UIC Biologists Poll Pollinators for Urban Agriculture

"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 University of Illinois at Chicago biologists hope their research will take the guesswork out of urban agriculture.

Emily Minor, assistant professor of biological sciences at UIC, and Kevin Matteson, a visiting research assistant professor working in Minor's 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 carrying purple coneflowers, or Echinacea purpurea, along with flowering cucumbers and eggplants, around Chicago next summer to different residential and industrial neighborhoods. 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.

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

The three plant species chosen for study represent flowers, like Echinacea, that are pollinated by many different bees, and vegetables, like eggplant, that need specific pollinators, such as bumble bees, which 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 that some plants have very low pollination rates while others do just fine."

"People have studied this in agricultural areas," Minor said. "Putting it together in an urban area is new."

The test neighborhoods will also 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, said Matteson. "Most bees are soil-nesting species," he said. "Are the bees able to find cracks in sidewalks to nest?"

Minor and Matteson hope their findings will provide more information about which pollinators need to 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," said Minor. "They want to know whether or not they're going to get a cucumber."

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