Research and habitat improvements keep pollinators buzzing on the Hiawatha

Pollinators play a critical role in the plant lifecycle by moving pollen that produces fruits, seeds and young plants. In the Great Lakes region, the loss of insect pollinators has a ripple effect on ecosystems that extends even to the health of the Great Lakes themselves.

That’s why funding from the multi-agency Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) is supporting a collaborative effort to gather data about bees on the Hiawatha National Forest and to make habitat improvements to stem their decline.

The success of these efforts begins with knowing more about the bees currently in the area — their numbers, types, nesting locations and more. This information helps scientists and land managers understand habitat requirements for bees and determine management for their conservation.

To answer these big questions, a Northern Research Station-led pollinator study is starting small — with DNA. Forest Service research wildlife biologist David King worked with Jeremy Andersen, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Massachusetts, to develop a sampling protocol for the DNA shed by bees in the environment through feces, mucous, skin or other cells or tissues. This environmental DNA, or eDNA, can provide a wealth of information on the abundance, diversity and location of bees.

This spring and summer, Forest Service botanists will put the research into action when they gather eDNA from the Hiawatha for King and Andersen to study. Similar eDNA collections will be made on the Finger Lakes, Huron-Manistee, Ottawa, Chequamegon-Nicolet and Superior national forests.

Another research effort on the Hiawatha, led by conservation scientist Dave Cuthrell and his team at the Michigan Natural Features Inventory, a Michigan State University Extension, will identify nesting locations of bumble bee communities. Learning habitat requirements for successful nests has significant implications for species conservation.

The Upper Peninsula is familiar ground for Cuthrell, who has studied the rare yellow-banded bumble bee population here since 2013. His previous work on the Hiawatha counted foraging worker bees, but newer research suggests that “the effective population size is the number of breeding pair colonies rather than the number of individuals,” said Cuthrell. “This means population estimates should be based on nest densities.”

Cuthrell will conduct similar nest-density surveys on the Ottawa National Forest, located in the western Upper Peninsula. These surveys will also look for foraging resources visited by the queens, another key element in conservation.

In 2022, GLRI funds are supporting pollinator habitat enhancement on about 15 acres across the Hiawatha’s east and west zones. Forest Service botanists will plant species that were selected to improve nectaring opportunities for bees and migratory pathways for monarch butterflies.

“This is a part of larger effort to enhance habitat for monarch butterflies and bumble bees and create connecting corridors across the landscape,” said Hiawatha terrestrial ecologist Paul Thompson.