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To bee, or not to bee?

Biologists study urban pollination

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Biologist Emily Minor

Biologist Emily Minor examines purple coneflowers wrapped in mesh cloth to keep off insects. She is studying the variety and quality of insect pollinators in the city’s residential and industrial areas.

Photo: Matthew Kaplan

“Eat locally, grow locally” has become a mantra of today’s move to a more sustainable lifestyle.

But growing fruits and vegetables in your own neighborhood often depends on some helping hands — or legs and wings — from an army of insect pollinators, notably bees.

Living in a city poses particular problems of having enough bees, of the right type, and at the crucial time, to pollinate crop plants. Two UIC biologists hope their research will take the guesswork out of urban agriculture.

“People have studied this in agricultural areas. Putting it together in an urban area is new,” says Emily Minor, assistant professor of biological sciences.

Minor and Kevin Matteson, a visiting research assistant professor working in her laboratory, received a $150,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study how different city landscapes and neighborhoods affect the variety and quantity of insect pollinators.

They will drive a flatbed pickup around Chicago next summer, visiting different residential and industrial neighborhoods. Their load? Purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea), flowering cucumbers and eggplants.

Matteson, who did a comparable but more limited study in New York as a postdoctoral researcher, will identify and count which bees visit which flowering plants, and how long the bees stay at the traveling garden patch.

The researchers will gauge the bees’ visiting patterns at different times of day. Some flowers will be wrapped with a mesh cloth to keep insects off and determine fruit size when there are no pollinators.

The three plant species chosen for study represent flowers — like echinacea, which are pollinated by many different bees — and vegetables, which need specific pollinators like bumble bees to buzz and help release pollen while visiting.

“We predict the number of different bee species at a location will be related to the consistency of pollination across the three plant species,” Minor says.

“There may be some places where there are lots and lots of individual bees, but representing only a few species, and some plants that have very low pollination rates while others do just fine.”

The test neighborhoods will be surveyed for nearby flowers that may attract bees. Some bees are partial to certain flowers, which can affect the diversity of bee species in an area and determine whether it’s a good place to grow vegetables.

Open patches of soil are important too, says Matteson.

“Most bees are soil-nesting species,” he says. “Are the bees able to find cracks in sidewalks to nest?”

Minor and Matteson hope their findings will provide more information about which pollinators should be encouraged in the urban landscape.

Even small backyard gardeners may benefit from the research.

“Pollination service is the thing that most people who aren’t really conservation-minded really care about,” Minor says.

“They want to know whether or not they’re going to get a cucumber.”


Photo: Iyan Xiao

Over 100 bee species live in the Chicago region. Many are important pollinators, explain biologists Emily Minor and Kevin Matteson.

bees and flower

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