Bumble Bees on the Move

Bumble bees stole the show during the Graduate Student Poster Research Competition at the fourth annual UC Davis Bee Symposium, themed "Keeping Bees Healthy."

John Mola, a fourth-year doctoral student in the Neal Williams lab, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, won the $850 first-place award with his presentation on "Bumble Bee Movement and Landscape Genetics."

“In conservation biology and ecological study, we must know the distances organisms travel and the scales over which they go about their lives,” Mola said of his work. “To properly conserve species, we have to know how much land they need, how close those habitats need to be to each other, and the impact of travel on species success. For instance, if I'm told there's free burritos in the break room, I'm all over it. If the 'free' burritos require me traveling to Scotland, it's not worth it and I would spend more energy (and money) than I would gain. For pollinators, it's especially important we understand their movement since the distances they travel also dictates the quality of the pollination service they provide to crop and wild plants."

“Despite this importance, we know comparatively little about the movements of bees--the most efficient of pollinators--due to the difficulty of tracking individuals," Mola explained. "Unlike birds or large mammals, we can't just attach large radio collars and follow them around. As such, my work has focused on improving methods that we can use for study. I use a combination of landscape ecology and molecular genetics to identify the locations of siblings (colony-mates) in landscapes. From that information, we can infer all sorts of useful information about the potential foraging range, habitat use, population size, etc. It's a very exciting time to be working on these topics as the availability of new genetic and GPS technologies allows us to answer or re-address scientific and conservation issues with bees.”

In his abstract, Mola related: "Understanding the way organisms move through environments is crucial to our ability to monitor, study, or conserve species--after all, a habitat that is wholly inaccessible is no habitat at all. However, studies of wild bee movement lag far behind those of many numerous individuals. This limits our ability to answer basic questions like how large of an area is needed for individuals to forage? Or how close do conservation areas need to be connected? For honey bees, we can answer these questions through the study of their infamous waggle dance--which reveals the distance and director of their travel. However, most bees do not possess these complex communication behaviors and so our ability to understand their patterns of movement has rlied on mark-recapture, observation, and nascent advances in radar tracking or molecular methods."

He went on to share that "Here, I present a novel methodology for studying bumble bee movement using high-throughput sequencing techniques. This method provides substantial improvement in the accuracy of estimations while simultaneously giving us insight into fine-scale population genetics. Both factors can be important in the conservation and study of pollinators and our ability to 'keep bees healthy." I demonstrate the method's utility by presenting a few case studies of its implementation, and the insight we gain into wild bumble bee movement."

Judges were Tom Seeley, professor at Cornell University, the symposium's keynote speaker; speaker Santiago Ramirez, assistant professor of evolution and ecology at UC Davis, and native pollinator specialist Robbin Thorp, distinguished emeritus professor at UC Davis. Master beekeeper/journalist Mea McNeil of San Anselmo served as the timer and coordinator for the panel.

Mola, who aims for a career "to run a collaborative research program as a faculty member at a research-oriented university,” received his bachelor's degree in environmental studies in 2011 from Florida State University,Tallahassee, and his master's degree in 2014 from Humboldt State University, Arcata, in biology.

Second place of $600 went to Maureen Page, a second-year Ph.D. student in Neal Williams lab for her research, “Impacts of Honey Bee Abundance on the Pollination of Eschscholzia californica (California golden poppy).”

Page presented her research on the impacts of honey bee abundance on native plant pollination. “While honey bees are economically important, they are not native to North America and may have negative impacts on native bees and native plant communities in certain contexts,” she related. “My research is ongoing, but preliminary results suggest that honey bee abundance may negatively affect the pollination of California poppies.”

In her abstract, Page wrote: "Many studies support the claim that introduced honey bees compete with native pollinators. However, little is known about how honey bee introductions will affect native plant communities and plant species' persistence."

Page, who seeks a career as a professor and principal investigator, received her bachelor's degree in biology from Scripps College, Claremont, Calif. in 2006, cum laude.

Other winners:

Third-Place, $300: Doctoral student Emily Kearney of UC Berkeley, for her research on “How Does Landscape Context Affect the Pollinator Community of Chocolate (Theobroma cacao)."

Fourth-Place (tie, $250 each): Doctoral student Jacob Francis of the University of Nevada, for his “A Sweet Solution to the Pollen Paradox: Nectar Mediates Bees' Responses to Defended Pollen”  and Katie Uhl, a master's student, UC Davis Department of Food Science and Technology, for her “Determination of Volatile Organic Compounds in Mono-Floral Honey Using HS-SPME/GC/MS."

Fifth-Place ($150): Doctoral student Kimberly Chacon, UC Davis Geography Graduate Group, for her “A Landscape Ecology Approach to Bee Conservation and Habitat Design."

The annual Bee Symposium is sponsored by the UC Davis Honey and Pollination Center, headed by director Amina Harris, and the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, chaired by nematologist and professor Steve Nadler.  Neal Williams serves as the co-faculty director of the Honey and Pollination Center.