Shedding light on pollinators

Jessica Rykken, associate researcher at Harvard University, works on capturing bees for research in North Cascades National Park in the state of Washington. Rykken will be studying pollinators in Shenandoah National Park this summer. Courtesy photo by Gina Rochefort.

Jessica Rykken is looking to shed some light on pollinator diversity.

As a self-employed entomologist consultant with an associate affiliation with the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University, Rykken has been exploring and observing this issue for almost a decade.

Rykken was awarded $15,000 from Shenandoah National Park recently to research, among many aspects, pollinator populations and prevalence within the park.

“I’m thrilled to have gotten the grant,” she said, “Pollinators, I think, are a great place to start because people realize that they are important.”

The problem of pollinators, specifically honeybee declines, has been a topic of discussion in the scientific and agricultural community for some time.

“There is lots of stuff out there in the media about honeybee declines and colony collapse disorder, but … people are also starting to observe declines in native bees as well,” Rykken said.

Between pesticides, climate change and habitat loss, Rykken said that it is “hard to pin-point” the primary cause, if there is one. “It’s probably … a mixture of multiple stresses.”

“It’s hard to tease out among those exactly which ones are harming a particular population of bees,” Rykken explained.

The research Rykken will be conducting in the national park is more straightforward.

“What I am doing is part of an effort to document what is there, to kind of get a baseline idea,” Rykken said, adding, “most national parks know very little … about pollinators in the parks.”

Rykken noted that there are “close to 4,000 species” of bees in North America, but that even researchers do not “know where they are or how they are distributed.”

Because of this, Rykken said that researchers do not know enough to determine if other species are in decline or “missing from places that they used to be.”

This lack of information is part of what spurred Shenandoah National Park to award funding to Rykken’s research.

Rykken has conducted this research in the Olympic National Park in the North Cascades of Washington State as well as the Boston Harbor Islands and Denali National Park in Arkansas.

She said that it has been roughly estimated that pollinators provide essential services to “one out every three bites of food.”

“A good portion of the plants that we consume would not be able to reproduce without pollinators,” Rykken said.

In an ecological sense, Rykken said that ecosystems within national parks “would cease functioning” without the work of pollinators. In other words, most of the plants would die off.

“Bees are the most important pollinators and by far the most efficient pollinators,” she said, “They are the heavy lifters.”

Rykken said that she is trying to time the beginning of her research in the park with “blooming of the spring ephemerals” around early May. “They attract some interesting bees.”

“I imagine I will be finishing collections in late September,” Rykken said.

The plan right now for Rykken is to do the collecting in three separate trips lasting a week to 10 days each.

Rykken said she hopes to have volunteer “citizen scientists” carrying out basic population data collection such as “running traps” in between her trips.

The problem with monitoring pollinators, Rykken noted, is a lack of funding coupled with a lack of specialists who can accurately specific species.

For citizen scientists, species identification can be an impossible task because some species of syrphid “flower” flies look strikingly similar to species of bees.

According to Rykken, this mimicry is a biological defense mechanism that flies employ to fool predators “into thinking they can sting.”

The volunteers will merely work to collect bees for research purposes, Rykken said.

“There are ways to make very structured sampling protocols that will give you good data, but are simple for anyone to set up,” Rykken said.

In fact, Rykken noted that community outreach is a significant portion of what she does.

“What I’m going to be doing in the park is … trying to get visitors and park staff excited about pollinators,” Rykken said.

The bigger hope with this research, Rykken said, is to provide the park with a baseline “to set the groundwork” for future citizen scientist monitoring efforts. She said this baseline would also help other parks  work toward discovering population trends for more species of pollinators.

“Until you have an idea of what’s there to begin with, it’s hard to observe trends and declines,” Rykken said.

Contact staff writer Kevin Green at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kgreen@nvdaily.com