In May 2017, I packed up my car and headed north from Austin toward the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center (NPWRC) in Jamestown, North Dakota. I was granted a temporary contract position with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) as an ecological science technician on a project researching how land-use change affects the health and pollination services of commercial honey bee colonies. After a grueling 20 hour drive through the less-than-stellar and overwhelmingly agricultural landscapes of central Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas, I arrived at the USGS facility just as the sun was starting to set.
The compound, where I would spend the next six-and-a-half months, is nestled in a refreshingly hilly area southeast of town, in a valley adjacent to the James River. The vast majority of the surrounding landscape is relatively barren monocrop fields of wheat, corn, and soy. Jamestown, a small city of slightly more than 15,000 residents, is a ten minute drive away. Trees seem to be a scarce commodity here, and aside from small ponds (colloquially referred to as “potholes”) littered across the landscape, there are virtually no other defining natural landmarks.
While North Dakota is by and large an agricultural state, it is unique in that it boasts the largest number of commercial honey bee colonies in the country. In fact, it produces more than double the amount of honey of any other state. More importantly, however, are the pollination services that these honey bees provide. They assist with pollinating crops which are part of a $15 billion industry and are required for roughly a third of each bite of food you eat. Understanding how land-use change affects honey bee health is imperative to sustaining the industry, as well as shedding light on factors that could assist native bees as well.
Questions the USGS research team is attempting to answer include how changes in land-use (specifically, unmanaged grasslands or native prairie land converted into soy, corn, or wheat monocrops) affect the forage availability of honey bees throughout a land-use gradient, and how the differences or changes in forage availability affect colony health. Because a variety of pollen and nectar sources provide all of the protein and carbohydrates that the bees require, it is important to understand whether removing these vital sources of nutrition from the landscape directly affect honey bee health and potentially cause other cascading effects such as reduced pollination services.
To help answer these questions, our primary tasks are to 1) see what the bees are foraging on, and 2) determine what floral resources are available across the landscape, both spatially and temporally, across various types of lands (conservation properties, wildlife refuges, roadsides, pasture, unmanaged lands, etc.). The research team has partnered with a couple of large-scale commercial honey bee operations, and these companies have thousands of apiaries scattered about North and South Dakota and into Minnesota.
USGS field crews (including myself) visit a handful of these apiaries every couple of weeks and collect pollen that the bees have collected. The pollen then gets processed and DNA tests are performed to determine exactly which plant species the bees have visited.
When we’re not in the field collecting pollen, we’re busily documenting flowers at sites within a three kilometer radius (around the maximum flight distance of the foraging bees) of each of the apiaries. We determine which species are flowering on any given day and count the number of stems that are available to the bees. We visit each individual site three times during the summer to compare how the plant species composition changes over the growing season.
The North Dakota summer occasionally challenges the heat more often found in Texas. Finding time to cool off affords you the ability to appreciate the hidden beauty that these grasslands provide, if you only look in the right places.
I came on as a technician for the 2017 field season, but the project has already been going strong since 2015. This may be the last year for the USDA-backed project if they are unable to secure an additional year of funding. Fortunately, these three years of data may be enough for the principal investigators to analyze and interpret some results.