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Research on bees leads to advice for area farmers

By Bradley West '13
August 27, 2012

After completing their research on area bumblebees this summer, Lara Palmquist '13 (left) and Assistant Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies Diane Angell provided local farmers with information on how they can help boost the population of this important native pollinator. 

Funding from the National Science Foundation enabled Lara Palmquist '13 to combine her dedication to sustainable agriculture with her passion for bees this summer.

As part of the NSF's Research Experiences for Undergraduates program, Palmquist and Assistant Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies Diane Angell studied the population of native bumblebees on farms and prairies in the Northfield area. After completing the research, they provided local farmers with steps to take in order to boost the population of these pollinating insects. 

"Northfield's bumblebees have seen some colony collapse due to climate change, pesticide use, and loss of habitat," Palmquist explains. "The loss is bad for agriculture, which depends on bees to pollinate crops, and for the ecosystem at large, since effective pollination increases biodiversity."

Unlike honeybees, which are imported from Europe, Africa, or Asia, bumblebees are native to North America and thus show a preference for native plants over exotic species. Bumblebees can also be more efficient pollinators than their honey-producing cousins. For these reasons, Palmquist and Angell wanted to find a way to increase the bumblebee population.

This photo, provided by Assistant Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies Diane Angell, offers an up-close look at the bumblebee.

They struck upon a simple but ingenious solution: plant flowers that bumblebees are known to like on farms' unused acreage. By providing them with a stable source of nectar, farmers will attract plenty of bumblebees to pollinate their crops, potentially increasing overall food production.

The researchers sorted through these flower species, looking for ones that were perennial, native to Minnesota, adapted to agricultural conditions, and available commercially. They also wanted a combination of plants that bloomed early, midseason, and late into the year to ensure that the bumblebees, which cannot rely on a store of honey to survive, have a steady source of nectar. Eventually they settled on 25 plants that fit their criteria.

Palmquist and Angell then published a brochure that explains the importance of native pollinators and lists the 25 flowers they recommend. They gave these brochures to local farmers, who were generally enthusiastic about implementing their recommendations and providing a food source for the bees. 

"A lot of farmers were interested in having science done on their land, in having students conduct experiments," Angell said. "They were very supportive throughout the summer."

Palmquist has been interested in bees ever since she studied them while on St. Olaf College's Biology in South India program, but what she enjoyed most about this summer's project was not collecting bees out on the prairie. Instead, she loved seeing her research have a visible impact on local agriculture.

"It felt great to give the farmers something to implement, something that's very applicable," Palmquist says. "It was an instant reward for all the work that we put it."

Palmquist hopes that next summer a student will continue the research and study whether and to what extent these changes had an impact on the bumblebee population. She won't be available to do the research herself — after she graduates in May, she hopes to study sustainable agriculture in New Zealand.

Contact Kari VanDerVeen at 507-786-3970 or