Gardeners for the past, you know, like few years, is that they are really naturalists. They of course, they have their gardens, but they are really inspired by the biodiversity that is attracted by those gardens. We started this program, this year as a pilot. So we opened, you know, the registration, we only have 10 spots available. We had 150 applicants.

John Weber 
Wow, that's a lot. That's a lot of applicants.

Margarita López-Uribe  
I know. It was. So, it was a really tough decision, because I'm sure you know, like most of those people who were applying are really interested in, you know, contributing and participating. So, we had to make some tough choices, mostly driven by geography, because we were really interested in filling out those gaps. We just finished the pilot this year with these 10 wonderful participants. And I must tell you, they're spending many, many hours doing the sampling, processing the bees, databasing them, right. Yeah, we'll see a goal is to have long term data on you know, what's out there. And is it changing over time. This is year one.

John Weber 
When I was reading more about this project between your lab and the Penn State Extension Master Gardeners, there was mention of two types of methods to collect the bees. One was through netting, which makes sense using a net to kind of catch bees. But the other one was through use of traps. Do you think you could talk a little bit more about how bees are collected in this particular study?

Margarita López-Uribe  
Yeah, I guess, you know, when you picture an entomologist, usually you picture someone with a with a net right, like just collecting bugs. And so that is, you know, like a very kind of intuitive way of doing it. But it is very hard to standardize it. For these projects, we want to have a standardized sampling because people have different abilities to net, right. And so, some people are very skilled and can net many individuals or insects, you know, like per hour. Some may be a little bit slower. And the other thing is that, I mean, of course, we net things that we can see, right and so that are all of these biases towards you know, like bees that are larger and maybe slower. So netting is very important. And you know, actually, it helps with these sort of monitoring programs, but it has all of these biases. So, a way to complement netting is using these traps that you can use passively, right. And so basically the premise of these traps is that you use colors that attract the flying you know, insects and pollinators visually to the traps and then you just put like soapy water inside the trap. Traps are easy to standardize because you can tell someone okay, you're going to put the strap, you know, these distance from each other, you're going to let them x-number of hours. And so, the sampling effort is you know standardized across all the participants of the project. So, for these projects, we're using bee bowls, which are you know, like little plastic cups that you put on the ground, and they're colored blue, white and yellow. Which are colors that generally attract pollinating insects. And that is combined with blue vein traps which are above ground so there is they're basically hanging from a pole that you know, like we give the participants. Usually you know, like these passive ways of collecting bees is very effective for a large group of the native pollinator diversity.

John Weber 
In the summer, I know when you wear a white or yellow shirt, oftentimes a bee will kind of buzz near you or be attracted to you. And people will say, "Oh, you have a friend, that's a bee, right?" But are certain bee species more attracted to the blue, yellow? And the white? Or are others bee species attracted to different colors?

Margarita López-Uribe  
And I don't really think I remember the details. But there are studies out there actually looking at the efficiency of these different colors. And you know, like, what colors attract different types of pollinators? So, there are differences. I don't remember exactly, you know, what group is attracted to what color? But yeah, I think your intuition of that the colors are different. And different bees you know are perceiving light and color in different ways.

John Weber 
I know that a big part of this project was education. Really explaining to populations, the importance of bees, being good bee stewards, but also really understanding how vital this knowledge is for all the communities in Pennsylvania. Could you talk a little bit more about the education portion of this project?

Margarita López-Uribe  
Yeah, I think that's one of the most powerful aspects of these projects. And one of the aspects that is really motivating for me. So, one of them the things that he's you know, like happening, because we're working with Master Gardeners within Penn State Extension, which have kind of like these county level hierarchical structure is that these Master Gardeners are becoming kind of like the ambassadors of the project, in their local communities, right. And so, what we're hoping to do is to give these master gardeners, that are directly part of the program, a really advanced level of education in entomology and collection methods, databasing, some identification skills, right, like, basically, they're being trained as entomologists. But then what we're seeing is that there are these kind of like trickle-down effects from this sort of framework. We are having, you know, like, of course, these Master Gardeners are working in their houses. So, you know, they have kind of their own entomology lab within their houses. And so family members come and you know, like they are learning about, you know, bees, and you know, how to collect them and how to pin them. And you know, what makes a bee, bee and not a fly, all of these things. And then the other thing, so that's one kind of like trickle-down effect. The other effect is that there is a lot of community work among Master Gardeners at the county level. And so, in that way, we are seeing a lot of education among the Master Gardeners at the local level. I mean, they think that the goal is to really raise awareness of the role of bees and the importance of these native bees. Right. I think that honeybees because we have these long history...long history with honeybees and honey production, beekeeping, they have received all the attention about bees for a long time. And so, a lot of people are not even aware, right that we have all of these other bees that don't get a lot of press, but that are equally important or even more important for the for the environment, in some contexts. Higher level education that we're doing directly with the master gardeners. And then these participants are...they are training and educating a lot of people in their local communities about the project and about bees.

John Weber 
Bees tend to be really popular right now in the media, there's lots of stories, documentaries, films, etc. But when there's that much media attention and kind of eyes on bees, are there things that you'd wish everyone knew about taking care of bees?

Margarita López-Uribe  
And I think there's a lot of misinformation. I mean, I do think that a lot of people, they, you know, like they worry about the bees, and they want to help the bees and they become beekeepers. And you know, being a beekeeper is really hard, you know, like it's not only about buying bees in a box, and you know, like letting them be. Like you need to work your bees, you need to feed them, you need to treat them for diseases, right. And so, basically what we are seeing, especially, for example, in urban centers is that a lot of people who want to help the bees are becoming beekeepers. But poor beekeepers. For example, the problem with pests is getting worse because of the high density of honeybees and because the beekeepers are not doing their job treating the bees. And then these bees are basically decimating all the floral resources available. And so, it's not helping, you know, the honeybees, it's not helping the wild bees right. Like I think it is important to get you know the message right about you know what the problem is and if you want to help, what is the best way of you know, helping.

John Weber 
On the subject of helping bees. Are there ways for non-beekeepers, non-bee researchers to kind of help bees survive and thrive?

Margarita López-Uribe  
Absolutely. One of the big problems that we have right now is that there is not enough food for bees, right. There is a major limitation of floral resources. So, if you have a garden, try to plant floral resources that are going to be good for bee. So, this is another...there is a very good program through the Master Gardeners actually at Penn State. We have...they have a lot of resources about, you know, what are plants that are going to be good for bees. Most of the plants that you know, like the ornamentals, you know, like have been bred for, you know, like being beautiful and colorful and shiny. They are not really good, you know, like bee plants, right? Like, again, they have been selected for things that we find pleasing to our eyes, not necessarily ecologically functional. So, if you would like to help, I think there's a lot of information through Penn State Extension and you know, like, I think in general like the Xerces Society is another great source of information about you know, what plants to plant. Having perfect green lawns is great, right? But those environments are totally ecologically inert. Like there is nothing there for anything besides you know, our eyes. I started convincing my husband for example, to you know, like leave some of the dandelions in our lawn right. It's okay, they are providing, you know, like some floral resources for bees. The other kind of like, easy thing is to...if you are applying herbicides or pesticides in your lawn or in your garden, do your research and make sure that you know, like you're not overusing. You know, like we say that homeowners don't have you know, pesticide licenses, right. So, for example, in agriculture, people who apply pesticides they need to get training, they understand you know, like pesticide labels. In our homes, we just go to you know, Home Depot or Lowe's, right, and we get like a something and we just, you know, use it kind of like following our intuition or you know like having some understanding of the label. And, yeah, the overuse of pesticides, you know, like, it's definitely...I mean, it is not only going to kill your pests, but also you know, like anything else that is in your garden.

John Weber 
Margarita, thank you so much for talking with us today.

Margarita López-Uribe  
Thank you, John.

John Weber 
Margarita López-Uribe is a Penn State professor of entomology at the College of Agricultural Sciences, and recently began a bee monitoring project across Pennsylvania with the Penn State Extension Master Gardeners program. For more information on López-Uribe's work, and other episodes of Take Note, visit wpsu.org/takenote. I'm John Weber, WPSU.

Check out resources for pollinator health and conversation from the Xerces Society

Research updates and past work can be found at The López-Uribe Lab website.

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